Episode 26: The Future of Toilets

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Toilets in the US haven't changed much since the 1930's but change is on the horizon. Advancements in toilet technology will make us healthier, reduce the amount of time we spend cleaning, and even make deep space exploration possible.  Find out how on this week's episode of Hang Your Hat.  

Show Transcript:

Hi, I’m Amy, and this is Hang Your Hat, Episode 26:  The Future of toilets.

It was May 5th, 1961, and Alan Shepard, the first American in space was hovering 101.2 nautical miles above the Earth in his Mercury #7 space capsule, and he had a problem.  The problem started before the launch even occurred.  

The Mercury Redstone 3 mission was scheduled to launch at 7:20 that morning, but there was a lot of pre-work that had to be done before the launch, so Shepard was suited up and getting settled into the capsule by 5:15 that morning knowing that he would have to wait over two hours in the confining suit before he would reach for the stars.

At 7:05 the launch was held for another hour to let the cloud cover clear and fix a power supply.  Then it halted yet again to reboot a computer at the Goddard Space Flight Center.  By this time Shepard had been sitting in his suit for hours, and he needed to pee.

A couple of months prior to launch day, a student named Brenda Kemmerer had written to NASA asking where the first man in space would use the toilet, and Freeman Quimby from the Office of Life Science Programs at NASA wrote back that, "The first spaceman is not expected to have "to go'."  

That's right, NASA, who had a meticulously laid out launch plan, had done through testing, and had thought of numerous contingencies, had neglected to provide their astronaut a way to use the restroom. To be fair, this really wasn't a complete oversight on their part,  Shepard's mission was only expected to last about 15 minutes, and they had expected Shepard to be able to hold it that long.

But there Shepard was, sitting on the launch pad with no place to go and a desperate need to do so.

When Shepard notified the crew that he couldn't wait any longer and needed to be let out to use the facilities he was told no - it would take far too long.  So Sheppard went in his suit.  As the urine flowed through his suit it shorted out electrodes that were monitoring his heart and respiration and they had to be turned off - the launch wasn't delayed further to repair them.  Shepard was launched into space sitting in a puddle of his own urine.

As we look toward the future humans often look to the stars.  We have dreams of living on the moon or mars, or traveling the galaxy in spacecraft bravely exploring new worlds.  With the recent launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket that future seems closer than ever; however, part of that future vision is often overlooked, just as it was overlooked by NASA during that first flight, is how we will use the restroom.

In our last Episode, The Throne I explored the history of the toilet from the Neolithic period to today.  On today's episode, I am going to explore the future of the toilet, from ones that analyze your urine to detect diseases to ones that recycle urine into drinking water.  

Through the years the NASA space program has experimented with a lot different toilet technologies, some more successful than others.  After Shepard’s very wet first excursion into space, NASA did a bit more preparation for its second mission.  When Gus Grissom went up in the Mercury-Redstone 4 he was outfitted with two pairs of rubber pants that we wore simultaneously.  His urine was collected in a reservoir between the two layers of rubber.  It pretty much worked, but it was uncomfortable and it was a really good thing that his trip into space was too short for him to need to do more than urinate.

NASA’s next step was creating an external urine collection device or UCD.  It turns out that another US government agency, the CIA had already been working on these since 1955 for use on the U-2 spy plane, but they were not letting NASA in on the secret and NASA started from scratch.

BF Goodrich was the company making the space suits at the time so they created the first UCD prototype - it leaked.

NASA then hired James McBarron to take over the project.  Mc Barron turned to condoms for inspiration and made a condom like tube that would fit over the astronaut's genitalia and was attached to an external storage container on the other end.  McBarron’s device was used for the rest of the Mercury project.

The Apollo missions had long enough time in space that NASA had to address fecal outputs as well.  Their initial fecal collection unit consisted of a plastic bag with an adhesive ring that was used to adhere the bag to the bottom of the astronaut while they did their business after which it would be ripped off like a band-aid.  It was not popular among crew members.

Space toilets came into their own when the space shuttle went into action and female crew members were added to the ship’s rosters.

In the space shuttle a permanent toilet was affixed to the wall of the shuttle and crew members urinated into a funnel that directed urine with the help of air pressure - basically urine was sucked away and into a storage container with the help of something very similar to a household vacuum.  Fecal waste followed a similar path but astronauts used a tight fitting toilet seat rather than a funnel.  

