Is your toilet watching you?

1st of June 2021
Is your toilet watching you?
Is your toilet watching you?

Today’s “smart” washrooms can do everything from counting visitor numbers and gathering refill data to checking the user’s health – and even talking to you. But is such a high level of technology always a good thing, or could it become an unwelcome intrusion in a space that is supposed to be private, asks Ann Laffeaty?

Washrooms are becoming smarter all the time. Technology is now widely used in public facilities to prevent the user from having to physically touch the taps, flush systems or dispensers. And it is also being employed to count visitor numbers and monitor the usage of consumables such as soap and toilet paper.

However, some public facilities are going even further with their use of technology. For example, Japanese company Toto is currently developing a lavatory that uses artificial intelligence to analyse human waste. Sensors in the seat of the Wellness Toilet records the user’s pulse and blood pressure while analysing their waste via technology embedded in the bowl.

Meanwhile, New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology has pioneered a cloud-connected toilet that can track the user’s blood pressure, blood oxygen levels and other heart data. And more controversially, there are now public toilets in China that use facial recognition technology to limit people’s’ use of toilet paper. The washroom visitor’s face is scanned before they are allowed access to paper, and they are then restricted from taking out any more for a seven-minute period. The aim is to minimise waste and reduce over-consumption.

But intelligent toilets are hardly new. In 2004 a cultural centre in Amsterdam installed “talking toilets” as a novelty. The lavatories in the De Balie centre would interact with visitors and lightheartedly rebuke them for smoking, using too much toilet paper or failing to flush.

Virgin Trains introduced its own talking toilets in 2013 – not for fun this time, but to urge travellers to refrain from attempting to flush anything that could cause a blockage. And in September 2019, aircraft manufacturer Airbus announced plans to monitor toilet paper consumption and lavatory visits on board its planes with the use of technology. The company hoped that this would help address the problem of over-long queues.

However, high-tech toilets have their issues – and their critics. For example, the use of facial recognition toilet paper dispensers was paused in some parts of China in December 2020 amid fears that the data could be stored and used for other purposes.

Sensitive information

And in December 2019, concerns were raised about a “wellness” toilet developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Designed to create a snapshot of the user’s lifestyle, the smart toilet contained sensors for assessing the user’s sleep patterns, exercise, medication and alcohol and caffeine intake. But there were fears that hackers could access this sensitive information en route to the user’s physician.

So can a toilet become too “smart” for its own good? And should there be limits on the type and scope of information they gather?

Essity claims to have been at the forefront of the smart washroom revolution and offers digital services and consumption monitoring systems. Tork EasyCube uses connected devices in washrooms to gather data on dispenser refill levels and visitor numbers. This information can then be accessed remotely by cleaners via a smartphone or tablet.

“Data-driven cleaning provides cleaners with real-time information that allows them to work out where they are likely to be needed most - and when,” said communications director Renée Remijnse. “The use of this data and connectivity in general can result in many gains in terms of efficiency and washroom quality.”

She feels that facial recognition systems for limiting paper use - such as the type pioneered in China -  are ultimately unnecessary because consumption reduction can be achieved much more simply. “A single-sheet dispensing system will reduce the amount of toilet tissue taken out at any one time while also ensuring continuous refill availability,” she said. The Tork SmartOne dispenser is claimed to reduce toilet paper use in this way.

However, Essity sees some value in smart toilets that can perform health analysis. “We partner with innovative washroom concept companies such as OneHundred Restrooms which offers various health checks, and we see great potential for the washroom in becoming a health or well-being centre going forward,” she said.

But privacy is also important, according to Remijnse. “We value customers’ privacy and are keen to ensure Tork EasyCube improves hygiene and efficiency without interfering with customers’ day-to-day visits to public places,” she said. “People don’t want to feel watched - especially when they’re in the washroom.”

Efficiency and quality

All in all she feels that smart washrooms in general are a positive step forward. “There are many efficiency and quality gains to be made through the use of data and connectivity,” she said. “But this data alone will not make a difference - it’s all about interpreting that information and offering customised improvement opportunities.”

Diversey’s retail and distribution European marketing director Angelika Koppe is unconvinced about the phenomenon of toilets that can monitor the user’s health or that use facial recognition technology to limit toilet paper use. “In my personal view this is an invasion of privacy,” she said.
However, Diversey is currently considering the introduction of washroom monitoring systems. “I think this is the future,” says Koppe.  “Smart washroom systems will automatically flag up when a certain number of visitors have frequented the facilities, and this will indicate that the toilet needs to be cleaned.

“These systems will also monitor refill levels of soap and paper towel dispensers. So they will be a real benefit and will ensure washrooms stay clean while also offering a consistent level of hygiene.”

Hagleitner has recently launched its own dispenser monitoring system that transmits real-time data on washroom consumption, fill levels and energy status. Facility managers are able to adjust the dispensing volume and interval for each dispenser and can gather data on how often individual dispensers have been activated.

“This opens up the possibility of analysing not only the number of hand hygiene episodes, but also the level of user compliance,” says the company’s junior product manager washroom hygiene Bernhard Binderitsch. “Corrective action may then be taken where necessary.”

He believes connectivity can help to improve a dispenser’s efficiency. “Being able to monitor dispensers from the palm of your hand allows you to streamline cleaning routes while also significantly reducing waste, thereby maintaining a high level of efficiency and hygiene,” he said.

And as far as toilet paper facial recognition systems are concerned he says: “Some people might perceive these types of systems to be an invasion of privacy. But reducing paper consumption
is important.”

Hagleitner tackles this problem by means of an integrated brake in its Xibu hybrid toilet paper system and a delivery time delay on its Xibu towel dispensers. “The Xibu app allows facility managers to adjust the dispensing interval on a five-point scale, ranging from economical time delay to ultrafast frequency,” explained Binderitsch.

Visitor consent

He believes that any toilet-based health-monitoring system should only be activated with the visitor’s consent. “People should be offered a choice as to whether or not they want to make use of these kinds of systems,” he said.

The fact an increasing number of washrooms are becoming “smart” is positive news according to Gojo’s UK and Ireland managing director Chris Wakefield. “Today’s technology includes touch-free dispensers and toilets that close and flush automatically – and there’s no doubt the washrooms of the future will become even smarter both in terms of monitoring usage and equipment installed,” he said.

Touch-free dispensers offer other benefits besides hygiene, he adds. “Where they are programmed to release an exact dose of product they can help to reduce mess and waste.” Gojo is currently working on a dispenser that enables operatives to monitor refill levels at a glance.

Brightwell Dispensers’ business development manager Kate Williamson feels the use of technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in the washroom. “There are clear indications that smart washroom monitoring systems will become more commonplace in the future, and this is definitely where the market is being driven,” she said. “Assessing the use of consumables in high footfall washrooms can provide facilities managers with much better control of their resources.”

Brightwell is in the process of developing a number of smart solutions, she says. “Smart washroom monitoring systems will help to prevent staff members from having to make unnecessary trips to check on stock levels, enabling facility managers to plan their inventory more accurately and improve staff scheduling,” she said.

And she believes toilets capable of monitoring the health of the user could become a valuable asset. “From a privacy viewpoint there would need to be a certain level of trust placed in those agencies charged with collecting, collating and analysing the data,” she said. “But no-one wants to see a repeat of the last 12 months.

“If smart toilets could provide early detection of a disease that might later become an epidemic - then yes, they could be highly valuable. And any preventative measures should surely become a priority whatever form they might take.”


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