Things That Do Not Work: Restrooms

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November 23, 2007

Nothing is more annoying in my day-to-day life than things that just don’t work. This is especially true of simple things that some moron decided to try to make better and instead made them more complicated and less effective at the same time.  And I have to pay for these innovations.


You know some of the things I’m referring to: automatic flushing toilets and water faucets, all modern electronic devices from clocks to thermometers, and plastic product packages that have probably caused more injuries than loaded hand guns. There are many, many more; I just can’t think of them right now as I’m trying to write this article. I will only have time to address the first set of stupid things that don’t work in this issue of ForthRightViews.


Let’s start with the basics. Simplicity is brilliance, and elegance lies at the confluence of function and form. F=ma and E=mc2 are the most important equations in physics, developed by two of the most insightful geniuses that ever lived: Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955). There is only one other man that lived on earth that I hold in higher esteem, and His brilliance out shines anything that our science and mathematics could ever hope to achieve.


Our human-animal technology is expanding at an exponential rate in the horizontal direction, while we seem stuck at our current vertical level. We still cannot tell where a massive hurricane will make landfall 24 hours after capturing and publishing the most beautiful satellite pictures of a perfect storm ever taken. People like you and me can even view its formation and progress in time-lapse photographs on the internet, but the best minds that money can buy still can’t predict which coastal city will be wiped out in time to evacuate the hapless residents that will be subjected to winds, rain and storm surges that no structures were designed to withstand. Then, after the storm has passed, we fumble the recovery efforts in a most pathetic way. Such is our command of nature and our ability to protect humankind from its ravages.


But thank goodness someone out there saw fit to develop and deploy other really important technologies. I can pee and/or poop in a public restroom without having to touch a flush handle, and I can wash my hands afterward without touching a faucet handle. Never mind that the only available toilet was already clogged with some other guy’s rubbish, and another slob peed on the toilet seat before I arrived. Frankly, our society would be far better off with the provision of more standard toilets that are maintained by proper janitorial attention. Foot-activated flush valves would do just fine.


Even if I am lucky enough to have access to a toilet stall or urinal[1] that contains working equipment, the logic built into the advanced flushing software seems to have been designed by someone that has never actually used a bathroom. The toilet motion sensor sends the signal to flush after I put the paper seat cover[2] in place and turn around to drop my pants, and many times it gets sucked down the drain pipe before I am able to use it. That’s effective.


The advanced flushing software applied in open urinals works a little better. After all, this is a simpler operation. Still, about 20% of them do not work at all, and some others flush while I am in mid stream and spray me with urinal water. Still, this advanced technology does not obviate need for regular janitorial services. Overall though, these devices are not too bad. I am just really glad that I can pee standing up.


After success at the toilet or urinal, I then move to the bank of sinks to wash my hands. Here again, I get to deal with some moron’s half-baked idea of how to improve the whole hand-washing operation. How did human civilization survive before this new technology was developed and deployed? I have not found one yet than actually supplies the right amount of water, at the right temperature, and delivers it on a flow schedule that meets my personal hand-washing needs. And I am not that picky. I feel lucky that day if the water does not splash out of the sink bowl and on my pants so I look like I wet my pants. Very often I end up waving my wet, soapy hands in a silly-looking, flailing motion to reestablish the flow, and sometimes it is still flowing after I have moved on the next step in this whole complicated hand-washing process. By the way, I use the soap if it is available, and about seven out of ten times it seems to contain some type of oily substance, which is the last thing I want to put on my hands; the whole point of washing is to remove oily residues. Also, I admit to being temporarily confounded by the operation of some soap dispensers, not knowing intuitively whether to push or pull the lever or exactly where and at what rate the soap solution will be expelled.


After washing my hands, I need to dry them. The best drying method uses one or two small clean paper towels followed by about 15 seconds of warm air flow from a hand dryer. If I can only have one of these, I choose the absorption strategy using paper towels, but then I need three to five of them. Even the best hand dryer does not work well enough to evaporate the water from soaking wet hands in the time that a normal person can invest in the whole hand-drying operation. Did the genius that directed the installation of this equipment not understand its operating limitations? If you spill water on a solid surface, do you reach for a heated air blower to dry it up? The forced convection effect of blowing hot air works pretty well to evaporate a thin film of water, only a few molecules thick, from a solid surface. Beyond that absorption is a much more effective method. Used together as described above, these two methods are really effective. Duh!


Finally, I have to exit the restroom and go about the other activities that make up my daily life. That door handle is a real problem. Its surface contains the concentrated nastiness of everyone else that used it before me. This includes the guy who peed on the toilet seat, and I am willing to bet he did not wash his hands afterward. Of course, I have already discarded the paper towel I used to dry my hands, and even if I still had it, what would I do with it after exiting the restroom? Some restroom entrance/exit designs use the serpentine corridor design rather than the swinging door. This is a step in the right direction, but it would work a lot better if the idiots entering while I am exiting could master the concept of walking on the right. I just hope they don’t drive like they walk.

[1] Is this not one of the worst words for an everyday appliance that there could be? I made this observation to a good friend of mine several years ago, and we ended up using a thesaurus to find better alternatives. This was enlightening. We thought the best acceptable alternative available was thunder mug.

[2] These paper seat covers are a welcome addition to public toilets.