Smart Home Tech Enters The Privacy Of The Bathroom, Redefining The Experience

Real Estate

The bathroom is a very intimate place. In the very contradictory world of sexy technology countering the fear of hyper surveillance, the bathroom seems like the last and final place for the internet of things to hang its towel.

So, it’s rare for homeowners to chat about what happens between the four walls of the bathroom, but that’s all starting to change.

“Bathroom technology is a new hot trend in the smart home market,” said Jie Zhao, the executive vice president and head of global wellness leading Delos Labs. “Smart mirrors, circadian lighting, smart toilets, smart shades, and smart showers are all readily available in the market. Many of these smart bathroom products have demonstrable health benefits. For example, circadian lighting or smart mirrors with circadian lighting can help people feel more energized as they start their morning routines, and help to wind down in the evening. Smart toilets can also improve users’ comfort and satisfaction, providing them with options and automation in an area that has not seen innovation in decades.”

Zhao emphasizes that technology is not an end, but it is a means to make the home healthier. For instance, even though people don’t pay much attention to the lighting, having technology intersect with lighting can have a big impact. Tunable lighting that helps the user maintain a healthy circadian rhythm promotes better physical and mental well-being.

Not only is the bathroom a private area, but Zhao sees that people seem to have very strong opinions about their bathroom preferences, so individual choices can be very subjective.

Recently, partially in light of the pandemic, technology in the bathroom has been spotlighted by more published researched and by more product launches with items designed to make daily routines cleaner, healthier, and less complicated.

TOTO is a Japanese company and global powerhouse in bathroom innovation and had a number of products available that were quickly able to fill a desperate need for many Americans who found themselves short on toilet paper, and at the same time with increased interest in more hygienic practices.

TOTO has a line of bidet seats that not only are a healthier alternative to cleaning yourself after a solid outcome, but also are better overall for the environment because of the way they are able to clean the toilet. As TOTO’s president of corporate strategy, ecommerce, and customer experience, Bill Strang said, these products are “sparking a revolution from wiping to washing – better for the consumer and the environment.”

During the pandemic, Roman Mars put out a fascinating episode on his 99% Invisible podcast titled Wipeout where he discusses the true details and history of toilet paper use. Experts interviewed during the show talk about how doctors are not fans of toilet paper because it not only isn’t more sanitary, doing very little to stop germs from getting into your skin, but it also hurts the tissue in sensitive areas.

During the podcast, Mars says, “Yeah, I had a friend who had some surgery down in those areas and he always washed himself thoroughly with soap and water rather than with toilet paper cause it was so sensitive and he needed to get it more clean. He said this thing that just always sticks with me, it’s that if you got feces on your hand, you wouldn’t use a piece of paper to clean it off. You’d clean it off with soap and water.”

The TOTO bidet seat, called a Washlet, attaches to a toilet and sprays a premist in the bowl to reduce matter that sticks to the bowl, also adding Cefiontect that is a type of glaze that seals the porcelain to be slippery, therefore repelling waste. Plus, TOTO’s NEOREST NX2 Smart Toilet offers an ultraviolet light as part of the lid that activates a titanium dioxide and zirconium glaze to create a photocatalytic reaction to decompose matter on the surface of the toilet.

TOTO introduced the Washlet into the US marketplace in 1989, long before the pandemic, and it is now offered through its growing ecommerce channel.

“When COVID occurred and the lockdown in March 2020, everyone went to buy toilet paper to the point that it was no longer available in the marketplace,” Strang said. “The term bidet became the twentieth most searched term on Amazon, after hand sanitizer, masks, etc., with its 138 million Prime members. They were all looking for a bidet because they couldn’t find toilet paper. We sold out of everything that we had in three weeks.”

Before that time, only sophisticated global travelers used the term bidet seat, but now people are aware of what it is. TOTO is looking at online product reviews constantly from Home Depot, Amazon and Wayfair and routinely finds that the reviews contain the word “love.”

Global bath and kitchen product giant, Kohler, is also innovating in the space. The company’s intelligent toilets have personality, along with health benefits and sustainable solutions.

Its Numi 2.0 intelligent toilet offers ambient colored lighting to wireless music sync capability, to a heated seat, and a number of other features rivaling the list on a new car, such as hands-free control, personalized cleansing functionality, exceptional water efficiency, embedded Amazon Alexa for easy voice control, as well as commands such as checking weather, traffic, and accessing news.

So, for a biology break in the middle of the night, the toilet will light up for the user, the lid will open, the seat will be warm, and the bathroom visitor can save energy for getting back to bed because the toilet will flush and close on its own. 

