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Bathroom Design Ideas: Steam Showers and High-Tech Toilets
Invest in high-tech features to save water and increase enjoyment
“Toilets are something no one really wants to talk about, but they have to be talked about,” says Peggy Card.
Carolyn Thomas agrees: “The toilet is the most important thing in the bathroom. You can deal with a faucet that doesn’t work perfectly, but when the toilet doesn’t work well, that’s a major problem.”
For a while in the 1990s, they didn’t always work well—sometimes requiring several flushes to remove all the waste. That was after Congress mandated, starting in 1994, that manufacturers change the amount of water used in a standard flush from 3.5 gallons to 1.6.
Says Dee David: “People have the heebie-jeebies about toilets not flushing, because at one point they didn’t work well. But now they do.”
In the early days after the congressional mandate, the Japanese manufacturer Toto dominated the high-end toilet market because its products worked very well. Toto is the world’s largest toilet maker.
In the past few years, Thomas says, other companies have reengineered their bowls and trapways—the two things that make a toilet work. She says Kohler now has very good options, too.
While David still uses a lot of Toto products, she says that in the past year American Standard came out with a terrific toilet in its Town Square line.
In Consumer Reports’ most recent ratings of toilets, in August 2009, the top choices were by American Standard and Kohler—American Standard Champion 4, Kohler Complete Solution Cimarron, and Kohler Highline Comfort Height.
Both Consumer Reports and Dee David consider the Kohler Cimarron K-3609, which costs $375, a best buy. It uses 1.28 gallons a flush, meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for its WaterSense program, similar to the Energy Star label for appliances. For those who want to save even more water, some dual-flush toilets use about 0.8 gallons for liquid waste.
Before buying any toilet, you may want to check its MaP (maximum performance) test result. The MaP project, a voluntary procedure developed by water-efficiency and plumbing-fixture experts, has tested more than 1,600 toilets to measure how much simulated waste—soybean paste is used in the test—is eliminated in a flush. You can find the results at map-testing.com.
What are other factors to consider when shopping for toilets? Comfort-height models, with rims about 16½ inches off the floor, are most comfortable for most adults. Elongated bowls are also more comfortable, although they can be a tight fit in small bathrooms.
European-style toilets that have tanks concealed behind the wall look sleek and are easier to clean. But these can be installed only when you have at least six inches of interior wall space. “Most houses don’t have that,” Thomas says, “unless you’re building a new house or doing serious remodeling.”
Union Hardware sells one in-wall toilet by Geberit that can fit in a smaller space.
Some commodes come with such bells and whistles as heated seats, bidet functions, music, dryers, and even alarms that sound if you get stuck on the loo. They can cost as much as $5,000.
Sally Criblez, showroom manager of Union Hardware in Bethesda, says if customers want any extras, they more often buy a bidet seat that can be attached to an existing toilet. Those cost $800 to $1,500 at Union Hardware, requiring just an electrical outlet.
Dee David does caution that bidet seats are harder to clean because there’s more gadgetry to wash around.
One item bathroom designers see little interest in is separate bidets.
“No one ever asks for them,” Carolyn Thomas says. “All of the bathrooms in the Watergate condos had bidets. But when we renovate them, we usually take them out.”
Washingtonians seem in a hurry. Which may be why few take the time to linger in a tub.
What they do have time for is a shower. And what many are interested in these days—particularly baby boomers and weekend warriors with aching backs and sore muscles—is a steam shower, which combines a steam room and shower in one space.
“People are doing more steam showers than they used to,” says Carolyn Thomas.
They’re part of the trend of making bathrooms spa-like. One requirement is that the space be enclosed from floor to ceiling. Thomas says she’ll often use glass panels to seal the space and install an over-the-door window that can tilt to let steam out after use.
With a steam shower, you can sit on the shower bench and enjoy a muscle-soothing steam, then turn on the shower to rinse off.
This article first appeared in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.