The humble loo, the great leveller, has a history that stretches back millenia. While British plumber Thomas Crapper may have popularised the flushing toilet in the late nineteenth century, the use of hydraulic systems to automatically clean away sewage stretches all the way back to the third millenium BC.
In recent years though, we’ve started to see all sorts of innovations that make the WC cleaner, greener and smarter than ever. Read on and find out what’s just around the U-bend.
The clean, no frills toilet has been a staple of the British bathroom, public and private, for more than a century. That’s about to change though, with an influx of new models popularised in Japan, which pack in more features than a Swiss Army Knife – only less sharp, naturally.
Literally called the super-loo, it’s the bathroom form of convergence, fusing the toilet with another stalwart of the restroom: the bidet.
“Basically, it’s a toilet that offers bidet functions, so it washes you and then has a dryer, so no toilet paper is needed,” Ruth Bell, deputy editor of Kitchens Bedrooms & Bathrooms magazine, tells Humans Invent.
“This is an idea that came first from Japan, where they have them in public toilets, from a company called Toto, who introduced its Washlet a couple of years ago in the UK market.”
Since then, other washroom superpowers, including Roca, Kohler and Geberit have all got on board with their own models – and they do much more than shoot jets of water. The La-Z-Boy has nothing on these seats.
“They also have music and fans to take away odours, and the seat automatically comes up when you approach it,” says Bell.
Take the Toto Washlet S400, for instance. It doesn’t just flush: it washes, it purifies the air, it massages and it warms. All of the features can be controlled from the wall-installed LCD panel, or even a remote control if you’d prefer not to stand up again. Needless to say, the flush is hands-free too.
But for most homes and businesses, more of a concern than comfort however is water efficiency and wastage. Emptying and refilling a cistern is an expensive business, so anything that can be done to reduce the water used is welcome.
Dual-flush systems which uses different amounts of water for solids and liquids are now commonplace, and can save millions of litres per year, if not more. “What we do have is the technology to flush the toilet successfully with as little as three litres,” Bell says. “Dual flush WCs will now flush efficiently with as little as 4.5 litres on a full flush and three litres on a half flush…Compared to the standard 13 litres 20 years ago, this is a big step forward.”
That means 61.8 million people in the UK alone are each saving more than than eight litres per flush, several times a day, thousands of times a year, compared to what was used in the 1990s.
Yet amazingly, there are now systems in place that don’t even need water – and are still sanitary. Waterless urinals use larger sinkholes designed in such a way that all liquid is channeled through a special cartridge that traps odour, with the added benefit of avoiding the plumbing system altogether. Where they’re used however may surprise: Fortune 500 companies such as Adobe have adopted them for their headquarters.
Water free lavatories are available too. These simply use human waste as compost: underneath the cabin, this is broken down by aerobic decomposition. They’re already in use in national parks in the US and UK, but on sale in many more territories: one of the leading vendors of waterless toilets, EthoEthic, sells its models in no fewer than 17 countries.
However, these do inevitably have a trade off most aren’t willing to accept: smell. Bell thinks we’re more likely to see swanky hybrid toilets hit the UK before H2O-free ones do, however. “The waterless toilet is someway off domestic and public bathrooms in the UK, though perhaps more likely in greener economies such as the Scandinavian countries.”
Super-loos on the other hand are “very expensive but surprisingly catching on”, she says.
The hygiene benefits of sinks are obvious, but sinks you don’t have to touch are even better. “Sensor taps are seen more and more for two obvious reasons: firstly, they are a more hygienic option because the user doesn’t actually touch anything with dirty or clean hands,” says Bell.
“Secondly they save water and energy because the user can’t leave the tap running when they walk away. It’s also an easy clean, easy maintenance option because they can be wall mounted keeping the basin surface clear.”
Doubtless you’ve come across these in public buildings, hotels, restaurants and transport hubs. But what you may not have come across yet are the hands-free sink systems that power themselves.
While most systems that use sensors to detect your presence need to be wired into the mains to operate, several new models simply use solar power to keep going, harnessed entirely from the artificial light of the bulb in the bathroom ceiling.
Bradley Corp, one of the biggest washroom manufacturers in the US, has a patent pending on its NDITE technology, which uses an array of solar cells facing up on a shelf above the sink. These collect light and charge up a battery attached to the wall, which is then used to power the sensors, and pump water as required. You can see it in action in the video below at 2:30.
Bradley says that a typical bathroom lighting system will charge the system in just over two hours. Under heavy use – more than 50 uses per hour – it might need backup power, but for the average home or office it’ll trickle-charge and you’ll never know the difference, until your much lower electricity bill arrives.
Bradley’s system is only available with a few of its larger systems, but rival firm Sloan now also offers a similar system, on a smaller scale. The Solis Faucet packs a double infra-red sensor directly inside the faucet, which is attached by a wire to a small solar charger sustained by natural or artificial light, and it’s hard wearing. Sloan says that with 3,000 uses per year, it’s rated for six years of use.
As helpful as all this is, unusual bathroom tech that uses electricity as well as crafty plumbing isn’t particularly new. Water warming and spraying toilets have been around since the 1960s, and have been held back as much by culture as cost.
But finding a toilet? That’s a technological breakthrough only a smartphone can enable, thanks to the in-built GPS location chip now commonplace in new handsets.
One such app, available for smartphones including those on the Android platform, is Toilet Finder: developed by French company BeTomorrow, with more than 60,000 toilets on its books, it’s also the world’s largest database of public toilets.
Users can review the toilets for their sanitary condition, and even, should they feel the urge, upload photos to prove it.
BeTomorrow aren’t alone in tapping into this natural human requirement. Another service providing another vital need is RunPee. The crudely named website and mobile app simply tells you when a dull moment is coming up in a movie, so you know when to sidle out of the aisle in the cinema and nip to the loo.
The information for “Pee Times” is added by a group of dedicated movie fans who watch as many wide release films as possible as soon as they hit cinemas to jot down lulls in the action. Nice work if you can get it.