Unfortunately, the tanks that housed the waste on the shuttle missions we not easily accessible and they couldn't be changed out mid-flight which limited mission duration.

The basic operation of the toilets on the international space station is very similar to the toilets on the shuttle missions, in that air pressure is still used to direct waste products from their initial collection points to storage containers, but due to the length of time that toilets are used on the ISS they are extremely accessible and allow for maintenance and their storage tanks can be changed out as needed.  Improvements have also been made in the consistency of air pressure and the contours of the toilet seats used on the ISS.

However, most recent development in space toilet technology is also the most important because it is one of the things that increases our ability to participate in deep space travel.  One of the biggest challenges in doing a deep space mission is bringing along all of the supplies that humans need to survive deep space - or really any space - food and water.  Water is especially problematic because it is really heavy, and the heavier a spaceship the more power it needs to get into space and the more expensive the mission becomes.

Back in 2009 astronauts on the international space station started doing something that significantly reduces the amount of water that we humans need to bring into space, recycling their urine.  Unlike Bear Grills, they used something called a Urine Processor Assembly to remove all of the gross-out of the urine and were able to reclaim about 75% of the water in their urine.

Since then additional improvements have been made.  In 2016 a chemical pretreatment called Alternate Urine Pretreatment (AUP) was added to the urine at the time of flushing.  This new treatment increases the amount of water that can be reclaimed from urine, and NASA believes that this new treatment could increase the recovery rate to as much as 90%.  

This new technology will significantly reduce the amount of water that astronauts need to take on deep space missions while simultaneously allowing for longer mission duration - bringing things like manned missions to Mars closer than they have ever been before.

Back here on Earth, the latest in toilet technology is all about comfort and convenience.  

Imagine this:

 It is the middle of the night and you have just been awoken by the persistent urgings of your bladder.  You reluctantly pull yourself from the warm embrace of your bed and stumble through the dark to your bathroom.  Your toilet notices your approach and emits a warm glow.  There is no need to turn on the light.  As you approach the toilet seat warms to your preferred temperature.  You do your business and then discover that the toilet paper roll is empty.  Not to worry.  The toilet extends a small wand that washes you with warm water and then warm air dries you.  You stumble back to bed, still half asleep, quickly fall back into dreamland.  In the morning the toilet reports the results of the analysis that it performed on last night’s deposit and recommends that you increase your water intake.

It seems like the stuff of a near future sci-fi flick, like the hoverboard from "Back To The Future".  However, unlike the hoverboard which still in multimillion-dollar prototype mode, toilets with features like these are actually available to buy and put in your home today.

For example, the Numi Toilet by Kohler, which is available for purchase right now has a night light, heated seat, bidet with temperature controlled water, and an air dryer, a deodorizer (which makes “poopourri” obsolete), music and feet warmers that are all controlled from a touchpad screen.

I live in a fairly small town but there is a store that sells them that is less than 60 miles away from my house, and I can order one from my local Home Depot.  If I wanted to shell out nearly $6000 for a toilet I could have one in my house tomorrow.

While toilets like these may not be that common yet here in the US, they are part of a growing market.  Companies that make toilets are hiring thousands of engineers to develop the latest in toilet technology.  The Japanese toilet manufacturer Toto alone employees 1,500 engineers that are working on toilet related technology.

All of that research is doing a lot to improve not only our bathroom experience but the way the toilet itself functions as well.

One of the big benefits of this new toilet technology is water conservation - despite the use of the bidet rather than toilet paper.

Currently, the national standard for toilet water usage is 1.6 gallons per flush, but these new toilets are moving down to 1 gallon per flush.  One of the reasons this is possible is that the bidets on the toilets make the use of toilet paper unnecessary.

Toilet paper is actually really hard on sewer lines, and the less water is used the more likely a sewer line is going to get plugged up by toilet paper.  So while toilet paper is in use, there is a limit on how low water usage can go.  When toilet paper is eliminated, much less water is necessary to flush the toilet.

You may be thinking that the savings in the volume of water used would be negated by the bidet’s use of water, but that is probably not the case.  The bidet actually doesn’t use that much water, and when you combine that with the fact that there is a lot of water used in the production of toilet paper, the net water used still seems to be less than the current average.

