Sunday, June 10, 2007

City of Fort Lauderdale buys robotic public toilet for $250,000.

It speaks kindly to you, it soothes you with music, it cleans up after you.

It's not your mother. It's a restroom.

The automated public toilet that Fort Lauderdale plans to try out at the beach does the job of a whole crew of employees, but doesn't need health insurance. It locks up at night, and opens for your business in the morning.

It knows when you're inside. And if you're not moving, it worries that you might have fallen over dead. So it flings the door open and a siren screams.

It welcomes you when you walk in, and talks you through the experience, with soothing music adding to the ambience.

City commissioners voted Tuesday to pay $25,259 to an engineering firm to design the site and deal with state permits for a structure so close to the ocean. Only Vice Mayor Carlton Moore voted no.

Fort Lauderdale can expect to spend $250,000 to $350,000 for the robotic restroom with one commode, plus about $30,000 a year to service and maintain it. The city hasn't selected a manufacturer and will put out a request for bids. The commission then must vote to buy the restroom.

It's a little bit bossy. The robo-john gives you a prescribed number of toilet paper squares. Government officials will decide how many squares you get to start with, although if you insist, you can get more.

It's impatient, too. Don't dilly-dally. The automated public restroom's door flies open after a set number of minutes. Again, the timing isn't up to you; that's a call your elected city commissioners will make. But it warns you, first: "You have exceeded your time limit. Please leave immediately."

If you refuse, it sounds an alarm and calls the authorities.

The genius toilet seat retracts into the wall and cleans itself for the next user. Even the floor cleans itself.

They're common in other countries, self-proclaimed toilet expert Louis Herrera told city commissioners. Herrera is president of Public Facilities & Services Inc., a distributor of the toilets who also does the service and maintenance. In the United States, though, they're just starting to trickle in.

The automated toilets, which can be used as pay toilets or offered for free, are used in Atlanta, Seattle, New York and San Francisco.

But not in Florida yet.

Fort Lauderdale commissioners said they'll decide later whether to charge potty patrons or let them use it for nothing. The hurricane-proof one-room commode would be built next to the city parking lot at Sebastian Street and State Road A1A, Fort Lauderdale officials agreed, on a beach strip sorely lacking in public restrooms.

"This is the grand experiment some folks on the beach have been asking for," said City Manager George Gretsas.

Former City Commissioner Tim Smith launched an e-mail survey recently, asking city residents to send him examples of wasteful government spending. This one will top the list, he said.

"Out here in the real world, you just wonder have they lost their mind?" he said.

The automated restrooms run about twice the price of traditional public ones, Herrera acknowledged. But he argues that in the long run, the automated version is cheaper, because it's self-cleaning and vandalism-resistant.

The bathrooms would be purchased with tax money from the beach Community Redevelopment Agency, a city fund.

The presentation at Tuesday's city meeting got people thinking about what-ifs.

What if you sit really still on the toilet? Will it think you've collapsed and need paramedics? Will it open the door, alerting passers-by with an alarm?

No, Herrera assured commissioners. You can't fool this toilet. If you're alive, "it will sense you," he said.

What if it breaks?

Herrera said if the restroom has a problem, "it calls us."

What if you get stuck in there, and the door won't open?

Got that covered, Herrera said. There's an escape hatch in the roof.

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