By Mitchell Parker, Houzz
Everyone poops. Let’s just get that out there in the open. Because it’s difficult to discuss toilets without first acknowledging what they’re used for. Toilets get rid of our waste so we can live in relatively sanitary societies. Adequate sewage systems and water treatment facilities that remove waste from our homes, process it and return clean water back to us are a hallmark of a developed society.
Innovation is constantly improving and expanding toilet design and functionality to use less water, be more comfortable and, yes, even pamper us. “It’s starting to change — it really is,” builder and designer Karl Champley says.
Many toilet companies employ well-trained scientists in various fields that you’ve probably never heard of — tribology coefficient of friction, anyone? For example, toilet manufacturer Toto employs 1,500 engineers across a range of sciences to study human behavior and create new products and technologies. So forget the image of a plunger; have a seat and check out what could be coming to a potty near you.
Just where does all that scientific time and energy (not to mention money) go? The way James Walsh, vice president of chinaware and commercial products at toilet maker American Standard, sees it, toilets can be broken down into two categories: practical and pamper me.
The latter category is one that raises eyebrows. Imagine this: It’s the middle of the night and you have to go to the bathroom. As you approach the toilet, which is lighted by night light panels, music that you preselected begins playing, the lid rises, a light shines on the floor next to the bowl.
You tap that illuminated area of floor with your foot, and the ring rises. After you use the toilet and walk away, a sensor detects that you’ve left and flushes and closes the ring and lid. The toilet can even tell if you were sitting or standing, and adjust to flush with the least amount of water needed. If you had sat down for longer than a minute, the toilet would have used a longer flush. For around $6,000, this experience, and more, can be yours.
Designer Champley has this experience rather often. He’s got the Kohler Numi in his home, a gift from the company, Champley says. (Toilet companies will often give high-end toilets to designers and sellers in hopes that they will become converts and help spread the word of the benefits of the product.)
The Numi features a night light, a heated seat, an integrated bidet with temperature-controlled water, an air dryer, a deodorizer (a fan pulls air from inside the bowl, runs it through a charcoal filter and releases exhaust out the back of the unit), music (Champley has his set to classical) and feet warmers (yes, warm air blows from under the toilet bowl onto your feet). And it even washes itself. All this is controlled from a touchpad screen.
“It does everything except make espresso,” he says. “It’s not for your average Joe — that’s why it’s so darn expensive. But I’ve found that once you go that way, you’re not going back.”
Other units, such as the Toto Washlet, shown here, which you can add on to almost any standard toilet, come with a remote control so you can adjust the spray angle to hit you just right. You can also adjust the temperature of the water and make the sprayer pulsate and oscillate. “When you get off that seat, you’re refreshed,” says Bill Strang, president of operations and e-commerce at Toto.
Shane Allis, director of sanitary product marketing at Kohler, says the integrated bidet function is something the company had in its Numi model six or seven years ago and is now becoming common in newer, less-expensive lines, a trend he expects to continue in the next few years. Allis says lighting and integrated bidet functions are the fastest-growing features.
When smart toilets with these features originally came out, plumber Dave Guy and his co-workers thought they were the “silliest things in the world,” he says. Then a toilet company gave him one for free and encouraged him to try it out in his own home, which he did. Now he has three. “They’re definitely a benefit in more ways than one,” he says. “Music and heat, they’re a little overkill, though.”
What Guy likes best, being a plumber, is the bidet feature, which conserves water and cuts down on the amount of toilet paper that gets flushed down the pipes. He says while toilets continue to use less water, people aren’t producing less waste or using less toilet paper. And that has wreaked havoc on sewer lines. He sees a ray of hope with bidet systems. When people use them, they use less toilet paper, which allows flushing with less water and puts less strain on plumbing.
“They’re fantastic,” Guy says of the new smart toilets. “We are not using as much water. Bidet seats are reducing the amount of paper use after you’ve gone number two. Low-flush toilets have caused nothing but issues with clogged sewer lines.”
Toto’s Strang agrees. “The next step of toilet evolution is getting down to the lowest possible water consumption,” he says. Most Toto toilets now flush with only 1 gallon vs. the national standard of 1.6 gallons per flush. “We’re phasing out all higher-flush toilets and moving down to the 1-gallon solution,” he says.
