The watercloset was invented 240 years ago by an british man – and it is now becoming a wellness oasis. Photo © Yoann Lambert
Can you show me the way to the techy toilet?
by Martina Metzner
Aug 23, 2013

Everyone does it, but no one talks about it. The business that today gets done quietly in isolation was once a social experience: In Ancient Rome, for example, where the sewage system was invented to flush the cloaca maxima, people met on a kind of bench with holes placed along it one after another for the sitters. Not only did this encourage conversation, but not infrequently contracts were agreed as the sitters did not feel incommoded, but were there to do business. As early as the 18th century, the initial practice then became to withdraw bashfully behind a curtain, the French for it being a “toile”, before doors were introduced with locks to protect you from the public gaze while you went about your solitary business, no big deal.

Kelkheim-based Zukunftsinstitut now tells us what it will mean and how it’ll function once the WC as invented by Brit Alexander Cumming in 1775 is turned into a “wellness toilet”. On behalf of bathroom specialist “Geberit” the futurologists have concerned themselves in a trend study entitled “Changes in Body Awareness and Hygiene” with the potential of shower toilets in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The one or other European will possibly find it almost inconceivable what a shower toilet can actually offer. Which is not the case in Japan. For many years now shower toilets or washlets are a part of everyday life there, as about 70 per cent of Japanese homes possess such as multifunctional WC. And in many Arab countries the better-off favor such toilets that replace the usual sanitary installations with a water hose positioned next to the toilet bowl, something that can be attributed to the religious stipulations as regards hygiene in these countries.

Contemporary washlets with a feelgood factor not only have the obligatory nozzle to clean the parts the sun never sees. Usually water and the toilet seat are heated and then there are special functions, like a dryer and a toilet lid that automatically opens. The technology is usually controlled by a switch or remote located on the WC unit and can be individually programmed to fit the user’s needs. Yes, the Japanese prioritize cleanliness and that is no doubt why the Japanese shower toilet maker Toto has long since emerged as the world market leader in this field – and were the inventor of the name “Washlet”.

Not that the shower toilet is a Japanese invention: Back in 1957 Swiss engineer Hans Maurer invented the so-called “Closomat”, which is produced in a new version today by the “Closomeo” company. Switzerland remains a market in which shower toilets are very well received, something underscored by statements by manufacturers such as Toto and Villeroy & Boch. Things are more difficult it would seem in southern Europe, in markets such as Italy, Spain and France, that traditionally have always championed bidets.

Since the end of 1978 German company Geberit, renowned for their flush systems, is the European company with the edge when it comes to washlet water sprays. And in order to give the shower toilet a real boost, Geberit aspires to transform a niche product that has to date mainly be used in the health and care segment in Europe into a lifestyle product. To this end, in 2009 the company even engaged the services of ex-tennis-star-wife Barbara Becker to act as the talking head in a TV campaign extolling the virtues of the shower toilets. And now a trend study with a representative survey has been commissioned to indicate what prospects washlets would have in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where, or so Toto says, about one percent of households own such a high-end WC.

The study examines social currents and changes, such as the emancipation of women, the wellness and technology movement, as well as demographics to establish why there are not more persons interested in shower toilets. The researchers initially focused on what people do in the bathroom other than brush their teeth and all the other usual stuff. The findings: 70 percent of those polled relax in the bath, about half read or listen to music there, every fourth phones, has sex or chats with fellow inhabitants. The bottom of the list features such activities as “surf the Internet” (17 percent), “Sports/Fitness” (10 percent) and “watch TV” (6 percent).

It is interesting in itself that bathrooms can be used in so many different ways. The study says that another indicator of this is the fact that in recent years Germans have been busy upgrading what were former plain vanilla or rather white-tiled bathrooms, introducing high-grade materials and features such as shower units that end flush with the floor or rainshowers, creating a new bathing experience. Bathrooms have started to morph into wellness islands where stressed urbanites can relax as if they were in a “second living room”.

This is the point where, or so the futurologists suggest, the shower toilet could come into its own. They believe that the washlet could not only enhance the wellness factor, but also serve as a “fun feature” for the whole family, as a pleasurable health booster and as the “font of youth for the silver-ager generation”.

