Why aren't there more stainless steel toilets?
October 3, 2010 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Is there a good reason that we use (in the U.S.) porcelain toilets almost exclusively instead of another material, particularly stainless steel? Stainless steel is lighter than porcelain, isn't it? So I would think it would be cheaper to ship and easier to clean, making it a no-brainer green solution.
posted by pmed to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Toilets used to be made of wood until around the turn of the last century when they moved to porcelain, so you could see if it was clean or not. Indoor toilets were kind of a hard sell because of the miasma theory of disaster - that "bad air" caused sickness - and having a pipe directly from your house into the sewer unnerved a lot of people. The all-white, all-ceramic and easily cleanable bathroom helped sell the public on the idea.

I'm also not sure if steel is greener than porcelain.

Plus, aesthetic issues.
posted by The Whelk at 8:25 AM on October 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

It is easier to form porcelain than steel. You simply pour the slip into a mold and bake it.
posted by fake at 8:27 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Porcelain toilets are also cast with the drain "trap" integral to the design. Doing that with stainless sheeting would be difficult. Your toilet would also have a lot of seams that would collect crud.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:33 AM on October 3, 2010

Even if a stainless toilet would be lighter than a porcelain one, why on Earth would that make it any easier to clean?

Shipping is cheap.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:33 AM on October 3, 2010

Toilets on planes and trains are stainless. Stainless is a hard metal and it's expensive to form it and machine it, so you'd be using more tools and electricity to make a toilet, negating any real gains in shipping efficiencies I'd reckon.
posted by glip at 8:35 AM on October 3, 2010

The major use-case for stainless steel toilets seems to be prisons. Here is Albert Sterling company of Texas page on stainless fixtures, and their page specifically on fixtures for prisons.

The neat thing those prison designs offer is the integration of hand-lav and toilet into a single pedestal fixture. I was looking at a Caroma fixture that attempted the same thing (in porcelain), and looked too 'bolted-on' and difficult to reach across the bowl to the sink. But it routed the wash water from the lav to tank for the next flush.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 8:47 AM on October 3, 2010

Due to the cost and complexity of making a stainless steel toilet, the cost of manufacture would negate the cost of shipping. Also, the vast majority of shipping is by volume, not by weight, so there is no advantage at all unless the toilets are shipped by air, which would be extremely unlikely. It doesn't make a difference to your truck if the things on it weight half as much if you can't physically fit any more on.
posted by Brockles at 8:51 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just because one thing is lighter than another thing does not make the first thing "greener" than the second thing. That's a non sequitur.

A light thing can require more energy to create than a heavy thing, for example.
posted by dfriedman at 8:53 AM on October 3, 2010

I'm sure I remember in an article/interview with a British prisoner that the stainless steel toilets are harder to keep clean than porcelain ones.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:56 AM on October 3, 2010

The neat thing those prison designs offer is the integration of hand-lav and toilet into a single pedestal fixture

Actually in Japan this is bog-standard. Their de facto toilet is plastic, but I have seen this for ceramic toilets as well. They're really nice and I still feel a little twinge now having to cross the damn hall to wash my hands after using the toilet. I didn't have the experience of finding it too far to lean over.
posted by whatzit at 9:01 AM on October 3, 2010

Aren't a lot of toilets made out of some sort of plastic these days? Certainly at least toilet seats are... That seems like the direction people are going rather than steel - lighter, easier to clean, and still "friendly" looking, not industrial-ish.
posted by mdn at 9:07 AM on October 3, 2010

pmed posted "particularly stainless steel?"

Stainless steel is hard/expensive to work with for these kinds of shapes (See how much more costly a deep kitchen sink (10-12") in stainless is verses a 6 or 8" deep sink). Also it would be a very industrial esthetic, something that doesn't go with the average bathroom. Colouring stainless is difficult especially when you consider the finish needs to stand up to harsh chemicals and be durable when subjected to heavy scrubbing.
posted by Mitheral at 9:22 AM on October 3, 2010

It's a product. A variety of constraints apply to its design.

Generally, life cycle costs have been optimized to death in the most common products.

At this point, something would have to be awfully compelling economically to displace the installed base and capture the new market. What could that be?

Some relevant constraints:

Non-recurring costs (tooling, design, etc.) for a new type
Recurring costs (porcelain versus any other material)
Aesthetics (stainless comes in one color)
Functional specs (no difference between types insofar as what they do)
Presence of high demand (pardon the pun, but I think the market is flush with suppliers)
Innovation (another pun... it's a commodity. We are still eliminating the way we used to.)

