Recent Development in the Proccessing of the Product of Colonic Function in Healthy Subjects
The Quest for the King of Thrones
Ashish Kulkarni has a doctorate in chemical engineering. He used to develop plastics for General Electric. Now he's in the bowels of a research facility in central New Jersey, dropping golf balls into a toilet. "Three, six, nine, twelve â€¦," he tallies, each count punctuated with a small splash. Eventually the toilet - one of five mounted chest-high along a wall - holds 24 Titleists. Kulkarni hits the flush lever and a full-throated whoosh roars from the plumbing. Two dozen balls tumble out of the bowl, captured in a wire basket hung beneath the outflow line.
Yes, he's heard all the jokes. "If I ever have to flush 24 golf balls in real life, I've got a problem," Kulkarni says. But as chief engineer for American Standard, he needs a clever, clean way to demonstrate the power of the Champion, the company's new ultraflusher. The tests continue: Kulkarni grabs a bucket of flexible, 4-inch vinyl tubes he calls water wigglers. Unlike golf balls, the wigglers float, providing another challenge worthy of a Champion. "Three, six, nine â€¦," he counts, loading the bowl with 14 wigglers. Whoosh. Another perfect flush.
For most people, toilets are a private perch, a place for quiet contemplation. But not for plumbing researchers. Their job demands that they dream of toilets that never were and ask, "Why not?" Lately they've been pushing hard. Ever since regulators clamped down on the volume of water allowed per flush, more users have reported clogs. New low-flow toilets, great in theory, just aren't cutting it. Independent testers, frustrated by the industry's lackadaisical response to these problems, have started to apply the same kind of pressure to toilet makers that JD Power did to car companies in the 1980s. The result: Manufacturers have begun using computer models and sophisticated math to create toilets that flush cleaner, faster, quieter, and more efficiently.
To understand the search for the perfect crapper, step into the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's not a big place - you were expecting the Met? - but next to the exhibit of 19th-Âcentury toilet paper (unused) sit the museum's crown jewels: the commode collection. The earliest specimens are fancy chamber pots, a reminder that until quite recently our ancestors completed their digestive process by squatting over a bucket and throwing the results out a window. There's a reason the word plague figures so prominently in history texts.
Englishman John Harington invented the toilet in 1596, but his technology didn't take hold for centuries. Upstairs in the plumbing museum rests the 1891 Nautilus, which uses an elevated tank of water to do its dirty work. When it's flushed, a valve opens, emptying the tank into the bowl. Gravity and momentum pull the water into an S-shaped trapway, creating a siphon into the sewer. If this sounds familiar, that's because this 114-year-old technological Âwonder is basically the device in your bathroom.
For most of the 20th century, toilet innovation consisted of breakthroughs like new colors of porcelain. But in 1992, the US Congress kickstarted some creativity by mandating that new toilets reduce the amount of water used per flush from about 3.5 gallons down to 1.6.
The first low-flow toilets defeated their own purpose - they didn't have enough power to clear the bowl, forcing users to double-flush, wield plungers, or persuade their plumber to illegally reÂinstall an old toilet. As complaints mounted, manufacturers realized the designs that worked fine with 3.5 gallons of water needed an extreme makeover to work with less.
The science of how water flows through a system of twisting pipes is phenomenally complicated - even before you stir in golf balls, water wigglers, or feces. Less water means less energy to clear the bowl. So manufacturers tried increasing the size of the flush valve at the bottom of the tank from 2 inches to 3 inches, allowing more water in more quickly, increasing its force. They also increased the diameter of the trapway at the bottom, letting more "bulk waste" - that's Number Two - pass through without clogs.
