For a long time now, I've wanted to take a trip to India. I've spent lots of time preparing myself and my kids for this theoretical trip, and one element of that has been learning how to use a squat toilet. That's not something there is a lot of literature about, which initially surprised me. Then again, people tend to learn how to use their local style of toilet when they are quite young - before they can read. It's also a topic which is probably a bit awkward to talk about for adults - so on second thought maybe it's not surprising that there is a bit of a dearth of literature on the subject.
Part of an education in design is learning to express yourself clearly, and I find that it is a useful exercise to explain something you understand without language. For all these reasons, I've decided to write a formal design document explaining how to use a standard American toilet.
Components of a toilet
The toilet is made up of six external parts:
The bowl, the tank, the lid, the seat, the cover, and the flush apparatus.
The Flushing Apparatus
The flushing apparatus varies the most from toilet to toilet - many toilets use a hinged metal handle attached to the front or side of the tank, but some use a button, a pull chain, or a motion detector. It is not unusual for the precise mechanism to be unfamiliar or unclear, so don't be afraid to experiment. Regardless of the mechanism, once a flush is initiated it should be very obvious.
The second element which varies most is the tank. Most home toilets use a rectangular tank affixed directly above the rear of the bowl - such that a person sitting on the toilet might lean back on it.
However some tanks are placed higher on the wall, or even suspended from the ceiling. Some commercial locations do not have a tank at all - they use pressurized water, instead of relying on gravity to force the water into the bowl.
The cover is a removable top panel which allows easy access to the inside of the tank. This allows repairs to be made to the moving components of the flush apparatus. In most cases this cover (like the tank and bowl) is made out of solid ceramic - so it is extremely heavy.
The bowl is the largest element of the toilet - it is where everything ends up before you flush. Most toilets keep between 1-2 gallons of clean water in the bowl at all times, but some toilets remain dry between uses. The bowl also provides the structural strength which makes the toilet capable of supporting your weight during use. Cleaning the toilet bowl requires coming into contact with human waste, which most people find quite distasteful. The constant flushing keeps the bowl fairly clean, but regular scrubbing is still required. A clean toilet bowl is an excellent indicator of a tidy household.
The lid covers the bowl, preventing vapors from spreading to the rest of the room. This is lifted before each use, and typically closed after each use. Some people feel that leaving the lid up, or even removing the lid entirely, increases efficiency by removing two unnecessary steps from the process. Unfortunately for the rest of us, even one instance of a missing lid combined with a failure to flush can create an environment of very unpleasant odors.
The toilet seat sits between the lid and the bowl - and provides a place for users to sit while using the toilet. Seats are separate pieces from the bowl in order to facilitate easier cleaning of both components - seats swing up to allow access to the wider top of the bowl, and to the underside of the seat. It is considered polite for men who prefer to urinate standing up to lift the seat before doing so - to eliminate any chance of urine landing where other people sit. If you do this it is essential that you then close the seat afterward - building a good habit of always closing the lid will ensure that you do so. It is an infrequent - but all too memorable - occurence for someone to absent-mindedly sit down on a toilet with the seat left up - causing them to fall into the bowl.
Two final steps
Toilet paper is typically kept in easy reach of the toilet. After using the paper to clean yourself, you need to wash your hands briefly with soap and hot water. Toilet paper is designed to dissolve quickly when wet - you throw it into the bowl before flushing. This also means that toilet paper is NOT a barrier to germs and does NOT prevent germs from getting on your hands. Some misguided people will use excessive amounts of toilet paper to wrap their hands - but no amount of excess toilet paper can relieve you of the requirement to wash with soap and water afterwards. Toilet paper is meant to wipe away excess waste, not keep your hands clean. If you do not use the sink after flushing the toilet, you are embarrassing yourself and creating a health hazard for others.