06/13/2010 12:07 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2011

Made In The USA: The Toilet Goes High Tech

Pop quiz: Can you name the only thing in your house that has one function, but an endless stream of nicknames?

Hint: the loo, john, crapper, throne, dunny, water closet, latrine, pot, can, lavatory, porcelain god, head, bog, commode, oval office, potty and (a new favorite) the thunder box.

We speak, of course, of the flush toilet -- the unsung hero of modern livability that quietly goes about its business handling our human dirty work. And yet, for all the names we give it, few of us ever give the toilet a second thought, so long as it's working.

Perhaps the time has come to take another look at the common toilet, because in recent years, there have been advances that make them cheaper, smarter, more efficient and, amazingly, a whimsical place to keep fish.

"We Are on a Mission"

Some 20 years ago, industrial designer Carl Brown saw the future of toilet technology while on a trip to -- where else? -- Japan. There he saw a toilet with a sink atop the tank that replaced the lid, bringing fresh water through the tank and disposing it in the bowl after users washed their hands. "I knew right then and there, this innovation had to make its way to the United States," says Brown, 51.

It took awhile, but today, Brown, Joseph Parker and John Benedict are manufacturing the SinkPositive retrofit system from a plant in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Both Parker, 55, and Benedict, 64, have a background in plastics, and the three men came together in 2007 to form Environmental Designworks, a sustainable design firm. The non-porous recyclable plastic sink is the company's flagship product, and the three men see it as a major step forward in green technology, even though it requires a substantial amount of consumer education.

"There is an ick factor," Parker says. "But the problem is that most people don't understand how a toilet works."

The SinkPositive works like this: Upon flushing, fresh water from the supply line -- the same that pours from a bathroom sink -- comes out of the faucet while the user washes his or her hands. The amount of water is the same as when a toilet tank gets refilled, but the "gray water" is drained from the sink into the bowl, which is then reused when the next person goes to the bathroom. It may sound a bit confusing, gross even, which is why the company's biggest selling point are live demonstrations like the one in this handy YouTube video.

The benefits of the SinkPositive, available as a "Standard" $109 and a "Deluxe" $129, are numerous:

  • By not requiring users to go through a second step of washing hands in a separate sink, water usage is greatly reduced. Wastewater is reused, saving gallons a day, and thus lowering water bills.
  • Arthritic users don't have to do battle with the hot and cold knobs because the water comes out of the faucet automatically, so it also benefits those confined to a wheelchair.
  • According to a 2009 study, only one in three men in the United Kingdom wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom, which is much nastier than recycling wastewater. Fortunately, the SinkPositive might start forcing their dirty hands. "It increases the frequency of handwashing," Benedict says. "The SinkPositive taunts you if you don't use it."
  • The sink is a retrofit that matches a typical garden-variety ceramic tank, including low-flow versions. "It works on existing models," Brown says. "So it doesn't fill landfills with old toilets."

The SinkPositive has been a hit in the green community, featured in places like San Francisco's environmentally friendly Good Hotel. The company does little marketing, relying more on word-of-mouth to sell the sinks through its website, eco-catalogs and retailers such as The Green Wagon in Nashville. Parker expects sales to grow about 10 percent this year at the six-person company, which won't consider manufacturing anywhere but the United States. "We all agree that it's the right thing to do," Parker says. "We take pride in employing people of the community, and we wouldn't get anywhere near the quality if the sinks were made anywhere else."

Looking ahead, the next SinkPositive product will be a wall-mounted version, as the company continues wiping away the notion that toilet innovation has reached its apex. "We are on a mission to be the leader in bathroom accessory technology," says Brown.

"The Most Fun Thing I've Ever Done"

Reducing water waste is also the mission of AquaOne Technologies in Westminster, Calif. The company was started by Richard Quintana, a former director of assisted living facilities, who was looking for a solution to the constant problem of toilets overflowing. Whether it was from simple leaks, or from residents placing items in toilets that didn't belong there, the standing water led to numerous slip-and-fall injuries. An inventor at heart. Quintana spent six years working on the H 2 Orb prototype. It's an electronic valve-monitoring system with a sensor in the bowl that recognizes when the water level is too high, shuts it off and alerts the owner of the leak with an alarm and an icon on the LCD screen. A second sensor can be attached underneath the toilet bowl to monitor a potential overflow and proactively shut off water to the tank.

COO David Parrish joined the company in 2005, after spending years in restaurant marketing and as president of a day-trading company. His hiring coincided with bringing the H 2 Orb to market. The products are sold wholesale to assisted living communities, universities (darn college kids have been known to intentionally flood rooms), and housing developments, such as a 1.2 million-unit Mexico City residence that's waiting for an official governmental go-ahead. The parts are purchased in the United States, shipped and partially assembled in China, then returned back home for final assembly of details like rubber and springs.

AquaOne estimates that more than 7 billion gallons of water are wasted every day in the United States. If untreated, a simple toilet flapper left open can cause major property damage if leaky water gets into the walls, foundation and neighborhood sewers. Parrish believes conservation is a growth market, and with simple "plug and play" retrofits, AquaOne is exactly the type of young nimble company that will be able to go with the flow. "We're able to adapt and change pretty quickly," says Parrish. The next Orb iteration, the "Golden Egg," will be geared toward toilets with lower water pressure.

Adapting on the fly is also why AquaOne was able to turn trade show hijinks into a quirky hit that's made the basic act of using the toilet a whole lot more entertaining.

The Fish 'n Flush is a two-piece aquarium toilet tank that gives people the thrill of finding Nemo while seeing a man about a horse. The idea basically started as a gag, something Parrish thought would be funny to unveil at the 2006 Kitchen and Bath Show in Chicago. AquaOne is a research-and-development company, so Quintana took on the challenge, knowing that the only prank worth pulling is one pulled right. After its unveiling, the Fish 'n Flush became the one fish tale that wasn't overblown. Crowds flocked, media outlets came calling, and orders started pouring in for an aquarium the company didn't even actually make.

"We had to get serious right away," Parrish says. "The manufacturing process was a nightmare." Through trial-and-error, they finally found a clear plastic -- the same kind credit cards are made of -- that was durable enough and see-through. Parrish says that was just part of the R&D. They weren't going ahead if there wasn't demand, so the year-long process included customer surveys, market research, hiring a marine biologist to help with the filtration system and even soliciting the thoughts of a few PETA members.

The Fish 'n Flush operates just like a normal aquarium -- there is a 2.5-gallon tank for fish, and an inner tank that connects to the toilet. It can hold fresh or salt water fish, and the $199 package includes everything except rocks, lights (available in the $224 package) and the aquatic creatures themselves.

The company has sold roughly 2,000 of the Fish 'n Flush, with only one return by an elderly couple who were vexed by the installation. Annually, the aquariums are a small drop in the overall $1 million-plus revenue at the three-person company -- but for a novelty, it's quite a catch. After a few years in his own home, Parrish says his teenagers still think it's cool. He recommends the tropically pretty Neon Tetra fish, and says it's fun to change up the backgrounds with holiday themes, pictures of the kids, colored lights or whatever tickles your clownfish bone.

"I hate to admit it, but the Fish 'n Flush is the most fun thing I've ever done," Parrish says. "People go into my bathroom and come out with a big grin on their face. It's a blast. I had a party based around my toilet. Who does that?"

And if things don't work out with your fishy friends, Parrish points out it's always cradle-to-grave in one short leap.

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/13/10.