Smart phones, smart homes, smart cars — everything in your life is getting increasingly more intelligent. And that includes our bathrooms; faucets, mirrors, and toilets are getting connected. That’s right, the loo, the WC, the John — the thing you spend a fair amount of time up-close and personal with daily, whether performing bodily functions or catching up with Facebook. But for a technology that’s hundreds of years old, with seemingly no changes since it was invented in the 16th century, does the toilet now need fixing?
Actually, our porcelain gods have been upgrading themselves all along — it’s just that you haven’t been paying attention. After all, nobody really stick their head into the toilet to see what’s new. Since Sir John Harrington invented the first flush toilet 1596, the fundamental technology has remained the same, but the throne itself has gone through a few iterations. Today, the most high-tech of toilets can cleanse themselves (and the humans that sit on them), play music, prevent bacterial build-up, and flush minimal amount of water. Oh, and get your Bluetooth ready — they are becoming another node in the Internet of Things. Here’s a look at the smart toilets of today, and where they are going in the future.
Only in Japan
Perhaps the company most associated with smart toilets is the Japanese manufacturer of plumbing fixtures, Toto. Walk into its Manhattan showcase gallery and you’ll be startled by the rows of pristinely white toilets lifting their lids in unison as they sense you coming. This otherworldly greeting is not just a cool feature, but a hygienic one: no need to touch the lid.
Sit down, and you’ll realize the seat warms up to your body temperature. And while there’s an obligatory roll of toilet paper on the wall, it’s not really needed. Toto’s famous Washlet will wash your behind and then blow warm air on it — to dry you off. You are, however, in full control of that cleansing operation: You can select your water streaming angles, pressure, temperature, and other options from the silvery remote controls conveniently placed on the wall. The abundance of options may be slightly overwhelming at first, but worry not: getting toilet trained in the 21st century is pretty pampering.
Eliminating use of toilet paper and wet wipes isn’t only eco-friendly and safer for municipality sewers, it’s also critically important for the elderly or the injured. If your mobility and dexterity are limited due to illness, surgery, or age, the self-wiping maneuver can be quite challenging, if not impossible. Toto takes that function very seriously: The company’s toilet testers actually wear special restrictive bodysuits to mimic the mobility loss, in order to perfect the toilet designs and operations accordingly.
Toilets have been getting smarter — it’s just that you haven’t been paying attention.
More novelties are coming down the pipe. If you noticed, the water in your regular toilet typically flushes down from underneath the rim — that overhanging circular ring underneath which you have to periodically scrub. Sometimes that rim flush cleanses the bowl fully, and sometimes you must reach for the brush and destroy the evidence that stuck. Toto’s latest tech all but eliminates that annoying act. With Tornado Flush, the water is injected into the bowl through powerful nozzles that create a centrifugal rinse in which the water spins around the bowl multiple times, taking every bit of waste with it.
“The water circumnavigates the bowl, which improves cleaning,” explains Bill Strang, engineer and president of operations at Toto USA. It also reduces the amount of water used. With the older tech, every drop of water cleaned only four to five inches of the shiny porcelain surface. With the tornado action droplets scrub 18 inches each.
But the magic doesn’t end there. After cleaning you, the toilet also cleans itself. After each use, it sprays its bowl with electrolyzed water, created by a built-in pair of electrodes.
“Electrolyzed water becomes reactive,” Strang explains — and dissolves any organic matter that may have stuck to the surface. “So you have a clean bowl in the next visit, no matter what occurred in the previous visit.”
Overkill? Not if you consider the Japanese’s obsession with good hygiene and germ fighting. On the streets of Tokyo or anywhere in Japan, for that matter, people wearing masks to avoid spreading germs is a common sight. This ideology flows to Japanese toilets where tech isn’t used just for convenience, but to create a healthy lifestyle.
Toto is the world’s larger maker of toilets, but it also makes other high-end bath fixtures. Read about its new Flotation Tub.
Coming to America
Toto’s Washlet, used all over Japan — from luxury hotels to fast-food restaurants — has been available for several decades, but in America its adoption has been slow. Asian and European countries tend to lead the way while we, apparently, lag behind on new home tech, and on loo innovations in particular.
But in the past few years, manufacturers are seeing increased interest in toilet upgrades. According to Kohler, the American bathroom equipment manufacturer, 83 percent of Americans want better toilet experiences in terms of cleaner feels and better smells, and 67 percent think bidets would help with that.
According to Kohler, 83 percent of Americans want better toilet experiences.
Part of it is that people are traveling more and seeing other options, says Kohler’s principal engineer Dan Halloran. Nearly 44 percent of travelers have used a bidet, and even many of those who don’t travel much have heard of the bidet concept.
