A bus terminal. The county fairgrounds. A rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike. A Starbucks store in any large urban area. These are the kind of places where you might expect to find a restroom equipped with automatic-flush toilets — you know, those sensor-equipped commodes that enable you to do your business without having to lay a finger on a bacteria-encrusted handle or button.

Sure, they're a welcome sight for Purell-toting germaphobes who become skittish at even the thought of using the facilities at an outlet mall or minor league baseball stadium. But automatic toilets aren’t exactly renowned for their accuracy or efficiency. High-traffic public restrooms in the United States are collectively home to millions of automatic-flush toilets, most equipped with outdated sensor technology developed in the 1990s that render them oversensitive, overeager and prone to, well, jumping the gun.

Most of us have first-hand experience with these ubiquitous old-model johns that flush once, twice, sometimes several more times than they actually need to. Often, it happens when we're still sitting. Hey! Holy … ! I wasn’t  oh, nevermind. While it’s a minor annoyance for most, and a moment that sometimes involves a bit of unexpected splash-action  — hey, at least it’s flushing at all — a new article written by Autumn Spanne for The Guardian points out that the overzealousness exhibited by these no-touch toilets leads to a whole lot of wasted water.

But how much?

Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, equates it this way: “In terms of the absolute amount of water involved, it’s not large, but it’s sort of like a sprinkler in a public park that’s over-spraying the sidewalk and running into the street.”

One 2010 study conducted at a Tampa office building found that water consumption jumped by a staggering 50 percent after automatic-flush toilets were installed to replace older manual-flush models.

Many believe that the easiest way to put the kibosh on inefficient automatic-flush flush toilets is to simply replace old water hogs with new low-flow models (1.6 gallons per flush or less as dictated by current federal standards) equipped with improved sensor technology — toilets that are less liable to “phantom flush” and use less water to begin with. This, of course, is easier said than done as phasing out millions of toilets comes with a high cost.

Says Doug Bennett, a conservation manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency responsible for delivering water to every single loo in Las Vegas: “Modern automatic sensors are pretty reliable, but the problem is there’s so many of these devices from earlier generations still out there. At some point they won’t be available in the marketplace any more, but it’s a slow process. Just like it took a long time before you didn’t see Gremlins or Pintos on the road.”

Osann, however, disagrees, arguing that even the newfangled automatic-flush toilets are prone to the occasional misfire and shouldn't be regarded as a more efficient alternative to manual flushing.

As noted by the Guardian, the EPA’s WaterSense rating program — the Energy Star of sprinklers and showerheads — recently drafted new guidelines that would require flushometer-valve-style toilets found in commercial and institutional buildings to be 1.28 gallons per flush (gpf) or less — a 20 percent reduction in volume than the current federal standard of 1.6 gpf. The EPA estimates that if all 27 million flushometer toilets in the United States were replaced with new models, 41 billion gallons of water would be saved annually.

What the Guardian article surprisingly fails to point out is that flushometer-valve toilets aren’t necessarily the same thing as automatic-flush toilets. While many flushometer toilets are equipped with motion-activated flush sensors, others are not. Flushometer-valve toilets are simply the tank-less models with hardware that looks like this.

Because WaterSense’s proposed guidelines don’t specifically address sensor-equipped flushometer toilets, Osann believes that they shouldn’t be labeled as water-efficient: “We would not want to see the label attached to devices subject to phantom flush episodes that are clearly wasteful.”

While the thought of a world without touch-free toilets may strike fear into the hearts of many, it's highly unlikely that they'll disappear from the public lav landscape any time soon. And keep this in mind: that dive bar bathroom that was last thorough hosed-down during the Regan administration, might be just as active, bacterially speaking, as your own powder room.

Touch or no touch, public or private, always wash those hands, folks.

Via [The Guardian] via [Grist]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.