Self-cleaning sinks, chemically altered bacteria-busting water swishing around the loo, and baths that can be programmed to fill up while you’re on your way home. These fantastical-sounding bathrooms of the future use technologies that are available today – and in some cases they are trickling down to mainstream homes and budgets.
Japanese company Toto has been at the forefront of cleanliness technology for decades. In the UK, it is best known for its Washlet, an electronic shower-lavatory (or bidet seat, as it’s sometimes known) with an automated washing and drying nozzle. Its latest model, the RX, features a sensor-operated lid and heated seat for ultimate hands-free comfort when using the loo.
Even the ceramic pan upon which the Washlet sits has a great deal of innovation behind it (it can be bought separately and topped with a “normal” lavatory seat). The pan features an ultra-smooth glaze that stops tiny particles of dirt and bacteria clinging to it, and a rimless design that shoots flushed water, tornado-like, around the bowl. The lack of a rim means there’s one fewer place for germs to lurk, plus it’s more economical with water usage, and quieter too.
“These features are not niche. Every toilet should have the basic criteria of hygiene, high performance and low noise,” says Floyd Case, Toto’s UK projects and branding manager. However, move up the scale and the technology gets more sophisticated.
Some of Toto’s models will mist the pan with electrolysed water, which has had a current passed through it, changing its chemical make-up to give it more power as a disinfectant, breaking down waste.
Top-of-the-range loos have a photocatalytic coating: a layer of titanium dioxide that decomposes dirt. Because the dirt-killing reaction only works with exposure to light, they have a UV beam inside that turns on when the lid closes. The technology is borrowed from the company’s wider corporate remit as a developer of industrial coatings, which are used on the façades of buildings to keep them clean. “We’ve taken a tiny bit of that technology and put it in the toilet to help kill bacteria,” says Case.
Anything that reduces our time spent cleaning the bathroom – and, perhaps more importantly, the amount of chemicals we use in the process – has to be a good thing. Many of Toto’s innovations can be found in other manufacturers’ products, too, as the technology becomes more mainstream.
Most top-end bathroom companies have their own version of the ceramic nano-glaze that smooths out tiny imperfections, and now it’s hit mid-range brands such as Britton. These coatings can’t get close to the level of self-cleaning that Toto’s all-bells-and-whistles models can, but they do make a difference: “As long as it’s looked after on a regular basis, the chances of any build-up are a lot more minimal,” says Fraser Holmes, Britton’s brand manager.
Technology in the bathroom isn’t all about hygiene and cutting down on the drudgery of housework. Adam Logan, technical services manager at bathroom product company Grohe, says that now “people are simply more open to trying new things. People are now coming round to the idea that bathrooms don’t have to be quite that boring.”
As more of us install internet-connected devices in our houses, Logan says that Grohe is “focusing quite heavily on the smart home market”. Its own version of the shower-lavatory can be controlled via an app, as can its huge spa-like shower, AquaSymphony, which has adjustable water effects, music and colour-changing lights.
It has also introduced digital leak detection with its Sense and Sense Guard products: the former is a hockey-puck-like disc that can be placed anywhere where there’s a worry about leaks (such as in the void under the bath). The latter is a digital water-monitoring system that is installed just after your stopcock, checking for drops in pressure that might indicate drips, and shutting your whole system down if there is a critical leaks that has the potential to wreck your house. Both communicate with homeowners via an app.
The rise of the connected home has lots of potential in the bathroom. Retailer Victoria Plum is now exclusively stocking SmarTap, which looks like a sleek thermostatic shower/bath controller, but is Wi-Fi enabled so it can be used via smartphone or a voice-activated system such as Amazon Echo. Turn on the shower while you’re still in bed, then stroll into your en-suite a few seconds later when it’s hit the right temperature. You can also programme different preferences for different needs (“run baby’s bath” or “post-gym shower” for example).
“People want spaces to be tailored to their own requirements,” says Giles Sutton, managing director of home technology installers James + Giles. “Better technology is about creating lots of customisable moods.”
This feeds into the growing idea that the bathroom should fulfil a range of tasks, not just be a mono-functional place to get clean. “In the morning you might want to be energised in an environment that helps wake you up and prepare you for the day; in the evening you just want to relax and forget about everything.
“Those are totally different things, and that’s where the technology really helps,” says Sutton. “You don’t have to worry about setting all these things up yourself, you can just push one button and the whole room configures to that particular mood."
Sutton’s work involves integrating all these elements across the home: not having separate apps for everything in the bathroom but having a single system that can do them all. He recommends Bathomatic, which is compatible with automation systems that work across the whole house, such as Crestron and Control4.
Bathomatic’s bath, called the Bathler, is a techie’s dream: not only can it be programmed to fill remotely and keep warm, but it can add a squirt of your favourite bubble bath, and has a pop-up television and a champagne chiller, integrated speakers and adjustable lighting.
If you don’t have the resources to install a whole-house technology system, just concentrating on bathroom lighting is a good start. “At the very least it should be dimmable, ideally in conjunction with a layered scheme. Then, it’s possible to totally transform the mood of the room at the touch of a button,” says Luke Thomas, design director of John Cullen Lighting. He also recommends sensor-activated lights at a low level, under a vanity unit or near the floor, providing subtle lighting for night-time visits to the loo that won’t make you wide-awake.
Other customizable lighting ideas include Roper Rhodes’ mirrors and cabinets, a selection of which now come with dimmable and temperature-changing lighting, operated by the touch-free infrared sensor. Bluetooth-enabled products with embedded speakers such as shower heads and vanity units are also becoming more widespread, allowing you to play your own music without needing to set up a separate audio system.
Lots of people might not like the idea of more technology in the bathroom. Shouldn’t these be spaces to get away from tech?
As some bathrooms can already feel a bit clinical, some of the slicker designs described here may amplify that aesthetic. But if it’s discreet and well integrated, technology should make the bathroom a more friendly, flexible and fun place to be.