The advancement that I am looking most forward to having in my own home is smart cleaning technology.  If you look at the underside of your toilet bowl rim right now you will probably find a bunch of holes lining the underside of the rim.  These holes are where the water comes from that rinses the sides of the bowl when you flush.  You may have also noticed when you clean your toilet that these little holes like to get gunked up and clogged with mineral deposits and they are not very easy to clean.  New toilet technology is making those little holes obsolete.  

The Japanese company Toto is replacing those little holes with something they are calling the tornado flush - it consists of two jets of water that spin the water in the bowl at high speed removing the grime in the bowl.  One of their toilets also recognizes when you are about to take a seat and sprays a bit of water on the side of the bowl before you sit.  After studying the tribology coefficient of friction, which is basically the science of how surfaces interact, that found that things you might find in the toilet stick to porcelain when it is wet.  So that little spray of water keeps the bowl cleaner longer.

Toto also has a feature that electrolyzes the water at the end of the flush.  Water flows over anodized cathodes that pulls out dissolved salts like sodium and chlorine, creating a slightly acidic solution that will kill bacteria when it enters the bowl, keeping it cleaner, longer.  They have also added a “photo-catalytic” surface to the bowl.  When combined with the 220 wavelength ultraviolet light that is shined into the bowl once a day anything that is biodegradable in the bowl breaks down.

The American toilet manufacture American Standard is incorporating some of its new cleaning solutions into less expensive models. Granted these solutions are not as high tech as the Toto models, but there is something to be said about making them affordable for the masses.  For example, their “ActiClean” system has a separate flush that releases cleaning solution directly into the toilet’s tank.  My favorite of their innovations is actually their simplest.  If you have ever cleaned the exterior of a toilet you have probably noticed the mounting points and the impressions of the toilet tubes on the back of the toilet.  In my house, these areas of the toilet seem to get dirtier faster than any other area in my house.  It feels like I can clean them, put the cleaning supplies away, then immediately return to the bathroom and they are already gross again.  American standard is making toilets without these weird flat areas or grime grabbing curves.  Instead, some top their new toilets have a sleek cylinder base that goes pretty much straight from the base to the floor.  When I read about these my immediate thought was - why didn’t these already exist, in retrospect, it seems like a painfully obvious design choice.

The benefits of these new design elements and innovations are not always readily apparent to buyers, however, and that has been a major hurdle to their adoption here in the US.  Most Americans are not ready to trade in their toilet paper for a bidet regardless of how little water they use.  Combine that with the expense of a high end toilet multiplied by the number of toilets in a typical American household (2 as of the 2011 census), and you end up with a lot of money for a product that Americans are not sure they want to use.  In other words, high-end toilets are proving to be a pretty hard sell in the United States.

However, the expense may not be the biggest hurdle to adoption here in the US.  Smart toilets need the same things that all other smart devices need to run - electricity.  Bathrooms rarely have power outlets near their toilets so there is no place to plug them in, and with bathroom renovations being some of the priciest home renovations the influx of toilet power outlets will likely take some time. 

One important question remains, however; is all of this advancement in comforting toilet technology a good thing?  There is a growing body of research that shows that sitting upright on the toilet is actually damaging to our bodies and that the way our insides bend while we are sitting upright can lead to hemorrhoids and other gastrointestinal issues.

Some scientists now believe that we should go back to the way humans pooped for thousands of years - squatting.  Squatting allows the anorectal angle to straighten requiring less effort to evacuate the bowels.  You do not need to be left out of the fancy toilet technology revolution if you decide to squat though because capitalism has found a way to make squatting profitable.  You could add to your preexisting stupid or smart toilet a platform that makes squatting over the toilet possible, such as the "Lillipad platform", the "Nature’s Platform", or my favorite because of name strength, the "Squatty Potty Toilet Stool".  I wonder if they have realized that their choice of the name toilet stool is especially funny.

I will admit that when a listener requested a show on toilets I did not expect to make a two-part series on the topic.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the history of toilet technology and its use was actually a really interesting topic with a lot of depth.  That being said, I promise that today’s episode will be the last one on toilets - at least for a while.  If you have an idea for an upcoming show that you would like to share you can tell me about it on hangyourhatpodcast.com or you can email me at hangyourhatpodcast@gmail.com.  

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