The researchers explain the idea of the “fun feature” by pointing to the increasing number of tasks fathers have to perform raising their kids, with dads who now often bath the infants also liking to play around with technological novelties. And in passing using the toilet is sociologically linked to “excitement, games and fun”, which is why there are good prospects that kids will progress through potty training more quickly and be able to use the toilet on their own.

The second hypothesis hinges on a society that focuses on health and wellness and increasingly relies on technological appliances to remain healthy and fit. This trend is discussed under the label of “self-tracking” and culminates in appliances such as Braun’s “Oral B 5000” electric toothbrush that can be programmed to meet the user’s needs and emits a beep when it is time to move on to the next molar. A shower toilet could, for example, monitor urine content in line with medical parameters and transmit the results straight to your physician, meaning that the irritating act of having to provide urine samples would become a thing of the past.

The above hypothesis applies mainly to all those people who are already the group targeted by manufacturers of washlets in Europe, namely the silver-agers, people in the 60-plus age bracket who nowadays tend to be fitter than in the past. For them, bathrooms and the related hygiene are clearly more important than they are for the younger age groups. For example, in the study 70 percent of the “55 years and older” group state that bodycare is an important factor for feeling young. Among the 16-24-year-olds, only about half say this, meaning that the shower toilet can be marketed as a “font of youth”.

If you ask the experts at Geberit, Toto and Villeroy & Boch, then it would seem that washlets are indeed fast establishing themselves as a wellness product in Europe, too. Since the start of Geberit’s campaign for its “AquaClean” product series four years ago, or so its press department reports, sales in Germany have risen by over ten percent annually. And the mood is upbeat at Villeroy & Boch and Toto, who announced at this year’s ISH trade fair in Frankfurt that they will be collaborating on the project. And it is not just technology that is called for, but good design, too. Geberit, for example, has recruited designer Matteo Thun to mastermind its latest model, the “Sela”. At Villeroy & Boch the equivalent product goes by the name of “Leaf”, and is the brainchild of Italian designers Daniel Debiasi and Federico Sandri from “Something”, and they’ve done a clever job of concealing the necessary technology. Because Europeans don’t want to see the inner workings, explains Toto’s Anja Giersiepen.

At present, WC technology as a whole is advancing fast. The latest trick the high-end toilets offer is an auto-cleansing effect. This is achieved by various technical features, for example by eliminating the flush rim or introducing a special vortex flush (Toto calls its version “Tornado”) – or even by using ultraviolet light or electrolytically charged water, which prevents dirt attaching itself to any surfaces in the first place. Such “all-inclusive toilets” are now being marketed by Toto, for example, with its “Neorest” and “Actilight” models, both of which rely on “ewater+”. With its new “Direct Flush” bowl, Villeroy & Boch by contrast, is focusing initially on eliminating the flush rim.

Despite all these many benefits, manufacturers will still no doubt need to be patient: When it comes to bathroom culture, it can sometimes take a couple of centuries until people wipe away their old habits. Moreover, you need to be able to take a lot of time on the throne in order to “make use of the entire program”, and who has such time today? Not to forget the quite practical sides to things: The average German bathroom has eight square meters of space, and a washlet can cost five times what a normal toilet bowl does. In fact, maybe we want the toilet to be the last place where we are spared exposure to well-meaning marketing ideas and smart technologies.

The results of the study on “Body Awareness and Hygiene” undertaken by Zukunftsinstitut and commissioned by Geberit:

The watercloset was invented 240 years ago by an british man – and it is now becoming a wellness oasis. Photo © Yoann Lambert
Freshness due to an integrated sprinkler. Photo © Geberit
Freshness due to an integrated sprinkler. Photo © Geberit
WC-wonder: the new models don’t look like high-tech-products. Geberit „Sela“, Photo © Geberit
WC-wonder: the new models don’t look like high-tech-products. Geberit „Sela“, Photo © Geberit
The use is easy via integrated switch or remote control. Photo © Geberit
The use is easy via integrated switch or remote control. Photo © Geberit
Auto-cleansing-effect by electrolytically charged water, which prevents dirt attaching itself to any surfaces in the first place. Toto „Neorest“, Photo © Toto
The ne plus ultra for hygiene: „Actilight“ by Toto. Photo © Toto