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Why Public Bathroom Sensors Don’t Always Work

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A successful trip to a public bathroom includes using your hands as little as possible, so motion sensors should be a welcome feature. The technology is meant to offer convenience and cleanliness, but it’s instead become associated with stingy air dryers, phantom flushes, and faucets that won’t respond to anything less than 30 seconds of intense flailing.  

To know what’s happening when these sensors fail, it’s important to understand how they’re meant to work in the first place. Products can vary, but the majority of bathroom sensors rely on infrared technology. When a toilet isn’t being used, the sensor emits a continuous beam that covers the area of the toilet seat. When a user sits down, it switches to “hold mode” and waits to flush until the immediate space has been vacated. Some models adjust their flushing strength depending on how long the user was there (so you can add “how much time you spend on the toilet” to the growing list of things you can’t hide from robots).

If the automatic flush fails to activate, it’s likely because the sensor hasn’t been cleaned properly. Hard water can cause calcium and lime build-up, which is the most common source of performance issues. Sometimes the problem can be explained by people sitting too far away from the sensors or peeing while standing up. Dead batteries could also be the culprit. 

These are the results when the technology fails, but it can be even more frustrating when the motion sensors function exactly the way they were intended. To speed up traffic flow in busy bathrooms, owners will dictate how long their faucets and air dryers run. If you’ve noticed speedier bathroom appliances in stadiums and casinos, that’s not in your head. The allotted time per use is optimized to account for heavy foot traffic, making sure users get in and out quickly no matter how wet and soapy their hands are.

Because this technology can be easily regulated to suit the owners’ preferences, it’s extremely popular with prison markets. Prisons have become something of a testing ground for bathroom sensor innovation, with technology like remote controlled bathrooms already becoming well-established there before taking off in the commercial sphere. If a future high-functioning, micro-managed public bathroom waits on the horizon, you'll have the prison system to thank. 

[h/t: Vox]

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Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images
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Design
Better Sit Down for This: Japan Wants to Modernize Its Squat Toilets for the Tokyo Olympics
Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images
Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images

Culture shock abounds in every foreign country, but few experiences can be as off-putting to an international tourist as walking into a bathroom and encountering a toilet you don't entirely know how to use. Perhaps that's why, in advance of the influx of tourists headed to Japan for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the country is looking to modernize its traditional squat toilets. According to Lonely Planet, the Japanese tourist ministry is trying to encourage municipalities to update their public restrooms with the Western-style toilets that visitors might be more accustomed to.

Though Japan is known for its elaborate, high-tech toilets with built-in bidets, seat heaters, and other perks, many of its public bathrooms have more simple accommodations. According to the country's tourist bureau, out of the 4000 public toilets near Japan's major tourist hot spots, around 42 percent are of the squatting variety rather than the kind with a raised bowl and seat. Now, squat toilets aren't just holes in the ground—they're usually made of the same materials most sitting toilets are and have flushing mechanisms. Except with a squat toilet, the flat ceramic pan is placed at ground level so you can crouch over it to do your business.

To make international visitors who are particular about their toilets more comfortable as they tour Japan, the Japan Tourism Agency has started offering subsidies for local governments that want to renovate their public restrooms. These grants are also available to private businesses and councils, according to Lonely Planet. The money can be used to either add more Western-style toilets or update existing models. (We can only hope some will take the opportunity to buy the kind that plays music.)

It's a bit of a shame that the Japanese government is so invested in getting rid of the country's squat toilets, because squatting is probably better for your health, at least when it comes to hemorrhoids. But at least it will be a welcome change for people with bad knees.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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