Why do we need sensors, connectivity and digital systems in the washroom? In this article, Tom Marshall, from Tork manufacturer Essity, examines the positive role that technology can play in the washroom. Any washroom that has been designed for use by the public needs to meet a few basic requirements.

Firstly, it should be clean, hygienic and well stocked with essential soap and paper supplies. Washrooms should also be easy to locate when needed and should be accessible to everyone of all ages and abilities. As the issue of sustainability climbs up the global agenda, it is also becoming more important that washrooms should be designed to minimise waste and water use.

Public washrooms should ideally be aesthetically pleasing places where people feel sufficiently comfortable to take time out and practice good hand hygiene. So, if accessibility, sustainability, hygiene and aesthetics are all key prerequisites of a washroom, where does technology fit into the list of requirements?

It turns out that technology can help with all the above factors – and with others. Smart solutions are helping to drive up standards, enhance the user experience, speed up queues, make the cleaner’s life easier and even monitor people’s health.

Following the launch of the smartphone in 2007, there has been a growing trend for people to photograph everything around them, even in the toilet. As a result, people are increasingly taking pictures of public washrooms and uploading them onto social media.

Facilities that are either particularly attractive or strikingly unpleasant tend to polarise much of this attention and a growing number of ‘World’s Best Washrooms’ lists have appeared on the internet.

This trend of photographing everything has given venues an enhanced interest in sprucing up the toilet facilities in the hope that they will be included on ‘best washrooms’ websites. At the same time, unsavoury facilities are increasingly being named and shamed on sites that call out venues on their dirty or unhygienic washrooms.

Meanwhile, a growing number of ‘toilet finder’ apps are being launched worldwide with the aim of helping people find an accessible washroom when they need one.

Technology is also being used in the toilet to monitor the user’s health. Japanese company, Toto, has developed a loo that uses artificial intelligence to analyse human waste. Sensors in the seat of the Wellness Toilet record the user’s pulse and blood pressure and analyse their waste via technology embedded in the bowl.

At the same time, many companies have been adopting less headline-grabbing technology in a bid to enhance washroom hygiene while also making life easier for visitors and cleaners. For example, many large washrooms now deploy ‘smiley’ feedback panels allowing visitors to rate their washroom experience by pressing a red, amber or green button. Such systems provide valuable data for washroom managers and enable them to respond immediately to any poor feedback or hygiene issues.

Traffic light systems that light up green when a cubicle is empty and then turn red when it is engaged help to speed up queues. These work particularly well in busy airports and rail stations because they make it easier for visitors to pinpoint those cubicles that are available for use.

Smart dispensers are increasingly helping to ensure that washroom soap and paper supplies never need to run out. Sensors incorporated into washroom dispensers allow cleaners to check remotely on supplies of soap, toilet paper and hand towels. This removes the need for staff to make multiple journeys to physically check on dispenser status, saving time and freeing up resources.

Essity’s own Tork Vision Cleaning allows cleaners to monitor dispensers via a smartphone or tablet, for example, while people-counters allow a facility to build up a profile of washroom visits. The office manager can use this data to identify those toilets that are attracting the highest levels of traffic. The cleaner’s walking routes can then be streamlined accordingly, saving time and labour costs.

Meanwhile, technology is proving valuable around the world, Africa included, in environments where water is scarce and where sewage systems are expensive to install. For example, Johannesburg’s Soweto township now has flushing toilets that operate on a closed-loop system.

The flushed waste is sent into a collection tank from where it is drawn through a series of membranes. Here the solids are separated from the liquids and the bacteria is eliminated without the use of chemicals. These facilities are said to be more sustainable than the previous chemical toilets because they are solar-powered, and the water is purified with ozone which means it can be used indefinitely for flushing.

While technology may arguably not be strictly necessary in the toilet, it is proving its worth on many fronts. It is helping to enhance hygiene, drive up standards, monitor health and improve sustainable outcomes.

The Tork brand offers professional hygiene products and services to customers ranging from restaurants and healthcare facilities to offices, schools and industries. Products include dispensers, paper towels, toilet tissue, soap, napkins and industrial and kitchen wipers. For more information, visit: www.tork.co.za