American consumers and home builders may have been somewhat behind on their bathroom novelties, but U.S. manufacturers have not. Kohler’s latest model, NuMi, a slick ultra-modern toilet can tell your gender by the way you stand up to it, which then lifts the seat accordingly. Equipped with a cleansing seat, it comes with a compact, phone-size remote control that adjusts water and warm air options. It also connects to your phone via Bluetooth and can play music. Whether you’re into the classics or hip-hop you can answer your nature calls to your favorite tunes. Although dancing on your throne may be a bit messy.
Kohler’s latest models also feature smart flushing methods, such as Revolution360, in which the water does circular rinsing similar to Toto’s Tornado Flush, rather than simply sliding down the sides. Another tech, part of the Corbelle model, is AquaPiston, a patented solution that uses the hydrodynamic properties of water to create a powerful flush without added force or pressure. Halloran says that the team took their inspiration from waterfalls.
“If you look at a waterfall, you’ll see that water has a natural cascading arch,” Halloran explains. “There’s a natural arch of flow inside of a toilet tank also, and we matched it with the shape of our valves.”
Keeping it clean
Optimizing cleaning is a big focus in general. Pouring loads of harsh chemicals into the toilet harms wildlife. Crawling on all four around the ivory thrones to dust off their awkwardly shaped pedestals annoys humans. Today, people have neither the time nor desire to give cleaning much thought. It has to be easy and convenient.
The manufacturers have taken note. The new models feature the so-called “skirted” designs that make exterior cleaning easy. The bowls’ round or square bodies hide the toilet pipes or “guts” within them. The “skirts” extend down to the floor and eliminate the need to stick your head or duster underneath the porcelain curves.
Keeping the bowl’s interior squeaky clean is harder. After all, it interacts with much yuckier substances. Kohler uses the Continuous Clean coat, which rinses a bowl with a cleaning solution after each use.
Ever dropped those cleaning tablets into your toilet tank to get rid of the nasty brown build-up?
“You forgo your manufacturer’s warranty when you do that,” says Victoria Hafenstein, Kohler’s public relations specialist, because the chemicals not only destroy bacteria but also chip away at the flushing mechanism inside. So Kohler designed a separate interior chamber where continuous cleaning tablets can reside safely.
”[Smart toilets] could gather your key metrics, and perhaps submit them to your medical provider to diagnose a problem.”
Toto solves that problem in an eco-friendly way, by coating the bowl’s surface with a special titanium dioxide glaze that has hydrophilic and photocatalytic properties. Sounds too tongue-twisting for a toilet? It’s also quite powerful. Hydrophilic surfaces attract water droplets rather than letting them bounce over — to scrape off the residue material more efficiently. Photocatalytic means that, when activated by an ultraviolet light, the surface layer can destroy the bacterial build-up. Where does the UV light come from? It’s built into the toilet, of course.
“It turns on once a day, typically at night and shines for about 20 minutes,” Toto’s Strang says — as another self-cleaning action. (It also gives the saying, “where the light doesn’t shine” a whole new meaning.)
How much would it cost to equip your house with a smart john? The prices vary. Kohler’s basic cleansing seat can be installed on any toilet for a mere $169, but it won’t feature warm water or convenient button controls — although they can be added for a few extra bucks. The NuMi costs $7,500.00. Toto’s latest Washlet model, the Neorest 750H, lists for $10,200, and has all the aforementioned Toto tech. But for the budget minded, you can purchase a basic Washlet add-on seat starting at $500.
These are premium products, however; if demand for smart toilets increase, expect more options and lower prices.
Short on time? Here’s how to “fake clean” a bathroom.
Toilets as health centers
The really smart future toilets may also be able to monitor your health. Urine and excrement are excellent substances for measuring your metabolites, infections, sugar levels, intestinal microbiome and even some cancer precursors. Toto demonstrated these capabilities in its Intelligence-series of smart toilets, which was only available in Japan in limited quantities.
Unfortunately, this ultra smart tech won’t hit the stores any time soon because diagnostic equipment must undergo a rigorous and lengthy approval process by regulatory agencies in many countries. But conceptually, such capabilities can certainly be built, experts say.
“There’s an opportunity to gather your key metrics and have a dashboard that allow you to see how these metrics change, and perhaps submit them to your medical provider to diagnose a problem,” Kohler’s Halloran says. He likens the concept to FitBit that can gather your vitals to help you make better decisions about your wellbeing. At some point, the future toilets might join that monitoring paradigm too.
We wouldn’t be surprised if a voice assistant also gets implemented. Forget to flush the toilet? Imagine asking Alexa to do it on your phone, as you dash out the door.
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