“One day at a time” is a phrase people use to instill a sense of patience during times of change. It helps someone focus on the moment at hand and do what they can right now. We may have a vision of how we would like things to change, but if our expectations are unrealistic, the pace of change can be daunting and feel frustrating. Introducing new engineering technology or even a new type of plumbing fixture is no different. Take the bidet for instance.

Bidets are a different type of plumbing fixture that have gained popularity in recent years, partly due to our proclivity to hoard toilet paper. A bidet is an auxiliary plumbing fixture that directs a gentle spray of water at a person’s underside, cleaning the perineum (area between the scrotum and anus). Bidets were originally invented as a standalone fixture, in the days of chamber pots and before water closets had been invented. Before the advent of modern plumbing, frequent bathing was not common so it made sense to have a fixture that would wash your posterior after using the bathroom.

The origin of the word “bidet” actually means “pony” in French. If you imagine sitting on a pony you can visualize how a stand-alone bidet works. The more common style of bidet in recent years is the bidet type toilet seat which is an alternative to a traditional toilet seat that includes the added functionality of cleaning your posterior and anterior areas.

To be honest, I’ve never used a bidet or bidet seat myself. I could not even tell you if they work well. As a plumbing engineer, I just happen to be curious about them. I’ve seen a handful of plumbing products developed over the years and I know there is usually a period of healthy skepticism before things get fully adopted.

Points and counterpoints

From what I’ve heard, people were skeptical when the Energy Policy Act of 1992 was signed into law. This law mandated toilets flush 1.6 gpf instead of the previous 3.5 gpf. Some of the concerns were toilet bowls would not get cleaned properly and there could be issues with drain carry. Professional organizations banded together to form the Plumbing Efficiency Research Coalition (PERC), and a technical committee raised funds to actually study the drain carry of low flow fixtures. This is an example of professionals performing empirical research to inform us, the engineering community.

One of their findings regarding drain carry was the effect of toilet paper. A quote from the article on PHCPPros on the history of plumbing efficiency states: “Perhaps the most surprising result from the research was learning the significance of the wet tensile strength of toilet paper.”

We all have come to understand that toilets were engineered to clean themselves using less water. Other professionals responded, like PERC, to help understand the effects on the whole plumbing system. A question in my mind is: What if toilet paper was less of a factor? One of the claims of bidet style toilet seats is toilet paper is not required. A reduction in the use of toilet paper and adding wet wipes to our sewage system could help reduce blockages and costs at treatment plants.

A natural counter idea is that bidet seats use more water than water closets, so it defeats the purpose to employ a bidet for water conservation. The challenge to our way of living might be: By using a bidet style seat people’s habits would change, and they would shower and bath less. Ultimately, I think it comes down to what people want. Our jobs as engineers is to understand different technologies and to be able to help people make informed decisions.

As toilet paper became scarce, the interest in bidet toilet seats increased. My guess is that there is a segment of the population that would pay luxury prices to keep their bottoms clean. The way markets tend to respond to demand, bidet toilet seats are now commonly available to the public at retail outlets. Aside from the payback economics to go paperless, and some assurance that your hygienic routine would not be disrupted, the manufacturers of bidet toilet seats point out the advantages of not having to rub a dried slurry made out of tree bark on your bottom.

One of the most compelling advantages to me is for people with reduced mobility. If someone’s mobility is limited due to age, an accident, or some other issue a bidet toilet seat can help people maintain their own independence and dignity. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are popular with elderly people for this very reason.

Another claim of the benefits is the cleaning action is more gentle on skin that may be sensitive due to medical ailments such as hemorrhoids or constipation. The fact that bidets are hands-free may also limit infections such as urinary tract infections common in the elderly.

Bidets are not required by code, but some codes do have sections that address their installation. If you ever come across the opportunity to specify a bidet, you should pay particular attention to design it with proper backflow and water temperature. That is one area of the body you would not want anyone to experience scalding. As with the implementation of any plumbing fixture, public safety is the highest priority.

By no means should we make change just for the sake of change. If we, as engineers, understand the true merits of a product, we should be willing to give our clients and informed choice. Change typically happens incrementally. Even when we can visualize a better scenario, the steps it takes to get to the end goal happen just one step at a time. Just like life, we live it one day at a time, and before long, we look back in amazement at how far we have come.