Toilet Observations

Embarrassingly, comparative toiletry is one of my favorite topics.  See my popular post on “How well do you wipe?” which questions our poop parochialism.  Today’s post will compare some North European toilets to American toilets and perhaps further expand your scatological perspective.

To the right is a pic of the toilet and shower rooms at our Dutch host’s apartment this summer.  Most of our couchsurfing hosts had two different rooms for these functions and they also had toilet designs I had never seen. Let me first describe what I admired about these toilets:

  1. Privacy & Efficiency: Separating the toilet and shower room allows two people to have private activities simultaneously.  Whereas, American toilets are often in the same room as the bathtub/shower which is a design that sacrifices privacy for spaciousness and, for the shy, hinders the flow of traffic.
  2. Aromatically Safe Showers:  With this European design, a refreshing shower does not need to be ruined by someone’s copious emergency dump.

3. Efficiency:  My last applause for their toilets’ design was the ubiquitous, ecofriendly, dual flush system seen here to the left.  The large circle on the left is for a large poop flush and the dainty little right circle is for a tiny pee flush.  It made a lot of sense to me.  Besides being politically correct, those who wake at night to pee do not have to debate whether to leave a surprise for others in the morning or to wake them with a loud flush.  They can flush quietly and respectfully.  Mind you, I don’t suffer from nocturia (yet) but am an early riser and it works for me too.

But now we come to my criticisms:

  1. Stinky:  All our hosts’ toilets had an observatory deck design.  With this design, poop gradually gathers on the observatory deck and is exposed to the air before flushing at the end of your mission.  The result: the tiny room’s air quickly informed you about your bowel movement’s fragrance. In our American toilets, the load drops immediately into a pristine pool of water where it has minimal time to aerosolize and the odor is contained (well, at least for fast, non-hanging dumps).
    I can only imagine three possible advantages of this observation deck: (a) it may allow you to save flush water (b) it may allow some to do a thorough search of their poo for drugs they may have muled into the country or guitar picks they may have accidentally swallowed and (c) it avoids splash-back. But I can’t believe that these potential benefits are worth the smell of such a wafting aromatic set up.
  2. Messy: Finally, another important criticism of the observatory platform was the need to clean.  After flushing, if your stool is the least bit soft, a brown trail will remain and then the flusher must decide if he or she will clean the trail of shame for the next person or not.  Today I asked my son what he did in Europe and he says he never cleaned the toilet, whereas I (with a higher sense of shame) cleaned it when necessary.

After writing this post, I found this wiki article which tells us that the “Das Flachspüler” [flat-rinse] was designed in Germany and is generally known as a “washout toilet”. Among toilet designers (a unique job) is also known as a “reverse bowl design”.  This reverse design, in fact, initially had me wonder if I should straddle my host’s toilet it like a wild bronco! (kidding)

The article also concurs that the observation deck is meant for inspecting your poop and to avoid the splash-up that occurs from people pinching off several small big bombs as opposed to one, long, splashless slider (itself having a fragrance issue).  Wheew, I wasn’t being weird — the wiki article agrees with my observations.  See, I am wiki-normal.

It seems there is no perfect toilet design — or as my post here phrase this generalizable observation of the world,  “You must choose your shit pile.”

Question to readers:  After all this info, if you were a toilet designer, how would you improve your scatological life?


Filed under Medicine

16 responses to “Toilet Observations

  1. When I was a kid, I read Erica Jong’s breakthrough work of modern pornography, Fear of Flying. She has a section about the peculiarly various national toilet designs of Europe, which I found far more memorable than the rest of the book. (Particularly Das Flachspüler.) I thought that was just me, but recently read a novel in which a character talks about the fact that this is also the only part of Fear of Flying she could remember. The character, like me, was startled to discover (on visiting Europe) that this remains true decades later. Every country has its own remarkably dysfunctional design.

    To mention just one. Australia (which admittedly is not strictly in Europe) probably has already passed its biological carrying capacity due to being almost entirely a desert. Water is precious. Therefore, they have a dual flush system (like the Dutch, and many other nationalities). The “half flush” button produces a roughly Niagara-sized inundation. The full flush is a Fukushima-tsunami-cataclysm.

    It’s not my country, so I don’t really care about wasting their water. What does bother me slightly is that invariably it sloshes out onto your toes. It’s probably obvious from my writing that I’m not overly fastidious about such things, but… it makes you wonder.

  2. TWF

    Amusingly disgusting! Or, is it disgustingly amusing?

    1) Did you know that dual flush toilets are making headway in the US market now? The ones I’ve seen still have our traditional bowl concept.
    2) I’d like to see active toilets instead of passive ones. I mean, when the payload hits the puddle, I think there should be a gentle flow turned on by a sensor, like an automatic courtesy flush, but without all of that sloshing, germy water hitting your undercarriage.

  3. CRL

    As TWF said, dual flush systems have made it to the US, at least in newer/more environmentally conscious buildings. The ones at my lab, and, to the best of my knowledge, throughout the rest of UCSF, are set up such that one pulls the handle up for a small flush and pushes it down for a large one. It actually took me a week to retrain myself; at first, I would look at the toilet, see that it was dual flush and tell myself that I should pull the handle up, and then instinctively push it down as I left.

  4. @ David Chapman :
    That was hilarious. I am glad to see others think of these things.

