The crappiest invention of all time.

The crappiest invention of all time.

The crappiest invention of all time.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
March 7 2006 12:11 PM

The Crappiest Invention of All Time

Why the auto-flushing toilet must die.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
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After a stint of telecommuting, I recently returned to working in a large downtown building. My office shares a men's room with everyone who works on our level. The bathroom sports three stalls, each of which is outfitted with the most uncivilized technology of the modern age—the hands-free, automatic-flush toilet bowl.

(Before you read farther, please excuse the scatological nature of this article. Decorum would generally preclude me from writing about things so unsavory. But if no one speaks up, we will all be condemned to suffer indignities at the hands of this wretched sanitation cop. And I trust that once I make my case here, we will have our solution and will never have to speak of such matters again.)


To understand why hands-free toilet technology stinks, you must first understand three things that any well-designed loo should permit you to do.

1) Clean the pool. You must be able to flush the toilet easily before sitting down, in case any detritus remains from a previous, inconsiderate visitor.

2) Clean the pool, again. You must be able to flush more than once after you are done. Some of us are more prolific than others, and courteous patrons will want to ensure that Point 1 is unnecessary for whomever follows.

3) Issue a courtesy flush. If you plan to settle down with the sports page, you should flush immediately after dropping the kids at the pool. There's no need to let the kids linger any longer than absolutely necessary. This is for the benefit of other visitors.


Remarkably, the automatic-flush toilet makes all three of these tasks more difficult. Consider the following scenario: You enter a nearly full house, and only one stall is free. This is probably because those who got to the restroom first saw the remains of someone else's visit and moved on to one of the cleaner stalls. (See Point 1 above.) What are you to do? The only way to clean the pool is to sit down and let the latrine laser register your presence. Then you must get up and hope you sat on top of the foul commode long enough to "tell" the laser to issue a flush command. Meanwhile, the other patrons are probably aware that you are going through this humiliating exercise, as they saw the stall's condition before you arrived.

Or consider this: You are taking care of business and the lavatory becomes full. As another patron waits, you finish, rise, and the laser prompts the toilet to flush. But the flush doesn't get the entire job done. (See Point 2 above.) Do you sit once again to inform the laser that another flush is in order (waving your hand in front of it never works)? Or do you leave with your head down, hoping to avoid eye contact with the next guest?

Now consider a third, even more horrifying, scenario. Either by your choice or nature's, you will be sitting for a good while. In which case, you would like to offer up a courtesy flush for the benefit of the others in the room. (See Point 3 above.) With the hands-free pot, you must stand up, step forward, wait, and then sit again. This, too, is a highly uncivilized act for men and women in our technologically advanced age.

The auto-flush toilet violates two basic rules of technology adoption: Never replace a technology with an inferior technology; and never confiscate power from your users. Still, hands-free technology is flushing the competition. According to Pete DeMarco, the director of compliance engineering at American Standard (the largest toilet manufacturer in the world), auto-flushers constitute 30 to 40 percent of commercial sales today, and that number continues to rise.


Why have these horrible devices caught on? For the end user, the appeal is hygiene. No one wants to put his hands on a public toilet handle, especially if there's some residual dampness. From the standpoint of the installer, cost is the most important factor. Repairs to "drop-kicked" handles behind a toilet can get expensive. While the hands-free technology is more costly up front, the need for post-installation repairs is significantly diminished.

Hands-free toilets and faucets are certainly smarter now than when they first came on the market. Pete DeMarco told me that when automatic fixtures first got popular in the early 1990s, they had difficulty detecting dark colors, which tended to absorb the laser light instead of reflecting it back to the sensor. DeMarco remembers washing his hands in O'Hare Airport next to an African-American gentleman. DeMarco's faucet worked; the black man's didn't. The black guy then went to DeMarco's faucet, which he had just seen working seconds before; it didn't work. This time DeMarco spoke up, telling him to turn his hands palm side up. The faucet worked.

While today's auto-flushers and faucets no longer practice high-tech Jim Crow, the current crop of toilets still isn't smart enough. Now many hands-free crappers have a handy "eject" button that prompts the bowl to flush if the laser doesn't do the job. But this takes away the hygiene benefits of the "hands-free" approach, since you have to push it with your finger or the palm of your hand. And sometimes they're a little too smart, such as when you're sitting there, minding your business, and the john flushes even though you haven't moved.

As it happens, there is an almost perfect technology already in existence: the foot-pedal flush toilet. Consider again my three points above. Someone before you left behind a floater? No problem—the grubby sole of your shoe depresses the grimy pedal. Was your first flush insufficient? No worries, give it the boot. Planning on an extended visit? Stomp the pedal with the heel of your shoe after your first delivery without so much as shifting in your seat. All the while, you never have to use your hands.

According to DeMarco, high installation costs are what prompted the turn against the foot-flushers. He says he hasn't seen a new foot-pedal toilet in almost 30 years. Put me in the camp that says there are some things you just can't put a price on. The ability to flush my own turds happens to be one of them.