June 19, 2007

Crapper Automation

Posted by Ben Simo

Mechanization best serves mediocrity.
- Frank Lloyd Wright

Automation in public restrooms is becoming commonplace. The restrooms at my workplace have recently been remodeled and automated. The lights turn on and off automatically. The toilets flush automatically. Soap dispenses automatically. Faucets turn on and off automatically. Paper towels dispense automatically.

All of the above appear to be good candidates for automation. Automation in the restroom is supposed to improve cleanliness, reduce maintenance, and cut supply costs. However, I am not certain that this is true in implementation. I have found the following bugs in our newly automated water closets.

  • I have to walk about ten feet into the restroom in the dark before the lights come on.

  • It has been reported that if one spends too much time seated on the throne, the lights will turn off leaving the occupant to finish their business in the dark.

  • The paper towel dispensers spit out towels when someone walks by the dispenser.

  • The faucets come on when I stick my hand under the neighboring automatic soap dispenser but the water flow stops by the the time I get my hand to the water. I then have to remove my hands from the sink and put them back under the faucet.

  • If I'm not quick enough, the soap dispensers drop the soap into the sink instead of on my hands.

  • The water temperature is often too hot or too cold -- and there's no way to adjust it.

  • Sometimes the soap dispenser drops soap on my clean hands as I remove them from the sink; requiring that I wash again.

  • The paper towel dispenser spits out either too much or two little towel. One sheet is not enough to dry my hands but two is more towel than needed.

  • Using two too-large towels contributes to trash receptacle overflow.

  • It is difficult to retrieve items accidentally dropped in the sink without engaging the soap and water. I hope no one ever drops a cell phone or PDA in a sink.

None of these automated tasks are particularly sapient processes. However, design and implementation flaws in the automation have helped create new problems. Automation that was designed to save time and money can end up costing more if it is not properly implemented. A single mistake can be perpetually amplified by automation.

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
- Bill Gates

The privy automation reminds me of the time I installed a home automation system in a former home. I installed an automatic doorbell that would ring when people stepped on my porch. I put some lights on motion detectors so they'd automatically go on and off as people entered and exited rooms. I set other motion detectors to turn off manually-engaged lights some time after the last detected motion. Outside lights were configured to not come on between sunrise and sunset. My bedroom lights came on just before the alarm clock went off. I could turn lights on and off with a remote from anywhere in the house. I had a single button I could press when leaving the house that turned off all the lights.

My home automation required a great deal of tweaking after it was installed. I discovered that I needed motion detectors at both ends of the hallway to make the lights come on before I got half way through the hall. I learned that turning off lights in the bathrooms and bedrooms based on motion was a bad idea. I had to reconfigure outdoor motion detectors to prevent the lights and doorbell from going on when cats walked across the front yard. It took a few months to get everything configured as I liked it. By the time I had everything tweaked right, my electric bills had dropped by 20%. I was happy with this automation and it paid for itself in a couple years -- plus I had fun playing with the gadgets.

Whether we are automating toilets, towel dispensers, household lights, or software testing tasks: good design, implementation, and testing are a necessity. In my experience, intelligent application is more important than the tools.

I'd like to hear your automation success and failure stories. Please share them here.