Smart toilets arrive in US

Commodes with integrated bidets will begin selling under the American Standard brand name. In Japan, they already have apps and can play music.

By MSN Money Partner May 27, 2014 2:16PM
Credit: Courtesy of Lixil 

Caption: The Lixil SatisBy Eric Pfanner and Atsuko Fukase, The Wall Street Journal

Yoshiaki Fujimori wants to be the Steve Jobs of toilets.


Like iPhones, app-packed commodes are objects of desire in Mr. Fujimori's Japan. The lids lift automatically. The seats heat up. Built-in bidets make cleanup a breeze. Some of them even sync with users' smartphones via Bluetooth so that they can program their preferences and play their favorite music through speakers built into the bowl.


Three-quarters of Japanese homes contain such toilets, most of them made by one of two companies: Toto, Japan's largest maker of so-called sanitary ware, or Lixil Corp, where Mr. Fujimori is the chief executive.


Now Mr. Fujimori is leading a push to bring them to the great unwashed. In May, Lixil plans to add toilets with "integrated bidets" to the lineup of American Standard Brands, which Lixil acquired last year for $542 million, including debt.


While bidets have often served as a byword for Old World debauchery in the U.S., Mr. Fujimori said Americans would welcome bidet-equipped toilets into their homes once they see them sold under a familiar name. Few people realized they needed smartphones until Apple's (AAPL) iPhone came along. So it will be in the U.S. with American Standard's new toilets, Mr. Fujimori said.


"Industry presents iPhone -- industry presents shower toilet," Mr. Fujimori said in an interview at Lixil's headquarters in Tokyo. "We can create the same type of pattern."


Toto and Kohler, a U.S. manufacturer of bathroom fittings, have been selling toilets with bidet functions in the U.S. for several years. Beyond a niche market of Hollywood celebrities and early adopters, however, they feature more prominently in American bathroom humor than American bathrooms. The price, which can range up to more than $5,000 for high-end models -- more than 10 times the price of some conventional toilets -- is only one reason.


In a 2011 appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the actress Whoopi Goldberg called her Toto Washlet "the greatest invention on the face of the earth." Homer Simpson, on the other hand, merely looked bemused when, during a 1999 episode of "The Simpsons" that was set in Japan, a hotel toilet announced: "Welcome. I am honored to accept your waste."


Toto, which pioneered bidet-style toilets in Japan in 1980 with its Washlet line, entered the U.S. market in 1993. The company is proud of its heritage -- the Toto museum displays a urinal that was once installed in the General Headquarters of the Allied forces during the postwar occupation, alongside ornate ceramic chamber pots from Meiji-era Japan. Unlike Lixil, Toto is aiming to grow organically, under its own brand name, rather than giving the business a quick boost by acquiring another brand.


"Of course it's important to generate profits, but we believe having roots in a country and contributing to the local toilet industry is what we should do first," said Soichi Abe, general manager of Toto's international business group, in an interview at the company's headquarters in Kokura, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. "Then, we want to build trust and our brand in the region -- that's our DNA, passed down from our founder."


Toto declined to detail U.S. sales of Washlets but said they were growing twice as fast as the toilet industry over all. The Freedonia Group, a research firm, expects U.S. sales of plumbing fixtures and fittings, including toilets, to rise at an annual rate of 6 percent through 2017, to $12 billion.


Jay Gould, chief executive of American Standard, said the company aimed to sell $50 million of bidet-equipped toilets annually within three years. Toto's main toilet business had sales of $232 million in the Americas in the year ended March.


American Standard plans a $3 million to $5 million U.S. advertising campaign to promote its bidet-equipped toilets, Mr. Gould said. Ferguson, a U.S. plumbing distributor, has agreed to display the toilets at hundreds of showrooms across the country.


Toto has made deals with luxury hotels like the Kitano in New York to install Washlets in all their guest bathrooms. The company says consumers who discover the toilets in this way are buying them for their homes, where their friends learn about them, too.


Toto's U.S. arm has been playing down the cleansing wizardry of its Washlets and emphasizing the environmental benefits. Some Toto toilets use less than four liters of water per flush, one-third or one-quarter the amount of some conventional toilets.


Both Lixil, a diversified maker of building materials that sold about $3.6 billion of plumbing supplies in the 2012 fiscal year, and Toto, with revenue of 452 billion yen, or $4.4 billion, have had considerable success selling bidet-equipped toilets in South Korea and China, where they have become a symbol of upward mobility. Lixil also plans to begin selling them soon in Europe under the brand name of Grohe, a German maker of sinks and other fittings that Lixil recently bought for about $4 billion.


In Japan, both Lixil and Toto face a challenge from Panasonic, which is emphasizing features that it says will keep toilet bowls cleaner. A new model introduced in March automatically lowers the water level by three centimeters when the seat is lifted.


These kinds of features are seen as selling points in cleanliness-obsessed Japan, where wearing street shoes in private homes is a big faux pas. To Americans, however, Japanese toilets, with their menu of smartphone-like buttons arrayed alongside the bowl, can seem daunting.


"Nobody wants something so biologically mundane as going to the bathroom to be more complicated than it has to be," said Paul Goehrke, an analyst at Freedonia. "Right now, every high-tech toilet reminds me of R2-D2."


Mr. Fujimori maintained that once American consumers try such toilets, they won't go back.


"This improves your standard of living," he said. "It doesn't hurt you. People like comfort, they like ease, they like automatic. And people like clean."


More from The Wall Street Journal
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145Comments
May 27, 2014 4:31PM
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Smart phones, smart houses, smart appliances, smart cars and now smart toilets.....  And yet somehow, even with all this "smart" technology, we're dumber than ever.
May 27, 2014 3:54PM
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We can have smart phones and toilets, but our educational system is turning out a bunch of idiots!
May 27, 2014 3:41PM
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Wow, how have I survived  all these years without a smartphone-compatible toilet?

May 27, 2014 4:40PM
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LOL, Wow! No thanks! We have enough technology hackers in this world already, with our ipads, smart phones, computers, baby monitors, and God knows what else. The last thing I need to worry about is some disgusting creeper hacking my toilet too, geez!

May 27, 2014 7:19PM
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Back To The Future ,

Now it's programmed space-age toilets with frigging 'apps'. It's just hard to believe that everything has getting so damned complicated and so incredibly expensive. I would be very happy if I could somehow stumble upon a Time Machine, jump in, and push the button for around 1967. Life was a whole lot simpler then...a toilet was a porcelain fixture with a handle and it cost about 45 bucks ... not to mention that a dollar was really a dollar. What's more, everyone smiled a whole lot more in those days. Here's to plumbing sanity, and Peace to all ~

May 27, 2014 4:13PM
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what happens when it can't flush cause the electronics
 fail?
May 27, 2014 4:51PM
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help  my toilet sounds lke crap!!! oh wait the speaker is full of SHiiit
May 27, 2014 9:41PM
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Better make the U.S. model bigger than the Japanese model.  A lot bigger.
May 27, 2014 7:53PM
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who needs a heated seat, i got indoor plumbing, not an outhouse
May 27, 2014 8:13PM
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Add this to the list of other imported items sold in the US because we have become to lazy to manufacture items ourselves.
May 27, 2014 4:14PM
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the only sound mine would make is a choking sound just before it threw up...
May 27, 2014 4:01PM
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Would be interesting to see peoples sh#tter music playlists.
May 27, 2014 4:56PM
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Betting on the success of the iPhone for the projections for smart toilets isn't a good assumption: people replace their phones every few years, how often does someone get a new toilet?
May 27, 2014 4:49PM
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Might relieve brown streaky underwear!!! Make the wife HAPPY!
May 27, 2014 8:40PM
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Smart toilets huh? And I wouldn't be surprised if the NSA adds their contribution to this new and wonderful technology {like a microphone perhaps}. Maybe I'll get one of these techno toilets and make them an album.
May 27, 2014 5:27PM
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As will health care, I think Americans will be very late adaptors to this kind of technology. Right after the Nigerians and Pakistanis.
May 27, 2014 6:00PM
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So is there an app to clean the smart phone once its  accidentally dropped in the crapper
May 27, 2014 3:54PM
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Leave it to the Japanese to worry more about high-tech toilets than cleaning up Fukushima and containing the radiation.....
May 27, 2014 8:42PM
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Wow! A toilet that gives your butt a power wash and a blow dry!
May 28, 2014 11:42AM
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I definitely would not want a toilet with 'apps' but I would love one with a bidet.  Nothing like being clean and smelling good! 
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