We Americans adore our smartphones. We love our smart cars. But when it comes to owning a smart toilet — well, we're not so sure about that.
But apparently we're changing our minds. Attachable bidet (pronounced bih-DAY) seats — hands-free, high-tech marvels that you can install on your existing throne to gently wash and dry your private parts — are growing in popularity, particularly with boomers upgrading the bathrooms in their empty nests, or splurging on their new, downsized digs.
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The seats also can be a lifesaver for older people who need help using the toilet, says Mary Tinetti, M.D., head of geriatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine.
Toto, the Japanese company that's the world's largest manufacturer of bidet-style toilets and add-on seats, has seen U.S. sales of its Washlet seats steadily increase since they were introduced in the United States in the 1990s. (In Japan, the Washlet is so ubiquitous that its name has become virtually synonymous with the word toilet.)
Although David M. Krakoff, head of North American sales for Toto, won't reveal exact figures, he says sales have grown annually by nearly 20 percent for the past decade. Sales spiked 50 percent in 2010 with the introduction of new models and showrooms.
It hasn't hurt that the Washlet has its vociferous fans among celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg, who installed one in each of the six bathrooms in her New Jersey mansion and yakked about it on The View, as well as Bryant Gumbel, Howie Mandel and Brad Pitt, according to Toto.
The Kohler Company, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer, introduced what it calls "toilet seats with bidet functionality" in 2006. Although the company also won't reveal sales figures, spokesman Shane Allis confirms an increase in the "overall bidet market."
The devices, which run from $650 to $1,800, have remote-controlled retractable wands that spray well-aimed, warm, aerated water to clean you front and back. A dryer emits warm air, which reduces or eliminates the need for toilet paper, and an air purifier absorbs any unpleasant odors. The lid even closes quietly when you're done — a function one wag called "the marriage-saver."
In addition, nearly every option can be customized, from the temperature of the seat, water and air, to the pulsating of the spray and the speed of the dryer. Depending on the model, you can also have a lighted bowl to guide you in the dark. Plus, the seats can save you money, both on toilet paper and water, because they often require less water to flush.
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Health experts say bidet seats are better for maintaining good hygiene, particularly for those who have hemorrhoids or physical mobility issues. They're especially helpful for seniors who may have some physical limitations that make "wiping difficult or painful," says Yale University's Tinetti. The better cleaning you get from bidet seats may also help reduce the bacteria that cause urinary infections among older women, Tinetti adds.
Although Kohler has a variety of products it calls "aging in place solutions," Allis says the bidet seats "are being used across all age groups."
"Some see them as a way to use less toilet paper and be environmentally friendly, while others see it as an overall hygiene improvement and a way to stay in their home longer," he says.
Cheryl Smarr with the Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting showroom in Austin, Texas, says she's selling more bidet seats "with all the amenities" to couples in the 50-plus age range, and not just because the wives want them. "We have as many of the husbands requesting the bidet seats as we do the wives," she says.
Debbie Nassetta, an interior designer in Laguna Niguel, Calif., says she's been surprised by men's enthusiasm for the smart-function toilets. "Men are definitely more interested. Maybe men just like the engineering of it."
Toto's Krakoff says both men and women are fascinated by what he calls "a better kind of toilet." He's seen what happens when people come to his home for dinner and use the guest bathroom, which just happens to have a Toto Washlet.
"You know how people at parties congregate in the kitchen to talk?" asks Krakoff. "In my house, they congregate around the bathroom to talk about the Washlet. And I know that once they use it, they'll want to have one."
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