With a press of a button, the toilet lid lowered itself onto the seat below. For a long moment, I forgot all about the glittering lights of the Shanghai Tower just outside the restroom of this fancy rooftop bar. I jabbed another button, and the lid rose again. And down. And up. Maybe I just like pushing buttons. Or maybe I had never seen a high-tech toilet before.
For decades, electronic latrines have enjoyed an enduring presence in countries like Japan, South Korea and China, where companies like Toto and even Samsung compete for your backside’s business. Mostly, these “smart toilets” are electronic bidets that shoot water at your anatomy or even warm the seat. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.) But today’s higher-end models pack in a surprising amount of tech, like deodorizing sprays and even Bluetooth.
So far, US homeowners are more reluctant than their international counterparts to install any kind of complex commode in their homes. Americans typically don’t find oscillating water jets and temperature controls intriguing, said Bill Strang of Toto, a Japanese company that dominates 65 percent of Japan’s toilet market. They find it terrifying: “You’re going to spray me where?!”
But attitudes are changing, as US consumers are slowly becoming more flush with enthusiasm for techie thrones. Toto reports that sales of its bidet systems are ramping up in the US (it now has showrooms in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston). Homegrown plumbing brand Kohler, of Kohler, Wisconsin, agrees, citing 50 percent year-over-year growth in its own intelligent toilet sales.
What a techie toilet can do for you
So, why would you or anyone else want a souped-up can? There are four reasons: cleanliness, comfort, convenience and conservation. Jets of water can target the tushie and groin to help achieve a more thorough clean, which is especially important for older adults and younger kids (see sidebar), and save gobs of toilet paper that you’d otherwise use.
Toasty seats, temperate water and a foot heater that blows warm air onto both bathroom tile and your feet can help keep you cozy and relaxed, and some models are equipped with built-in speakers, an AM/FM radio and Bluetooth, for syncing a playlist from your phone for that personalized touch. A luxury loo might also come with built-in night lights and use charcoal filters to help deodorize the premises.
Kohler’s Veil K5401-0 model integrates proximity sensors for the ultimate convenience of total toilet automation: a unit that opens the lid as you approach, knows how much to flush, and closes shop when you’re finished. Others spritz water into the bowl before and after your visit (to help lubricate the surface pre-flush), and even shine an ultraviolet light post-flush to break down bacteria — two features that add up to less icky manual cleanup.
These wonder water closets also help conserve H2O. Toto’s E-Water Plus line flushes using just 1 gallon, shaving 35 percent off the US national low-flow standard of 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). Kohler’s line of intelligent toilets meet California’s mandated 1.28gpf ceiling at high flow and 0.8gpf for the low-flow eco flush. In addition to helping the planet, you can count on a reduced water bill over time (though your electric bill might climb with all that mechanized flushing).
Pricey potties aren’t smart-home smart
Before settling yourself on a premium pooper, remember that all of this tech comes at a cost. Specifically, $3,000 to $6,500 for an advanced rig, versus $200 to $500 for a standard setup.
You’re going to spray me where?!
You’ll also need to accept some solid facts. In the age of smart TVs, smart refrigerators and smart lightbulbs, today’s techie toilets aren’t an integrated part of the smart home. There aren’t any apps for your phone, and no Wi-Fi connection. There’s no current tie-in to the Nest thermostat, the Amazon Echo or Apple HomeKit. Turning off your Philips Hue lights doesn’t launch your lavatory into night mode, and it’s unlikely to for now.
“For a lot of consumers, I think the bathroom is still about escape,” says Shane Allis, Kohler’s director of sanitary marketing, when I ask about the products’ place in the Internet of Things (IoT). “It’s going to take a certain level of comfort with the consumer to have that kind of connected technology in a private space like the bathroom.”
Toto’s Strang says his company has done a lot of research in Japan with IoT interfaces. (The company has been making lavatories with electronic components since 1980.) “The ability to do the technology isn’t difficult through an iOS or Android app…The difficult thing we start to run into is: How do we make sure it’s secure?”
Strang brings up a fair point about privacy. Could someone hack a connected toilet and reveal embarrassing bathroom habits? Perhaps, but that seems like a long shot compared to the security you need to safeguard a smart garage door or door lock. For me, a clever commode is entirely about its whistles and bells.
Yet, as excited as I am for the day when I can push all the buttons I want on an electronic toilet seat in my neighborhood cafe, they’re still novelty items in most locales. “People would have said you’re crazy,” Strang says about the early days of America’s high-tech honeybuckets. But in today’s teched-out world, it’s more likely they’d say you’re crazy-cool.
This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.