Prove your humanity

It seems it won’t be long before almost everything in our homes is connected to the internet. It’s already happening with our TVs and thermostats. And internet-of-things engineer Robert Blackwell is making the argument that your toilet should be next on the list of Pittsburghers’ connected devices. He’s invented a prototype of a device that he thinks could keep raw sewage from pouring into Pittsburgh’s rivers (more on that problem below). As part of our “Citizen Q” series—where we help answer your everyday questions about the environment—Robert wanted us to help him figure out if his “Happy Toilet” device could actually have an impact.

It’s probably safe to say that Robert Blackwell is one of the most faithful followers of the sewer authority’s Twitter feed. ALCOSAN uses it to send out alerts during big storms when there’s simply too much water for the 1950s-era sewer system to handle, and excess raw sewage has to be released into the rivers. Those notifications are mostly to keep boaters and swimmers safe. But Robert thinks the alerts could also be used to keep sewage out of the water altogether.

“Well, we’re familiar with ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.’ I’m going to add to that ‘if it’s lit, let it sit,’” Robert says. “So there will be just a little indicator light by your toilet. And if it’s on, you probably want to reconsider flushing your toilet.”

The indicator light on his “Happy Toilet” prototype is programmed to automatically light up anytime ALCOSAN sends out one of those “overflow” alerts. That light would be your reminder not to flush (yeah, even/especially if it’s brown)—at least not until the system can handle it.

Robert Blackwell working in his office at Pittsburgh's StartUptown. Robert says his "Happy Toilet" prototype was built using off-the-shelf technology that only cost about $20. Photo: Lou Blouin

Robert Blackwell working in his office at Pittsburgh’s StartUptown. Robert says his “Happy Toilet” prototype was built using off-the-shelf technology that only cost about $20. Photo: Lou Blouin

Robert admits that most people probably wouldn’t go for his idea of using their toilets as temporary holding tanks for human waste. Jeanne Clark, the public information officer at ALCOSAN, is among the playful detractors.

“As a public health organization, we can’t really recommend that people leave poop lying around the house,” Jeanne jokes. “I even recommend to people that when you flush, put the seat down. The aspiration from that flush can go like 7 feet.”

But she says Robert is on the right track.

LISTEN: “Can ‘Smart’ Toilets Keep Our Rivers Cleaner?”

“He just needs to think about two different things in the home. One is the dishwasher. And the other is the washing machine,” Jeanne says.

So what do the dishwasher and washing machine have to do with keeping human waste out of the rivers? Well, both of those appliances use a lot of water—a lot more water than a toilet. And Pittsburgh—like many American cities—has what is known as a combined sewer system, meaning everything from stormwater to what you flush down your toilet goes into the same pipes. So anything you can do to keep water out of the system—including not using your dishwasher or washing machine or even forgoing a shower—is going to help during overflow times.

“It’s about delaying use,” Jeanne says. “But you need to do it in a safe way. And frankly, I think psychologically people really wouldn’t buy into just having stuff sitting in their toilet for a day at time.”

The current incarnation of Robert's "Happy Toilet" protoype. Photo: Lou Blouin

The current incarnation of Robert’s “Happy Toilet” protoype. Photo: Lou Blouin

Jeanne says if Robert could have the overflow indicator light rigged up to a home’s other water-hungry appliances, his idea could make a big difference. Better yet, Jeanne says Robert could apply the same principle to a rain barrel. If he could rig it to hold the water it collects during a storm and then automatically release it once ALCOSAN’s Twitter gives the all clear, that would reduce even more flow.

In fact, Robert—who’s currently working on projects for a pool company—says he might just have the parts for that prototype lying around. In the meantime, keep flushing your toilets.


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