In 1592, Sir John Harrington presented his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, with a wonderful gift he’d designed himself—a commode that used water to flush away waste. For that time and place, this brand-new invention was the first high-tech toilet.

But while a handful of royals did make use of this new technology, most of Europe ignored the leap forward in sanitation. Then, in 1775, a watchmaker named Alexander Cummings resurrected Harrington’s design, and made one crucial improvement—he added an S-shaped pipe under the toilet basin to trap foul odors.

Over the next 150 years, other enhancements were made, including flushable valves, water tanks that sat on the bowl itself, and toilet paper rolls (first sold in 1902). Despite these improvements, however, today’s toilets are essentially the same as Harrington’s original device.

But if tech companies have their way, that’s about to change.

Today, a race is on among toilet manufacturers to develop high-tech versions of the standard commode, bringing this bathroom staple into the 21st century. Their new toilet technology runs the gamut from the silly (toilets that sing to you) to the sublime (a commode that can monitor your blood sugar). Most innovations in toilet technology, however, focus on one of three categories of the bathroom experience: cleanliness, comfort, and sustainability.

A New Era of Clean

One of the best ways to keep both a toilet and its user clean is to minimize contact between the two. Automatic flushing was invented to address this problem, and to make sure that forgetful users don’t leave behind a surprise for the next person who enters the bathroom stall. But today’s automatic flushing systems have a distinct drawback—they sometimes flush when it’s not necessary. This can waste a lot of water. Some studies show that automatic flushing uses up to 54% more water than old-fashioned manual systems. Another annoying drawback? Users are sometimes subjected to an unwanted spray.

To put control back in the hands of users—while still limiting contact—some new toilets incorporate infrared sensing eyes. Now users can simply wave a hand over the sensor eye to initiate a flush. Automatic flushing is still employed, but those sensors are becoming more accurate in their ability to detect when a person is in the stall.

Touchless flushing technology is relatively inexpensive, so it’s spreading faster than other high-tech enhancements. But those, too, will be coming to a bathroom near you in the not-too-distant future.

Integrated bidets, for example, while slow to be adopted in America, are a hit in countries like Japan. Integrated bidets are essentially dual-use toilets. They function as traditional toilets, but after the waste is whisked away, users are treated to a spray of cleansing water, followed by a breeze of warm, drying air. This process leaves the user in the bathroom a bit longer, but it is more hygienic. And more sustainable too, as it eliminates the need for toilet paper.

Keeping the user clean is just one of many new tricks that toilets are offering. Manufacturers are also producing self-cleaning toilets. Some toilets spray a fine mist of cleaner into the bowl after the user has gone. Others use ultraviolet light to disinfect after each flush. And new bowl materials—like titanium dioxide—provide a slippery surface that cuts down on microscopic waste.

Heated Seats and Colored Lights: Luxury High-Tech Toilets

The Internet of Things (IoT) entered our homes years ago, but there is one room where it’s been noticeably absent—the bathroom. Now that’s changing.

Industry leaders like Kohler are introducing futuristic toilets that use voice commands to raise the seat, flush, and even turn on music. There are also toilets with ambient lighting and built-in Bluetooth, so you’ll never have to miss any part of your favorite sporting event.

Heated seats are gaining popularity in colder climes. There are also toilets with automatic deodorizers that eliminate the need for candles or spray bottles. Some integrated bidets can be operated by a remote control, which not only adjusts the water spray, but lets you run your Bluetooth audio through the toilet’s speakers for optimum sound.

A number of luxury toilets even offer Amazon Alexa integration.

A Sustainable Solution

Even as toilets become more luxurious, they’re also becoming more eco-friendly. In addition to integrated bidets, which cut down on paper use, today’s toilets are doing more with less water.

Europe’s dual flush system—one type of flush for liquid waste, another for solid—has been shown to cut down on water use. Fortunately, this system is finally gaining popularity in America. These and other innovations have made it possible for many new commodes to earn the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense label.

But the biggest leaps in sustainability haven’t been made for the developed world. To see truly cutting-edge, green toilet technology, you have to go to developing countries.

Toilets for Everyone

The flush toilet is one of the biggest advances in public health of the past 300 years. Before the widespread adoption of the toilet and municipal sewage systems, waste was often simply tossed out windows or into rivers. This was the era of cholera and typhoid, common waterborne illnesses. During that time, approximately half the poor population of European cities died before the age of five. The humble flush toilet, combined with the rise of sewage systems, changed all that.

Amazingly, though, this simple sanitation device is not available worldwide, and in those countries that don’t have toilets available on a mass scale, children are still dying of preventable waterborne diseases. Fortunately, there are organizations that are working to change that. These groups are developing innovative, sustainable solutions that not only benefit poorer countries, but will also help more developed nations improve their ability to conserve water.

In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” The goal of the challenge is to design advanced toilets that are easily constructed, use little or no water, and can be deployed on a mass scale. And these toilets don’t just forego water, many of them are designed to operate without electricity (solar power is a popular substitute) or a sewer infrastructure.

To function independently of a sewer system, waste must be recycled at the commode site, and that’s just what these toilet systems do. One toilet, developed by Dr. Shannon Yee, uses a filtration process to turn urine into clean water. Solid waste is pasteurized by the toilet (which kills harmful pathogens) and turned into cakes of fertilizer. Right now, Dr. Yee’s device is about the size of a washing machine, but it should get smaller as this new toilet technology advances.

The Future of Toilets

Bathroom innovations like Dr. Yee’s are remaking the humble toilet. Plans are in the works for toilets that can analyze waste to search for disease markers, or filter out valuable elements like phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium for commercial use.

The toilets of the future will be easier to clean (or self-cleaning) and will do more than just send waste to the sewage system. One toilet system currently in development, for example, can detect leaks and send alerts to facilities personnel, preventing expensive water damage and making facilities maintenance just a little bit easier.

A Partner in Innovation

PRIDE Industries doesn’t develop toilet technology. But we do have 30 years of experience delivering best-in-class custodial services to commercial and public entities as diverse as VSP Global and the Sacramento International Airport. We are also experts in GBAC Star certification, and even invented our own line of green cleaning products that effectively kill coronaviruses, including COVID. Contact us today to learn more about our sustainable and cost-effective approach to janitorial service.