The Toilets of the Future Have Arrived
What will toilets look like in the future?
As William Gibson
"The future is already here —
it's just not very evenly distributed."
Toilets of the future have been here for some time,
and I have encountered a few of them.
These stunningly futuristic facilities are the antithesis
of much of the rest of my collection.
Automated public toilets were invented in France and installed in public some time probably around 1990. The design has since been exported to other countries. This first one is a classic unit in Paris.
This next one shown below is in the Pigalle district of Paris, just below Montmartre. It is more modern.
Entrée gratuite or free entry, they say. Originally they cost a few centimes, but now they're free.
Wait until the green LIBRE or FREE indicator shows. That's "free" as in libre or unoccupied, and not as in gratuite or no fee. All of them are gratuite all the time, but they're only libre when no one else is already inside. Then press the button and the door opens.
The toilet design has changed over time.
The older ones, like the one seen below with the yellowish bowl, had an unusual design. The bowl was just that — a bowl with no drain. It is flushed after you leave the compartment by rotating back into the wall and being hosed out.
The newer ones, like this one with the bright white bowl, have a more conventional design. But the bowl is still retracted and sprayed down after every use.
Compartments on the panel above the toilet dispense toilet paper and provide water, soap, and hot air for hand cleaning.
A floor sensor detects whether a person is really inside or not. If there is no person, or after a period of time even if there is a person, the door automatically opens.
After the person steps out, the door closes and the entire interior is sprayed with a disinfectant. The toilet bowl is rotated back into the wall and hosed out. After this quick cycle of 60 seconds or less, it is available for the next user.
San Francisco, America's most European city in many ways, has a number of the French design automated toilets.
Here's one undergoing maintenance on the Embarcadero, the waterfront facing central San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge to Oakland. That's the Coit Tower up on Telegraph Hill in the background.
This man is working on this one. Let's see if we can get a look inside the mechanical back end!
After all, the advertising poster on the side does say "Voyeur".
The back end contains a mixture of electrical, water, and waste hardware.
Here is the entry to another automated unit. This one is at the base of the Coit Tower.
The internationalized signage indicates it's good for individuals and groups of two, smoking is not allowed, and it will automatically open in 20 minutes.
The fine print describes all that in more detail in a variety of written languages.
Much of the interior is cast in a speckled plastic. The automated sink says:
INSERT HANDS TO START SOAP, WATER, DRYER
NO DRINKING WATER
This toilet has the more traditional design with a drain, it's not the simple bowl of the early French designs. This is made of stainless steel, the early and middle French designs used a white plastic material.
The bowl rotates back ninety degrees during the cleaning cycle and is cleaned by being sprayed from the rear.
The floor and some of the lower wall surfaces are covered in a tough corrugated rubber material. You can see the speckled plastic on the wall at right.
You might notice that the floor feels a little springy in these automated units. It's a weight sensor. The entire floor functions as a crude scale to determine if it is actually occupied. If someone starts the cycle and steps out before the door closes, it will quickly re-open.
This is a Toilette a Grande Vitesse, or a High Speed Toilet, found on the TGV or Train a Grande Vitesse, the High Speed Train running through France.
Before leaving my seat, my GPS had synced up and was indicating a speed of 305 kilometers per hour.
Japan has led the world in sophisticated toilet design for a few decades now. By the mid 2010s, almost all raised commodes in Japan had multi-function seats with heated surfaces and rear and front washing bidet functions. Several also include control of the spray temperature and intensity, air drying, and even "cover noise" to obscure what you're up to.
The control panel may be on a small arm next to the seat, or it may be mounted on the wall.
You can simply buy these in an appliance store, install them, and use them. There is no need for a cleaning company to come nor any work order software to be involved. The internal computers and sensors handle all the day to day maintenance on these bowls.
