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Automated restrooms are ruining society – or at least my little corner of it.

The first instance of automation dates back to 1745 when Edmund Lee patented a device to automatically tent the sails on windmills. Soon after, in 1785, Oliver Evans invented an automated system to run a flour mill.  Evans’ automatic flour mill has been cited as the first completely automated industrial process.  Since the late 18th century, more and more things have become automated, supposedly improving society.

The automated door is probably the first automatic device that had a widespread impact on society. The ability to walk up to a door, have a sensor detect your presence and slide the door open was, well, something straight out of Star Trek® and very convenient. The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) may be the second most widely implemented form of automation until the early 1990s when automatic sinks began appearing in select public restrooms.  Eventually automatic paper towel dispensers, soap dispensers and auto flush toilets would rapidly become standard fixtures in public restrooms.

Automatic sinks, which were first installed in just a few locations like Chicago’s O’Hare airport in the early 1990s, did not work very well. A distressing issue with them was that they relied on low-power laser light reflected off the hands of the user.  This made it difficult, if not impossible, for people with dark-colored skin to use them, as the frequency of the laser light was absorbed by the pigmented skin.

The former compliance engineering director at American Standard, Pete DeMarco, once told a story during an interview in 2006 of this exact issue at an automatic sink in O’Hare during the early 90s.  An African-American man was trying to use the sink next to his, but it would not turn on. Seeing DeMarco’s faucet work, the man waited and tried that one, but to no avail. DeMarco politely told him to turn his hands palm up so the lighter pigmented skin would reflect the light. The man did, and it worked. But the damage was done and the early automated faucets were often referred to as ‘racist’ because they would not work for people with dark skin color.

As more automated faucets were installed, automatic soap and towel dispensers would follow, with auto flush toilets and urinals soon becoming restroom accessories.  All of these have combined to create a distinct level of misery for both countless others and me.

A main purpose for automated everything in bathrooms is to reduce exposure to germs and bacteria, so how could anyone possibly have a problem with an auto flushing toilet?  Automatic sinks save water and automatic paper towel dispensers reduce waste – how could they possibly be bad?

For starters, when you combine an auto flush sensor with a low volume toilet, it’s becomes a bathroom bacteria bomb.  This combination is inadequate to fully remove all the waste.  In many cases, there is a delay built into the flush, so people leave the stall before the automatic flush happens. This leaves a mess behind for the next user, who, if no other clean stalls are available, has to reach past the bowl and find the randomly placed, nearly invisible button on the sensor to push and flush it manually.  Of course, the person is standing over the bowl when it flushes and as no public toilets have lids, the person is now subject to a bacterial fog that no one wants to think about.

Wal-Mart automated sink

And what about the use of a stall to change or adjust clothing in private? Moving around inside a stall will cause the toilet to flush many times. Multiple women have stated this as their number one complaint about auto flush toilets, having been subjected to repeated flushes while using a stall for privacy while adjusting a brassiere or changing torn nylons.

How many times have you used a public restroom only to find out that the sensors on the sink do not work?  Anyone who has had the displeasure of using the style of sink shown in this photo, which is in nearly every Wal-Mart restroom in the Midwest, will agree that the odds of winning the lottery are greater than getting this automated sink design to work.

A major annoyance with automated faucets is splashing. The only way to start the flow of water is to put your hands in front of the sensor, directly under the water outlet.  When the flow finally starts, it comes out suddenly and is quickly splattered everywhere by your hands. More than once, and especially when wearing tan khakis, I have left a public restroom looking like I have a bladder control problem and need adult diapers. Washing my hands now requires a delicate game of reaction timing, whereby I try to pull my hands away before the splashing starts, but put them back in the water quickly in order to keep the flow turned on.

Finally, and perhaps the true root cause of this blog rant, is the fact that I do not have automatic sinks or toilets in my home. I still must manually flush the toilet, holding down the handle to cheat the low-flow flush volume, fiddle with the hot and cold handles on the sink to get the water temperature right and then reach for a cotton hand towel on a hook.  But on a positive note, I don’t splash my khakis at home, the bowl is always emptied and clean and I am in total control of my own bathroom destiny.

With respect to bathroom automation, it’s time to get Ahead of the Curve. ‘Nuff said.

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