    @ TWF :
    I guess I knew they were here but haven’t noticed them yet.
    Concerning a gentle flow after payload delivery may be nice but what about those rabbit pellet folks who read magazine and drop the delivery in slow pathetic succession — that would require a swimming pool of water to flush.

    @ CRL :
    Wow, California — always ahead of the curve in environment issues and insolvency ! Hmmmm. 🙂

  5. Hilarious! I never encountered any ‘observation decks’ in France or Sweden (thank goodness). I did notice that the Swedes seem not to think visual barriers are necessary when one is at a urinal however. And I did encounter the odd ‘old fashioned’ toilet in France – this being a hole in the tiled floor.

    The picture got me thinking, however. When I was staying in Sweden, my friend’s shower ‘stall’ was nothing more than a recess in the wall with the floor sort-of sloping toward the drain (that is, no raised lip to catch water). The photograph I see above looks like it might be like that. Did you encounter that anywhere?

  6. @ James
    Glad you enjoyed. No, I can’t say I did encounter that.
    But regarding privacy. In China the public toilets I visited were like the one on this page where people stoop and grunt next to each other.

    And I have not seen the sloping floor in showers that you mention — or maybe I overlooked them.

  7. Jessica

    Love it!

    The perfect toilet would have a bowl so deep I would not have to see said fecal matter or urine. I don’t have a problem so much with my own as those who don’t flush behind themselves, who are very numerous in my life, exasperate you already know. Unfortunately this loop chute may provide a wild ride for toddlers and may be scary for those afraid of heights, especially if one gets up in the middle of the night and someone did not put the seat down.

  8. Does not Jell

    I hope that this post is not to serious. The observation decks of Prussian toilets were designed to acclimatize Prussian youth to gas warfare. Such designs are now normally only found in bathrooms built before the end of the cold war.
    Modern bathroom designs have a serious sustainability problem. To prevent pollution of streams and rivers the fouled water must be cleaned.
    In modern societies this cleaning uses large amounts of non renewable energy resources. There is debate about when these resources will run out but there is no debate that they eventually will run out. There is debate in the US about whether or not the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming but I see almost no debate about this in my circles outside of the US.
    If we want to live with renewable energy resources demand reduction is an almost inevitable part of the equation, until we harness fusion power.
    From one alien to the next if it were possible I would advise humans to make the transition to composting toilets ASP. Which brings me back to the sturdy design of the Prussian toilet. I am not sure that I even need to write what I am thinking but just in case I would like to point out how much easier it would be to remove the potential and future fertalizer from the observation deck than from the tube of a current US or EU toilet.

  9. @ Jessica:
    Sounds like an out-house is your toilet of choice — deep, scary and possibly deadly.

    @ Does not Jell:
    Sorry, I don’t follow the “Prussian” allusion. I get the cost of re-cycling, though.

  10. We changed our toilets out to duel flush last year, works great.

    I also have a tip for the ‘observation deck’ style dumpers, and the advice also works great for RV toilets. Before deployment, lay a single sheet of toilet paper on the target location. This helps to prevent the streaking to which these toilets are so susceptible.

  11. Great tip, Bart. Next time …

  12. Someone mentioned Sweden… As I live in Sweden, this triggered my desire to report on the scatological state of this country. The number of dirty toilets here is astonishingly high. Often, you even have to pay (something like $ 1 or 2) in order to use them.
    In addition, if you are not in a city, say in a summer holiday place, toilets are mere holes where excrement is collected in a bucket underneath. The person who takes care of this must recycle the feces at regular times, or compost them.
    To be fair, however, I should mention that the toilets in the place where I work (Uppsala University) are always at a very clean state and also that there are, indeed, several restaurants and cafes with clean toilets.

  13. Here is another report on the scatological state of Sweden, which is totally misleading:

    The most picturesque toilets are at the outhouses in the Swedish countryside. There you may sit with the door open, looking at beautiful dark-green pines and yellow wheat fields, listening to the birds singing, and smelling the perfume of lovely wild flowers. Sometimes you may see a deer walk by. If you are shy, you close the door and study the magazine of Swedish kings and queens, which almost always decorate the interior of Swedish out-houses.

    (This is taken from the book “confessions of a Swedish girl”, p.139-140).

    It is misleading because the perfume she mentions is totally covered by the perfume of the excrement of dozens or hundreds of others who have defecated before you. These toilets are cleaned once a week or less frequently, so you can imagine that the last thing you can smell is that of the flowers.

    It is also misleading because the birds and wild flowers can only be heard and seen during the summer. Winter is long (6 months of snow), so using these toilets in the winter is impossible because you can’t even approach them.

    It is also misleading because the magazines of kings and queens are in these toilets only to be used as toilet paper. In addition, a large number of people do not admire royalty (e.g., the current Swedish king is not as dignified as he appears to be) and, I think, this is why they leave these magazines in the toilets.

  14. Thanx for sharing Takis

  15. This is absolutely hilarious and I really enjoyed your take on it 😀 I found the page while researching for my own post about things in every Czech home ( if you are interested), and I wanted to mention this “observation deck”-style toilet. I didn’t get into as much detail as you did, but it has really made me rethink toilet philosophy. Thanks for your humor!

  16. @ chloe: Glad you enjoyed and thank you for the link to your blog!

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