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Paul Thorn, MD of Washware Essentials has spent 25 years at the cutting edge of washroom design, and looks forward to the next generation of the smart bathroom.
The Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more and more ubiquitous by the day. According to research from IT analysts Gartner, there will be some 8 billion devices connected to the Internet of Things by the end of 2017 – an increase of 31% on 2016.
Increasingly, we’re beginning to realise that IoT technology has the potential to profoundly change the way we live, both at home and in the workplace. A combination of big data, new tech, the IoT and increasingly widespread access to handheld devices means that intelligent, sustainable building design is more and more achievable. Those looking to manage energy costs, efficiency and in-building comfort are finding that the future looks rosier thanks to the IoT- this includes the humble bathroom.
Bathrooms are probably the last things we think of when we talk about high-tech gadgetry – but as we’ll discuss in the following article, the trend for smart bathrooms is gathering pace, and the implications of technology on building design and how humans interact with their workspaces and home spaces is significant.
What is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things refers to the vast, interconnected network of everyday and specialised items that are linked to the internet, and eventually, to each other. Heart monitors, toys, heating systems, front door bells, printers, personal fitness trackers- the list is seemingly endless.
The concept of connecting everyday objects to the internet has actually been around since 1989, when the trailblazing software developer John Romkey connected a toaster to the internet at an exhibition. Romkey’s stunt created quite a buzz at the time, but it’s only now, some twenty years later, that networking technology has caught up with the idea’s enormous potential.
Once a device is connected, it both receives data (meaning that it can be controlled and updated remotely) and transmits data (sending information such as remaining battery life). One example of this in the home or workplace setting is a ‘smart’ refrigerator that keeps an inventory of the items stored inside it, and automatically orders more of whatever items are running low.
Gartner estimates that the total number of devices connected to the IoT will reach more than 20 billion by the year 2020. A large chunk of these are likely to be based on how we live and incorporated into home and office design, with ‘smart’ bathrooms increasing in popularity.
The bathroom of the future
One of the most exciting developments in the world of IoT tech is the home automation system. These products at a basic level let you control IoT-connected lighting and heating systems from an app on your smartphone.
You could use such a system to set a timer that switches on the underfloor heating and towel warming racks 15 minutes before you wake up, ensuring that the bathroom is nice and toasty by the time you take your morning shower. Or, if you were feeling particularly decadent, you could use the app to dim the bathroom lights without even having to leave the bath.
Digital bath-fillers regulate water temperatures so that you run the perfect temperature bath first time. You pre-select the temperature, press a button and let the system do the rest- ‘thermostatic, one touch bathing’ at your fingertips, as one retailer claims. There is also an increasing selection of digital diverters available for shower systems to allow the same control over flow and temperature.
There are smart toothbrushes that collect information about your daily brushing habits and relay the data to a smartphone app, which can then give you handy tips and feedback on your oral hygiene.
Smart weighing scales go beyond simply telling you how much weight you’ve put on over Christmas – they can now measure things like BMI, body fat and even your heart rate, giving you insights into your overall fitness levels. Scales like this can even spot red flags such as stiffening arteries and high blood pressure.
Toilets are also getting the IoT treatment. Smart toilets utilise sensors that detect when and in what manner the toilet has been used and flush accordingly, helping to cut down on water usage and even insuring against those terrible people who inexplicably ‘forget’ to flush. The fact that the flushing process is completely hands-free also reduces the risk of cross-contamination and disease transmission, making them a lot more hygienic than ordinary toilets.
Certain high-end models such as the self-cleaning New Waves Smart Toilet from Ove come with a whole host of futuristic features, including smart seat warming, leak detection, a deodorizing system, and even the ability to play music from phone via Bluetooth.
Smart bathrooms in the workplace
In an office context, IoT-connected sensors could send data to a centralised office heat map, showing whether or not the facilities are being used.
The data accumulated and compiled by such devices could also be of great use to office landlords and facilities managers. Examining footfall data would allow them to easily identify opportunities for improving the efficiency of their buildings, such as by repurposing seldom-used bathrooms and putting the space to more profitable use, or reducing queues outside high-traffic washrooms by installing extra cubicles.
Similarly, the Internet of Things could help a business to enhance its green credentials. A smartphone app that measures water usage could make suggestions on how to save water, and even implement them automatically. Automatic flushing cisterns fitted to urinals in commercial premises could be programmed to flush less frequently overnight or during periods of inactivity such as seasonal holidays.
By only ordering refills when stocks are running low, smart soap and toilet paper dispensers help cut down on the fossil fuels used in storage and transportation, making them environmentally friendly as well as convenient. An automatic lighting system could use sensors to detect whether or not the room is occupied and adjust the lighting accordingly.
Smart Buildings: an installation and maintenance headache?
Amid all the excitement over energy-saving, better performing buildings and increased worker or resident happiness, it’s easy to overlook the potential pitfalls of an IoT-connected bathroom – but connecting all of our fixtures and fittings could present some management issues.
Installation, maintenance and repair seem to be the largest stumbling blocks when considering a smart retrofit or new smart installation. There is a fear that managers, plumbers and contractors will need to know as much about firewalls and TCP/IP architecture as they do about U-bends and flanges.
Smart tech installers argue that their technology in fact makes repair easier, as so much data is available on a diagnostic level. Smart systems often alert managers when there is a problem, so that it can be fixed quickly. Providers also reassure us that systems can be easily managed in-house with some training, and without the need for an in-depth understanding of IT or computer programming.
The future’s bright
On balance, the benefits to employers, building managers, and the public in general are far-reaching. Happier people tend to be more productive people, and this can save businesses a lot of money. Although the washroom or bathroom might not be an obvious place to start, it makes sense to use technology where available to improve our lives on a day-to-day basis, and nothing is more day-to-day in terms of usage than the bathroom.