To squeeze more performance out of their new commodes, the toilet gurus turned to computer modeling. "The computational fluid dynamics software we use allows us to focus on the right contours, the right radii, the right tolerances," says Kathryn Streeby, a marketing manager at Kohler. It's all math: Bernoulli's principle by way of differential equations. "For water not to lose energy, there are certain ways you need to design the channels," Kulkarni says. "You want to have smooth corners, and you want to make sure there are no stagnant positions or barriers to water flow." In 2002, American Standard had zero PhDs at its R&D center; now it has seven. At Kohler, toilet research includes two former aerospace engineers. Who says this isn't rocket science?
Makers of consumer goods generally try to evaluate their new tech under real-world conditions. For obvious reasons, that presents some problems with toilets. Decorum and taboo prevent researchers from testing fixtures with actual human waste, forcing them to rely on golf balls, sponges, sawdust, oatmeal and other "test media."
But there's nothing quite like the real thing. That lack of precision offended Toronto civil engineer Bill Gauley, who'd been working with home builders and water authorities to figure out which low-flow toilets really did save water. So in 2000, he began a search for the perfect fake shit.
To start, he went to his kitchen and mixed flour, mashed potatoes, cocoa powder, and water. The resemblance to real feces was striking, but his concoction got moldy and mushy too fast. Then, during a visit to the Japanese toilet maker Toto, Gauley observed researchers flushing cylinders of brown goop. It was miso, the fermented soy protein used in soup. In performance and appearance, the resemblance to the real deal was almost disturbing in its completeness. But alas, the Toto guys wouldn't divulge the proprietary recipe.
So Gauley began buying various brands of miso at Japanese food stores, trying to determine which was the shittiest. He found a winner, the name of which he's contractually bound to keep a secret. It makes a hell of a good soup, and extruded into 4-inch-long cylinders with an oversize caulk gun, it looks just like â€¦ progress.
Gauley and his colleague, engineer John Koeller, realized that for the tests to be truly authoritative, they needed to set some paramÂeters. How much miso was, you know, enough miso? According to a study Gauley found in the British medical journal Gut (title: "Variability of Colonic Function in Healthy Subjects"), the average human bowel movement weighs 130 grams, and 95 percent of dumps weigh 250 grams or less - that's half a pound, by the way. So the team started loading toilets with 50 grams of miso turds, flushing, and repeating. If the toilet successfully disposed of two loads at a given weight, they added 50 grams and tried again. Any toilet that offloaded 250 grams passed the test. (If you routinely clog one of these models, please consult your doctor.) Gauley's results, first distributed in December 2003, showed a lot of variation. Some popular models failed to clear 100 grams, while others removed more than 900 grams. The best was Toto, with three models that used a system called G-Max, which features a wider flush valve and trapway. They reliably cleared more than 500 grams.
In late 2003, American Standard launched its Champion, and in 2004 Kohler followed with the Cimarron and its Class Five flushing system (the marketing material suggests you imagine "the raw power of whitewater rapids"). Bigger flush valves? Check: 3 inches for the American Standard, 3Â¼ inches for the Kohlers. Bigger trapways? Check: 23â„8 and 21â„8 inches, respectively. And both companies replace the old floating ball for regulating the flow of fresh water into the tank with a more durable tower that can't be hacked to break the 1.6-gallon limit. The new toilets carry list prices of $250 and up - double the cost of a traditional commode. But of the 10 million toilets sold every year in the US, 70 percent go into remodeled bathrooms, where Americans are definitely going upscale. It's now possible to spend $1,000 on a highly stylized one-piece toilet, and manufacturers say the power-potties are selling briskly.
The popularity - and cost - of premium personal sanitation systems has primed the market. The lid is off. In 2002, Toto launched the Neorest 600, its $5,000 high tech flagship. With a 16-bit processor and 512 Kbytes of RAM under the hood, the Neorest's seat can be raised by wireless remote. And when the seat is up, the toilet assumes it can save water with a smaller flush. The Neorest is tankless, using clever valves and the pressure of the main household line to clear the bowl. If you're doing your business while seated, it morphs Transformer-style into an advanced bidet, offering a gentle front-and-back aerated warm water spray, catalytic deodorizer, and a hot air dryer. According to Toto, A-list royalty sits upon this throne: Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Charlie Sheen, Will Smith. "They're toilet paper-free," Smith gushed to Access Hollywood. "You sit on the toilet and there's a spray that's so deadly accurate - wherever you sit on the toilet, somehow it always hits the bull's-eye perfectly."
