High-tech toilets are lighted, play music, test your vital signs

Today is World Toilet Day. Is yours up to snuff?

Every year thousands of cell phones, PDAs and music players meet their demise in toilet water. But lest it seem the toilet is merely a destroyer of technology, consider the growing number of high-end toilets sporting remote controls, wireless sensors and built-in accessories such as music players and lighting.

Many of these advanced receptacles come from Japan, where manufacturers Inax, Matsushita Electric Industrial and Toto are based. There, residents have embraced the high-tech toilet for more than a decade. Designs are driven by different factors; luxury models include docks for sound cards and wireless remotes, for instance, while health-oriented designs add sensors for urinalysis and speech-activated commands.

On the luxury side, one of the newer models is the Inax Satis Asteo Washlet, which includes built-in speakers and an SD card reader for playing tunes. It's so far not available in the United States, but the Alauno from Matsushita is. A tankless toilet with an automated self-cleaning function, the Alauno also has built-in speakers and LED lights for nocturnal users who don't want to turn on bright bathroom lights.

From Toto there's the Neorest 600, a tankless toilet and "personal cleansing unit" (it has a built-in bidet function, as do many of the models from Japanese manufacturers). Its lid automatically opens whenever an individual approaches the Neorest 600, and when the individual walks away, it automatically flushes and the seat and lid close.

But that's not all. The Neorest 600 has a remote control for operating features including water spray temperature, pressure and direction. The remote also controls a seat heater, air dryer and deodorizer.

Lately American plumbing manufacturers are catching on to the trend. A San Francisco start-up, Brondell, launched a line of high-tech toilet seats in 2005. Its Swash seats can be installed on most standard toilet bases and come with a wireless remote that controls a bidet wash, seat heater and warm air dryer built into the seat. Mark Cuban is among a group of investors that provided US$1.3 million of Series A financing to Brondell.

Similarly, Kohler in June came out with the C3 toilet seat, which offers a built-in cleansing function, heated seat, deodorizer and lighted bowl. Users can choose a model that comes with a remote control, or opt to have the controls in a panel mounted on the side of the unit.

Health issues

On the health front, Japanese construction company Daiwa House Industry collaborated with Toto on a toilet that performs at-home health checks. The Intelligent Toilet can measure a person's blood sugar, blood pressure, body fat and weight using built-in testing devices. Its measurement tools can be linked to a PC for tracking data over time via health management software.

In another health-driven project, automated features provide greater independence to elderly and disabled people who might otherwise rely on assistance from a caregiver to use a toilet. Researchers affiliated with Vienna University of Technology in Austria conceived of the Friendly Rest Room, which incorporates, among other features, a contactless smart card to store users' preferences, voice activation interface, and sensor systems for detecting falls and emergency situations. Last year, Hungarian company Santis Kft brought a first product version of the Friendly Rest Room to market in Europe.

RFID to the rescue

Toilet maintenance is another area technology is influencing. In Europe, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is used to track maintenance records and keep tabs on the locations of portable toilets. Adco Dienste Holding deployed some 60,000 low-frequency RFID tags with chips from Texas Instruments to ensure its fleet of Toi Toi and Dixi portable toilets are properly maintained and easily tracked.

RFID technology also enables a device that detects toilet leaks and spillovers. The H2Orb from AquaOne Technologies can automatically shut off water flow when wireless sensors placed in a toilet bowl and water tank detect a leak or overflows. The egg-shaped valve can send a signal to a security system, pager or e-mail account when there's an issue that requires attention.

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