Isolated technical features seldom dictate market success, else we would all have watched Betamax instead of VHS. The mere fact that ONE of perhaps a hundred characteristics is better in one regard does not alter the overall picture.

It's usually economics, not engineering, that wins markets. No one is going to send money down the toilet in the search for a better toilet.
posted by FauxScot at 9:39 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my shopping around three years ago, stainless steel toilets were three times as expensive as porcelain, when comparing models NOT intended for prison use.
posted by aramaic at 9:44 AM on October 3, 2010

Also prison toilets are harder to make weapons out of if they are steel. Porcelain can be smashed and you have a lot of handy sized bricks right away.

I have seen a lot of integrated toilet/showers/wash hand basins ( ie "pods" ) in dormitory style housing made from plastic in 2 or more bits and built in to the structure.
posted by stuartmm at 9:48 AM on October 3, 2010

the finish needs to stand up to harsh chemicals and be durable when subjected to heavy scrubbing

This factor has been somewhat overlooked in the answers so far: You can clean a crudy porcelain toilet with dilute hydrochloric acid or other equally nasty stuff stainless steel would not stand up to.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:17 AM on October 3, 2010

People who are worried about "being green" tend to overestimate the energy cost of long distance cargo transportation. It's true that a considerable amount of fuel, in absolute terms, is used every year for cargo movement. But the quantity of cargo that gets moved is titanic (in the range of hundreds of billions of ton-miles per year). Cargo transportation is actually extremely efficient, and the energy cost to move a single item (e.g. a toilet) for a thousand miles is a lot lower than you think.

There are good reasons why: fuel costs money, and so there's been constant economic pressure on the shipping industry to improve efficiency in that regard, especially as fuel costs have risen. At this point we're way way up on the curve.

Which means that the green contribution of "buying local" and "buying light" is negligible. It can even be negative. The total energy cost of using a large centralized manufacturing plant and shipping products long distances can be less than a distributed system of lots of small manufacturers, because the big plant can take advantage of volume to implement all kinds of efficiency measures that wouldn't be economically feasible for the small plants.

(I suspect that people's intuition as to the cost of transport comes from their experience with shipping companies like UPS and Fedex. But that's not the same. The company that makes and ships tens of thousands of toilets per year doesn't pay UPS rates for doing so. And the main expense for UPS is employees. Bulk cargo shipment doesn't require anything like as many people.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:30 AM on October 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

A couple of other points:

1. Stainless steel contains between 10% and as much as 70% chromium. Chromium comes from a mineral called Chromite, and the main sources in the world are South Africa, India, and Kazakhstan. To make stainless steel in the US, therefore, a considerable amount of ore, or refined chromium, has to be shipped halfway around the world. In terms of transportation energy costs, that alone is enough to cancel the perceived advantage of shipping a lighter finished product.

2. All steel manufacturing is immensely energy intensive. In most of the world the energy source is coal, and steel mills use huge quantities of it. By comparison, porcelain manufacture is much less hot and loud.

Donald Knuth one said that "Premature optimization is the source of all evil." If you're sincere about trying to reduce your energy usage, you have to look at the whole picture instead of just seizing on one tiny piece to optimize.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:41 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stainless steel is cold on the bum. Yes, your seat could be plastic, and the bowl stainless, but then it just looks like an airplane toilet and who wants that in their house, really?
posted by slow graffiti at 11:12 AM on October 3, 2010

Also, can't porcelain be recycled or made from recycled materials?

I know that steel can be recycled too but it recycling ceramics could make any advantage that steel has or might have in the future immaterial.
posted by VTX at 11:55 AM on October 3, 2010

Stainless steel absorbs, and holds, odors. They don't want you to know this, but it's true.

Have you ever seen those stainless-steel soap-shaped bars in Bed Bath & Beyond? You are supposed to "wash" your hands with them after handling onions and the odor will be gone!

I always thought that was bogus, but one day, in my stainless steel kitchen, there was an odor whose source I couldn't place. I sniffed all over, and finally face-planted onto the stainless steel counter. We'd just been spraying and swiping the counter with all-purpose cleaner, but I eventually had to work in a strict course of baking soda scrubbing to get the odor out, and prohibit anyone from preparing smelly food directly on the counter.
posted by thebazilist at 12:35 PM on October 3, 2010

I've used stainless steel public toilets and they are horrible - cold and somehow always seem unhygenic. For all the theoretical advantages of stainless steel, people like the look and feel of porcelain.
posted by mippy at 2:23 AM on October 4, 2010

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