A toilet surrounded by scientific equipment.

A lab focused on the humble toilet

Not all scientists are smashing particles, discovering new chemicals or exploring exotic environments. Some scientists strive to keep things working in your home. It takes a lot of science to test everyday objects, such as toilets, to make sure they work the way they should.

It starts when a group of people, including scientists and manufacturers, come together to write a standard. For example, “Without standards, you’re never going to be able to go to the toilet,” says Stephen Smith, a CSIRO scientist. “It’s going to leak and flood.”

Standards are very thorough. They list all the different aspects of a product that need to be checked. Stephen explains the standard for toilets in Australia: “It looks at the volume of water used, a flush that will wash away the waste, and safety.” The toilet needs to be strong so it doesn’t break when you sit on it, and it definitely needs to connect to the plumbing without leaking.

a toilet bowl with some blobby white snake things in it.

Flush testing!

Once there’s a standard, the next step is testing. And yes, that means scientists make fake poo! “In America, they make stools out of soybeans,” says Stephen. “We use a sausage skin, and we put a finger bandage over the top of that. It has to be a certain weight – it’s in between floating and laying on the bottom. Then we check to make sure it’s the right consistency.”

It takes many different tests to make sure a toilet is fit to task. Some checks even involve flushing telephone book paper and sprinkled sawdust. Only when it passes all tests is a porcelain throne considered worthy.

So hopefully you’ve got a newfound respect for standards. But why is this article obsessed with toilets? Stephen was recently awarded for his work developing the standard for vacuum toilets, such as those used on planes. Next time you sit on a high-tech toilet, think about all the science that makes it possible!

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