Other features of the Kohler 2.0 are an interactive LCD touch-screen interface, Bluetooth tie in, ambient lighting, built-in personal bidet functionality and deodorizer, dual-flush technology, auto-open and -close lid, and a heated seat and foot warmer.

Going Green

The technology isn’t all about comfort, it has a very positive environmental impact as well. TOTO’s innovative toilets use electrolysis on the chloride ions in tap water to create electrolyzed water, which is a cleansing agent along with being naturally occurring. The process cleans the bowl and reduces the need for chemicals that would be used later and that are not environmentally friendly. After two hours, the electrolyzed water returns to its original state of tap water.

Kohler is covering another aspect of bathroom technology, said Jason Keller, the company’s marketing manager for kitchen and bath, with a water monitoring product that has sensors to monitor water consumption and identify leaks. The product is smart enough to be able to identify toilet locations and where leaks might happen, or if pipes are going to freeze.

The Kohler H2Wise plus installs on the main water line to the home with an auto shut off in case there is a leak somewhere. Also, there is another sustainability component of that – showing the homeowner data on how much water is being used, giving them the knowledge to be able to take action with reduced consumption.

The Future of Bathroom Breaks

TOTO has a prototype Wellness Toilet that is loaded with sensors that are currently under testing. The toilet will look at the consistency of the solid outcome, urine color, duration and pressure, giving opportunities to encourage behavioral changes.

“We are gathering technologies and looking at a collaboration for sensing technologies to measure you without putting a device on,” Strang said. “It should enable a wellness check without you knowing that you have been enabled, giving you feedback to a mobile app on your phone. It will give you an opportunity to look at hydrating more, more protein, more roughage because of what the sensors see and have. Month by month, you will be able to see trends and understand health. TOTO has this under development right now and it will come to market in the next couple years.”

Parks Associates, a research and analytics group focused on IoT and smart homes, shares that consumer demand for this type of product exists. The group’s research shows that one-third of consumers now look for providers who will enable them to share data from a connected health device or app.

The research also shows a strong increase in the adoption of wearables, which become the primary point of a consumer’s personal health data ecosystem.

However, privacy can be a challenge when using these technologies in the bathroom, similar to privacy concerns that exist in other areas of a home owner’s digital lives.

“What is different between other smart home products and smart bathroom products is that we perceive the bathroom as a place for absolute privacy,” said Zhao. “So, as consumers, we add another layer of scrutiny to anything we want to put into our bathroom. Companies that make smart bathroom products should have very secure technologies and transparent privacy policies.”

Zhao believes that the line between hardware, software, content and data are blurring as healthy home innovations become more important than ever. The products will go beyond the traditional home improvement market, and merge into consumer electronics, entertainment, fitness and workplace markets. 

Plus, another TOTO product innovation includes IoT sensors that provide an alert if a smart, public toilet is occupied for longer than 30 minutes so that there can be a welfare check, or a knock on the door to help someone who might be having an emergency.

Wiping Away Bathroom Challenges

Making the smart bathroom transition does have its challenges. First, adding technology to bathroom products, also can add cost, making most smart bathroom solutions more expensive than “non-smart” counterparts. Plus, durability and maintenance can also be a challenge.

Unlike smart home products in other spaces, smart bathroom products tend to require permanent installations. Plus, items like toilets and showers, and even some mirrors require plumbers or electricians to install in bathrooms, so product malfunctions present extra challenges.

“It is important to demonstrate tangible benefits beyond the ‘wow’ factor,” Zhao said. “Many smart home products are still being used as something to show off to their friends and families without providing real benefits. Given the cost, privacy and durability challenges of smart bathroom products, the real tangible benefits of these products should be more than just ‘wow it is so cool.’”

In 2018, Kohler revealed its first portfolio of connected to determine where voice would make the moments of interaction better. Keller says that if the technology can improve the overall performance and functionality, then Kohler will proceed to create an environment.

For example, the company has a combo drain, bath fill and digital valve product operated by voice or an app to set preferences to plug and fill the bath to the desired depth and temperature. As an added, simple, and subtle nuance, the user also can set a desired timing for refreshing the water, purging the cold and adding more hot water.

In March 2020, Kohler focused more effort on hand washing as people realized that they hadn’t been washing properly. The company leveraged its touchless technology to allow users to just wave a hand under a faucet to turn water on and off, and the technology doesn’t require any wires under the sink. Plus, the voice technology walks the hand washer through the proper process.

All of these technologies are opening the bathroom, and consumer’s minds, up for better health and wellness.

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