Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Technology in the Loo

OK, I get it, talking about the bathroom is embarrassing. Some might legitimately ask why I'd spend time writing about technology in the bathroom.

The answer is really simple: there's some very interesting stuff going on in there.

What's also interesting is that some of the most dramatic technological innovations aren't taking place in America.

The Japanese, in particular, are legendary in their toilets. Everything from sprays and nozzles and air blowers and music and ... well, just Google "Japanese toilet technology" and see what pops up.

The subject is so well established that there's even a Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) entry on it.

But I wanted to talk about two technologies: automatic faucets and hand drying.

I first encountered automatic faucets in Germany back in the early 1980s. I didn't see them here in the U.S. for about another 10 years.

Automatic faucets generally turn on water faucets, but they can also be used for toilets and urinals. Typically, they have a motion sensor that detects when something is nearby.

In the case of a sink faucet, the detector turns on when it detects something nearby. In the case of a toilet, the detector waits until the object leaves before it activates.

I always wondered how these faucets work. I thought they'd either be electrical or mechanical, or a combination of both. In particular, the little sensor must require some sort of electrical power, as does the opening and closing of a valve, which could take a lot of juice.

I had wondered if the actual flow of the water would spin a little propeller, which would either charge a battery or arm a mechanism that could perform the opening and closing of the valve.

While that might be the case, most instances of automatic valves are simply battery-operated and the battery reportedly lasts about three years before it needs to be replaced.

The battery model is a great method for installing faucets in existing restrooms, as sinks typically don't have electricity available.

For new construction, the faucet companies also allow low voltage power with a battery back-up.

The value of automatic valves, of course, is to help prevent the spread of germs and disease in public restrooms.

My completely unscientific poll indicates that in most populated places in the U.S., automatic faucets have overtaken manual ones in public restrooms.

The other bit of bathroom technology is the lowly hand dryer.

Years ago, I was in a restroom with one of the old dryers where you'd push the big metal button and it would blow warm air on your hands. The dryer has two instructions printed on it: 1. Press button; and 2. Rub hands under warm air. Someone had written a third instruction: 3. Wipe hands on pants.

While I don't approve of this sort of vandalism, the person was right. The old-fashioned hand dryers simply don't work -- at least not in the timeframe that most people are willing to spend drying their hands.

But there are two devices that work pretty well.

XLERATOR (http://www.exceldryer.com/) -- This device is based on the fact that the volume of air over hands is far more important than the temperature of the air. Stick your hand under an XLERATOR dryer and it's like sticking your hand out of the car window at 60 mph.

The other device that works very well is the Dyson airblade (http://www.dysonairblade.com/homepage.asp).

Rather than having a single nozzle that shoots out air, the Dyson airblade shoots air on the top and bottom of your hands as you wave your hands through the air blades. The air from the airblade isn't nearly as fast as the XLERATOR, but it does cover more skin.

Both of these hand-drying solutions are welcome improvements over the old push button hand dryers. I rarely have to wipe my hands on my pants anymore.

As technology continues to become more and more a part of our lives, it doesn't take too much imagination to see how technology will continue to enter our restrooms. Just peek across the Pacific Ocean to Japan for a preview.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 4 August 2010.
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