Waterless urinals used to be exotic, but they're becoming much more common. The first one of these I saw was at Fort Huachuca, in south-eastern Arizona. It featured an eye-level explanation of how the things work: Teflon-like non-wetting surface, a collection vessel with a layer of light oil so the urine collects below a sealed oil surface. However, as Fort Huachuca is where the US Army does its intelligence training, it's not the best place to be taking pictures.
Taking pictures in public restrooms is bad enough, but taking pictures on intelligence bases is even worse.
I had to wait until spotting this one in the Dark Horse Tavern along North Highland Avenue in the Virginia Highlands area of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, to collect an image of a waterless toilet.
Below is a pair of waterless urinals. Unlike the above, with its marble-flecked plastic material, this Sloan Waterfree unit appears to be traditional porcelain, although probably with a teflon-like coating on the, ah, active surface, shall we say.
This waterless urinal pair is found in the American Tap Room bar in the Reston Town Center in Reston, Virginia, USA.
This free-standing waterless urinal is at the Pasara Thai restaurant at 2501 Jamieson Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia, USA. This is in the Carlyle area surrounding the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Identical Kohler models can be found in the international concourse of the Atlanta airport.
Below is a slightly different waterless model, featuring the fly image pioneered by the urinals at Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam. It's actually a bee in this example, click here to see the famous Schiphol Airport urinals. A small target on which to concentrate? A distraction? Whatever the mechanism, it is said to significantly improve cleanliness.
Somewhat ironically, this high-tech urinal was spotted in the Hand and Bell Tavern in Boston, which claims to be the oldest bar in U.S. (1795).
O'Hare Airport (ORD), outside Chicago, USA, contains abominations called "Sani-Seat" toilets.
Least. Comfortable. Toilets. EVER.
The seating surface is narrow and flat with squared off edges. It's somewhat like sitting on exposed rafters during a construction job. Except that it's not that comfortable.
An instructional sign provides for the discomfort of speakers of English, French and Spanish:
Wave your hand over the symbol.
Coloque su mano sobre el simbolo.
Passez votre main devant le symbole.
Wait until the new cover is applied.
Espere a que se accomode la nueva cubierta.
Attendez le nouveau recouvrement.
The seat is now ready for your use.
Ahora está listo el asiento para su uso.
Le siège est maintenant prêt à être utilisé.
The wall-mounted manual is also written in Braille, if you happen to be groping around all the surfaces inside the airport toilet stall.
I doubt that the majority of blind patrons even notice the sign, let alone read it.
What are these like for the user?
Imagine starting with the least comfortable toilet seat shape ever designed, and then wrapping it in crinkly waxed baking paper.
It's like that, except less comfortable.
This high-tech urinal is in the park adjacent to the campus of Cambridge University. The hand-washing water flushes it, and there is a (nearly hidden) hot-air hand drier also built in.
This is not handicap-accessible, so this is not Steven Hawking's personal toilet. He is on the faculty there, having held the position once held by Isaac Newton.
Also see the Toilets of Higher Education page.
This super-fancy bathroom is in the Ambassador Suite in the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
When you turn on the bathroom light, a television set embedded behind the mirror turns on. And there is what appears to be an Ethernet jack in the wall above the handrail next to the toilet!
However, the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel has horrible service. I was there for two weeks while working at a conference (although not staying in the suite shown above!). Don't stay there, this hotel is awful:
- One evening the bellman pushed our group into a dangerous van instead of the taxi we had requested. The driver did not know where we were going, and then asked for $50 for a one-mile trip. Half the seats in the van had their backs broken off, and the roof-mounted air conditioning unit sprinkled water through the back half of the van.
- Our used damp washclothes were left to pile up in the bathtub, and we had to go downstairs to ask for replacement bottles of shampoo multiple times during our stay.
- The concierge was so unfamiliar with the area that he could not even tell me where a mailbox was located.
- This hotel is so petty and fixated on taking the guest for everything possible that they even bill for placing toll-free calls! And, there is no warning in the room that they are going to charge you for this. I questioned this at checkout and a staff member angrily snapped at me, "All hotels do that!". No, they don't, just the rude ones.