But water conservation isn’t the only hurdle toilet manufacturers face.
For manufacturers of smart toilets, the biggest hurdle seems to be getting people to try the product. Not an easy feat. “Think about how most of us grew up,” Kohler’s Allis says. “When we are going through our toileting routine we use toilet paper. Smart toilets with bidets are something very different for the vast majority of the U.S. market. Once you use a product like this, you don’t want to go back. But how do people get that exposure?”
The other roadblock is outlets. Smart toilets need electricity, and most bathrooms don’t come with an outlet near the toilet. “The single biggest angst that consumers have about smart toilets is, ‘How am I going to plug this in?’” Strang says.
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Toto encourages builders and homeowners to put outlets near toilets when building a home or remodeling a home, even if you’re not installing a smart toilet now. You, or a future homebuyer, might want to have a smart toilet someday. And the cost is relatively inexpensive if you’re already renovating.
Guy says the amperage needed for a smart toilet is very low, and having an electrician run an outlet near the toilet is pretty straightforward and easy. In the worst case scenario, you can install a wire along the wall with a casing over it.
He does warn that the all-inclusive smart toilet models require power to flush the toilet. So if the power goes out, your toilet won’t work.
Toilets 3: Original photo on Houzz
Costs Expected to Come Down
Of course, the cost of smart toilets is a major hurdle for consumers. But most experts say the costs are going down fast. American Standard’s ActiClean unit, shown here and in the previous image, is under $500, which is in range of any other major appliance found in the home. “People spend a lot of money on a whirlpool tub,” Allis says. “How often are they using that in comparison to using the toilet every day, multiple times a day?”
Toilets 4: Original photo on Houzz
Add-on units are even more affordable. Tushy’s bidet attachment, shown here, which affixes to any standard American toilet in less than 10 minutes, costs $69. No plumbing or electrical are required. For a little more money, you can get a Tushy that allows you to attach a hose to the hot water beneath your sink and have a warm-water bidet. It’s great for rental units in which you’re not allowed to make upgrades. There’s no air dryer, so you still need to use a little toilet paper.
Kohler’s PureTide, shown here, is a manual bidet seat without the need for electricity. It operates just on water pressure alone. So if your power goes out, you’re still good. The water isn’t heated, so “people need to get a little accustomed to that,” Allis says. But it installs quickly and simply. The cost is a little over $100 and can work on pretty much any current toilet.
And that brings up another one of the biggest hurdles that manufacturers face in getting integrated smart toilets into consumers’ homes: education on wet vs. dry cleaning
Wet vs. Dry Cleaning
Wet vs. dry cleaning in the U.S. poses a significant challenge for toilet designers. What’s best for our bodies and lifestyles? The answer is a bit complicated. Toilet paper is common in the United States and the United Kingdom, while in parts of Europe, China, India and parts of Africa, bidets are more prominent.
Historically, this two-sided development has a lot to do with the amount of fiber people consume (less in the U.S. and the U.K.), weather, culture, religion and more. And there are pros and cons to each side. One common argument is that bidets waste more water than toilet paper. But many experts say that the amount of water it takes to make toilet paper exceeds that used by bidets.
On the other hand, some say that the frequent use of bidets, especially warm-water bidets, can disturb the normal microflora in the region below and even facilitate infection by fecal bacteria, according to a research paper by Pankaj Garg and Pratiksha Singh published for the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.
In the end, though, Garg and Singh conclude that “both methods were perhaps developed and have survived for centuries of usage because of the dietary fiber habits of these populations. Therefore, both methods are scientifically correct and suit the populations where they are being used.”
Nevertheless, the top toilet manufacturers recognize the divide and note that places such as China and Japan are adopting smart toilets much more quickly than in the U.S. Walsh, from American Standard, says the rate of adoption is going up in America, though it’s far from where it is in Japan.
As mentioned earlier, infrastructure support helps proliferate the technology. Walsh says most new construction in Japan includes outlets near the toilet location, which makes installing a high-tech toilet easier. Plus, in Japan, many units are small and have only one bathroom. So splurging on a high-end toilet often makes more financial sense than in America, where homes have multiple toilets.
