Decoding Design

The toilet, re-imagined: four water-saving designs

The toilet, re-imagined: four water-saving designs

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The centuries-old flush toilet design is getting an overhaul, with an eye toward water and energy conservation.

Saturday is World Toilet Day, an annual awareness-raising campaign sponsored by the World Toilet Organization and aimed at improving santitation access for the 2.6 billion people around the world who lack it.

A number of NGOs are working to develop low-cost, low-power systems to address the public health dangers and environmental degradation that comes from poor sanitation in the developing world.

But there's also a fair amount of innovation underway to improve the design and efficiency of the conventional flush toilets. Herewith, a quick survey of some of these re-imagined toilets.

More than dual flush

Old-school toilets can use as much as five gallons -- five gallons! -- with each flush. To reduce that obvious waste of a precious resource, a number of manufacturers are offering dual-flush toilets. One lever is pushed for a "number one" and the other lever -- which sends markedly more water into the bowl -- is used to flush poop.

But Caroma, an Australian manufacturer of commercial and residential bathroom products, has one-upped the dual flush toilet with its Profile Smart 305.

Yes, that is a sink you're seeing, integrated into the toilet. Here's the way it works. After you do your business, you use the sink to wash your hands. The sink uses fresh water, but that water is then stored in the tank as grey water. And then when the toilet is flushed, it uses the grey water instead of more fresh water.

The unit also includes a dual-flush, so it is already designed for efficiency.

But the use of the integrated sink only serves to boost the efficiency by eliminating the need to pump fresh water into the bowl.

And think about that for a minute: fresh, clean water, straight from a wastewater treatment facility, is pumped into the billions of flush toilets in around the world. There's no reason for that and it not only wastes the water, it wastes the considerable energy that went into cleaning and delivering that water to the building in the first place.

But the ergonomics on this model are a bit funky. Seems like it would be easier to use if the sink was positioned perpendicular to the bowl...and maybe a was a tad bigger.

And that's just what the Spanish company Roca did with its W+W (for wash basin and water closet) design. As with the Caroma, the water that goes down the sink's drain is collected, filtered, and then used to flush the toilet. But with the sink facing out from the toilet seat, it has a more separated look and, I would imagine, feel. In fact, it wouldn't feel odd to use the Roca basin for, saying, tooth-brushing.

The Roca model also uses an energy-saving faucet design. The handle always opens the faucet into a cold water position, so that the user can't inadvertently create demand for hot water unless he or she really wants to.

The DIY approach

But replacing a perfectly good toilet with the a new one like the Caroma or Roca is a bit wasteful in its

own right. But fortunately there are ways to recycle grey water for your sanitary needs through retrofits. Kentucky-based WaterSaver Technologies sells a solution call AQUS which collects water from your bathroom sink and pipes it into the water reservoir in your toilet. The company says the sink doesn't need to be located right next to the toilet for the system to work, because it can pipe the water across the room and into the toilet.

There are a couple down-sides to this approach, though. The holding tank eats up storage space under the sink, and the system needs to power to operate, so you'll need a spare outlet.

If space is as great a concern as water savings, there's this Yanko Design solution that combines not only the sink and toilet into a single unit, but tosses in a mirror, a mini table and a....espresso cup holder? That's what this design appears to offer:

In any case, the centuries-old flush toilet design is getting an overhaul, with an eye toward water and energy conservation. And that's a good thing.

Photos: Flickr/Britt Selvitelle, Caroma, Roca, WaterSaver, Yanko Design

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure