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The science of the city: Two bets on public bathrooms

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Posted on: September 15, 2022

By Paul Ruffins

Hyattsville and Mount Rainier are experimenting with two radically different technologies to answer the ancient question “Where to find a bathroom?”  

In September 2020, the Hyattsville City Council authorized $240,000 to purchase two Portland Loos for Heurich and Hyatt Parks. 

Brentwood’s new throne
Photo credit: Paul Ruffins

And, right outside Mount Rainier City Hall, near 34st Street and Rhode Island Avenue, stands Maryland’s first semi-permanent test site for the Throne. The Throne is a solar-powered high-tech public toilet engineered in California, but manufactured in nearby Brentwood.

Jessica Heinzelman, a co-founder of Throne Laboratories, explains that “bathroom access is a much worse problem in the U.S. than Europe or Japan because their citizens are used to paying to use public toilets. We think that public bathrooms should be free, but they are terribly underfunded, so they’re difficult to find.”

An Aug. 30 Google search for “Hyattsville Md public bathrooms” found zero within city limits. Despite our greater local knowledge, the Hyattsville Life & Times could only identify four  public restroom locations: the Hyattsville Municipal Building, the library on Adelphi Road, the community center near 40th Place in Driskell Park, and a portable toilet east of the 38th Street Neighborhood Park. 

Public bathrooms are rare because they’re expensive. At best, they must constantly be cleaned and resupplied with toilet paper and soap. At worst, they’re filthy magnets for crime and vandalism. 

However, there is a growing workforce that doesn’t operate from home or offices, such as Uber and Amazon delivery drivers, who need restrooms. Security concerns often make them unwelcome in public buildings like fire houses or police stations.

In 2008, Portland, Ore., developed its patented Portland Loo to address serious problems with unattended public bathrooms.  

Twenty-four years earlier, Seattle paid $5 million for five high-tech public bathrooms that purportedly cleaned themselves after every use. However, by 2008, The New York Times wrote that the Seattle bathrooms “had become so filthy, so overrun … that although use was free of charge, even some of the city’s most destitute people refused to step inside them.” Part of the problem was that they provided a lot of privacy for illegal activities, and people left so much trash in them that the automatic floor sweepers couldn’t work. Seattle sold the million-dollar toilets for an opening bid of $89,000 each. 

The Portland Loo, pictured [at left], was deliberately designed not to be too private or comfortable, but functional, nearly indestructible and easy to clean. It’s made of stainless steel with angled louvers at the bottom and open louvers at the top. The most basic model has no mirror to be smashed and no inside washbasin, so people can’t use it to wash their clothes. These Loos are in use in approximately 20 different cities.

So why are Hyattsville’s Portland Loos still in storage? Sales materials drastically underestimated the cost of installation, noting, “Utility work (water, sewer, electric) $22,000-$25,000 — Foundation work runs $7,000 to $9,000.”

In June 2021, the city council approved $20,614 for a firm just to survey the exact locations for the Loos. In August 2022, it received a bid of $185,000 to attain permits for and design the water and sewer hookups. The bid did not include the cost of constructing the cement foundations or installing plumbing. The electrical work for just one Loo at Heurich Park was estimated at $19,700. Hyattsville Department of Public Works Deputy Director Hal Metzler reports that the purchase of the Loos was made separate from the installation, as the installation costs are an eligible expense to be reimbursed under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The city hopes to have them installed by the first half of 2023.

In contrast, the Throne bathroom in Mount Rainier is not indestructible stainless steel. The interior resembles the comfortable bathrooms on trailers people rent for large parties. Like a port-a-potty, the Throne requires no electrical or sewer connections and can easily be moved by truck. Because it was developed during the pandemic, it is completely touchless; solar-powered sensors open and close the door, turn on the lights, run the water and flush the toilet. It’s so much like a residential bathroom, the question is how will it possibly survive?

Heinzelman says the solution is connectivity and technology. “A very small number of users create the vast majority of problems. The Throne is free, but you need a cell phone to unlock the door, and everyone is asked to rate the cleanliness of the unit after every use. If a cell number is abusing the facility we can lock them out.” The unit can monitor if it is malfunctioning, or being vandalized or if someone is inside for a suspiciously long time. At the request of the Mount Rainier police, it closes at 11 p.m. 

Heinzelman notes that, in the future, an optional card reader could allow homeless people to use the Throne through access cards issued by churches or social service agencies.

What about the cost? Heinzelman estimates it would sell for approximately $70,000 or about half the cost of a Portland Loo, which she points out, might cost another $150,000 to install. The Throne must be regularly pumped out, cleaned, and restocked approximately every 100 flushes. That might run $25,000 a year; the maintenance on a Portland Loo is estimated at $11,000 to $12,000 a year. Heinzelman notes that Throne Labs, which was only founded in 2020, hasn’t worked out its business model yet. Other companies have funded quality public bathrooms through advertising revenues. 

A Portland Loo installed in Harvard Square, in 2016, at a total cost of approximately $320,000.
Courtesy City of Cambridge, Ma.

How is the Throne being received? Mount Rainier City Councilmember Jimmy Tarlau feels that so far, it’s been a success. “It’s free to the city as a demonstration project, and the bus drivers particularly seem to love it,” he said. “They had an arrangement to use city hall [restrooms], but the Throne is open much later.” 

Tarlau does note some downsides. “It isn’t ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant, so we can’t use it indefinitely, but the company is working on an accessible model. Some people on the local listserv have complained that homeless people might not have phones, and that monitoring how long you’re in it might seem creepy. But these things can all be worked out. I’m happy we’re at least trying to solve a problem that other places have ignored.”  

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