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Keeping It Clean
It’s not all about keeping our bums clean. We put a lot of effort into keeping the toilet itself clean too. And it seems like the cleaner it is, the better we feel psychologically. “I think, overall, whenever you think of what consumers would want out of their toilet, clean rises to the top,” Allis says.
There’s a lot of research energy going into surfaces and how the water moves around inside the bowl.
Toto’s Washlet toilet, for example, has a sensor that recognizes when you’re coming and sprays a quick spritz of water to the sides of the bowl to make it wet and improve lubricity. This isn’t guesswork. Toto spent time studying the tribology coefficient of friction, which is a fancy way of saying the science of how surfaces interact, and found that making the porcelain wet reduces stickiness, so the toilet stays cleaner longer.
The flush of water in most toilets comes from 30 to 60 holes beneath the rim of the bowl. Often this area can build up with grunginess from waste and minerals left behind by the trickle of water. In new designs from Toto, the multihole method is replaced with a Tornado flush, which consists of two jets that spin the water at high speed to remove grime.
Toto also has a feature that electrolyzes the water to help sanitize it before it even enters the bowl. Potable water flows over anodized cathodes that electrolyze the water and pull out sodium and chlorine. Then that water gets sprayed into the bowl 45 seconds after you walk away. “It improves the hygienic characteristics, making the bowl cleaner for the next visit,” Strang says. It also reduces the amount of chemicals you use and the number of times you have to clean the toilet, he says.
Strang also touts another one of Toto’s features: A 220-wavelength ultraviolet light is shined into the bowl once a day to help break down and decompose grime.
For some American Standard models, surface technology is fired directly into the chinaware to help resist dirt buildup and make the toilet easier to clean. The company also has cleaning systems built into toilets, such as the ActiClean. A button independent of the flush releases a cleaning solution into the tank. “These are innovations to make a consumer’s life easier,” Walsh says. “Nobody wants to worry about a dirty toilet.”
Jean-Jacques L’Henaff, vice president of design at American Standard, continues to push for simpler surfaces that make the toilet easier to clean. Rather than the exposed trapways on traditional toilets (think of that tube-like protrusion below the bowl), newer models have smooth-surface skirts that leave fewer lines and seams and expressions to clean and also hide some of the working parts of the toilet. “We want you to see as little as possible,” L’Henaff says.
In the near future, the biggest change you’ll see is cost. “I do think you will see price points continue to drop,” Allis says. “Similar to any other technology or innovative product that starts to get broader acceptance and appeal. Think about flat-screen TVs and how we’ve seen those drop in price until the next technology comes out.”
Installation will become easier too. Systems such as ReadyLock from Kohler allow toilets to be installed without the need of additional drilling into the floor. “If you talk to plumbers, there’s nothing they hate more than drilling into a marble floor,” Allis says. “With our system, there’s no secondary attachment point required.”
While you see a lot more black toilets on the market, you’ll continue to see the classic white color reign supreme, especially since the high-tech toilets feel more at home in modern spaces, where white is the predominant color. Also, the sterile look of white makes sense for something like a toilet, Champley says.
Shown here is Toto’s Universal Design Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology in Chigasaki, Japan.
At the research center, product designers and engineers monitor user behavior to create better products.
Strang says Toto has also developed technology that uses the flow from a toilet flush to spin a micro turbine that generates and stores electricity for the next flush. “If you’re off the grid, you don’t need external power,” he says.
For American Standard, the future holds load-sensing technology that will sense what’s in the bowl and deliver the proper amount of water to flush. If the toilet is dirty, it will do another flush or activate a cleaning routine. Devices that sense a clogged toilet could potentially alert a maintenance professional or shut off the water supply.
Other areas of focus are on products that help bedridden people and disabled children use the restroom.
But if you want to think further into the future, a big area of excitement is in biometrics. The idea is that sensors in the toilet could analyze urine and fecal matter and track your bodily changes to provide useful health information or warn you of any problems.
Strang says this technology is moving slowly and cautiously. “It’s tied up with making sure there’s a marketplace for the innovation and it comes with the proper regulation and legislation,” he says. “You want the biometric feedback to be true and accurate and reliable. One incident of nonreliability will cause it to crash.”
In other words, if the current whiz-bang features aren’t enough to get you to splurge on a smart toilet, just sit tight — there’s more to come.