Toto says the Neorest has sold 250,000 units in Japan and has been "enthusiastically received" in the US. But rivals doubt many Americans are ready to take the plunge. In American Standard's focus groups, US consumers routinely say the notion of an Âelectric-powered toilet strikes them as "dangerous." (These same people apparently believe their Jacuzzis are coal-fired.) There's also the cost: It's hard to imagine conspicuous consumption of a device most people wish was less conspicuous.
Then there's the culture gap. Americans have proven mostly immune to the charms of bidets. Says Gary Uhl, American Standard's chief designer: "How do you educate people to do something differently than their mother taught them at 2 years old?"
So if the Neorest isn't the future of the American bathroom, what is? Already, taller toilets eliminate the deep-knee bends required to mount and dismount the john. And new slow-closing seats eliminate the slams that don't mean anything until you've been awakened by them three times in one night.
Next-gen toilets will almost certainly consume less water. US manufacturers are starting to emulate Europeans by selling dual-flush toilets, which like the Neorest use a smaller volume (typically 0.8 gallons) for urine, while retaining the 1.6-gallon flush for solids. Some also harness the 50 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure delivered by the water supply line. "I think they can get down to 1 gallon," Koeller says. Another water-Âsaving idea: home urinals. "We can no longer afford to use 1.6 gallons of water to flush a half cup of urine down a toilet," Gauley says.
More interesting innovations are in the works: a heated seat that's powered by the kinetic energy of the hinges moving. Antimicrobial agents baked into toilet china to reduce germs. And in the vein of never having to touch a toilet with your hands - or feet - again, some designers see automatic flushing systems (think airport rest rooms) migrating to home bathrooms.
Beyond that, things get into Tom Swift territory. James Walsh, an American Standard product director, says tomorrow's toilets may adapt to suit the user's unique anatomy and diet, sensing that on the morning after Thanksgiving, gluttonous Uncle Joe needs a more powerful flush than salad-eating Aunt Amy. In Japan, Toto already markets a toilet called the Well U II, which analyzes urine to help diabetics track their blood sugar levels. "With an aging community, what you could have is a toilet that takes samples of urine and communicates information from the analysis to a local doctor via email," says Fernando Fernandez, Toto's US senior engineering manager.
Yeah, but that doesn't mean Americans will buy it. No matter how many golf balls Kulkarni can get through a toilet, US consumers still describe their ideal toilet as one that appears only when they need it. Every advance - both incremental and excremental - will take years to filter down to the masses' asses. Consumer acceptance will develop the way things often progress in the bathroom: slowly.
Today's Neorest will soon be unseated by even more sophisticated commodes. Here are a few standard features of tomorrow's paperless office.
Integrated bidet: An adjustable, targeted spray plus a warm-air dryer means the end of toilet paper.
Smart Flush: Sensors in the bowl detect the amount and type of waste and adjust water volume for each person and every flush.
Sleek design: Computer-modeled curves and wider trapways mean better carry-out of waste and a cleaner bowl.
Clever seat: The lid raises as you approach; Âsensors under the seat detect whether you sit down - and the seat goes up if you don't.
Health monitor: A lab-on-a-chip checks waste for cholesterol levels and scans for signs of illness. Results are emailed to medical technicians.
Better plumbing: A link to the household mainline, combined with a sophisticated array of valves, allows less water to do the same work.
TOTO NEOREST 600: High rollers love the personal sanitation system, which includes a precisely targeted bidet controlled by wall-mounted wireless remote (above). â€œItâ€™s deadly accurate,â€ says Will Smith, â€œit always hits the bullâ€™s-eye perfectly.â€