Tall Toilet Story: How did I Dream Up the Tall Toilet (Full Article)
Have you ever thought of an invention, an idea to improve something existing or design a totally new gadget or a product? You may have thought to yourself, “I should create, design and make this into a product which I know will be helping so many people!” My genuine advice is: Do it if it’s not yet too late! How often do we start seeking more information and Googling our potential invention and someone has already had this idea and is already making it? Or worse, you meant to pursue an idea but got sidetracked and a few years later someone else made it – and you thought, “Wait, that was my idea!” In my case timing was everything.
If you can relate to what I have described above, you will easily understand what type of inspiration helped me pursue the design and engineering of the Tall Toilet. Realistically speaking, it would be hard to own the invention of the toilet! But the new design of the 20” tall toilet, that I did indeed invent. In this blog post I will share with you the thought process that lead me forward.
Our desire to invent or create something new often is encouraged by something we see in our own work or home environment. I would imagine the person who invented a bottle opener was possibly a bartender. Or the person who invented scissors had to somehow be related to a tailor. Then we all know the story about the sticky notes, where actually no one really set out to invent sticky notes. Instead, a chemist invented a unique, low-tack adhesive that would stick to things but also could be repositioned multiple times. He was trying to invent a super-strong adhesive, but he came up with a super-weak one instead and this adhesive was used to apply small paper squares onto the surfaces.
But how in the world does anyone get inspired to invent a tall toilet? Do you have to be really tall to have a need for it? Well, I am 6’3”, so you can say that partially the answer could be yes; but my height was not the reason at all.
To better understand my career path is to know that I have spent most of my 20s and 30s working with buildings in Massachusetts – construction, overseeing building management, restoring, creating and fixing structures. Some of my first building-related jobs were in construction on Nantucket Island near Cape Cod. My first jobs were laying cedar shingles on the siding and then later I learned how to do the finish woodwork. I was never really exposed to framing and I was average at best with wood finish work, but I learned a lot from the guys I worked with and especially from the construction contractor who hired me. For a while, I also worked at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation on Nantucket, and have spent years learning about the principles of life from the founder, who had also instilled in me a love for Perry Como’s music and Nantucket Island’s wild nature.
Later, I got an awesome job with the man who has become my mentor and the godfather of sorts, when he hired me as a hotel engineer. Hotels were my stomping grounds and that is where I started excelling in my career in building management. I followed my mentor’s leadership and appreciated his coaching. I eventually moved “off-island” and continued managing buildings – this time in the Assisted and Senior Living communities in Massachusetts. I became a plant operations manager. I know it is hard to compare building managers and those guys are often very competitive and a bit egoistic, but I knew I was very good at my job. Why? I just connected with my residents so well! And if I had a hard and difficult day at work, good comfort food and cookies (my senior living communities baked really good oatmeal cookies!) always made my day better.
I did not know much about Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, mobility issues or aging difficulties before I started working in the Assisted Living communities. But all of a sudden, I was there, in the middle of it and learning about the memory loss, about mobility-related challenges (yes, such as how hard it could be for someone with sitting down and getting up from the toilet!) and at the same time, falling in love with the community of seniors I was there to serve.
As I mentioned above, I didn’t know much about senior health issues before I began working in senior living communities. But all of a sudden, I was in the middle of it and learning about the memory loss, mobility-related difficulties (yes, such as how hard it could be for someone with sitting down and getting up from the toilet!) and at the same time falling in love with the community of seniors I was there to serve.
Every assisted/senior living community was its own world, with its own emotional atmosphere. My first years working in senior living were loaded with hands-on amazing life discoveries as well as of the wide scope of difficulties my residents had. My learning curve trajectory was skyrocketing as I was meeting and getting to know my residents and, at the same time, witnessing memory declines, mobility complications and more.
But more than anything, I appreciated the sense of humor of the generation born in the early 1900s. As Linda Loring told me once: You were dry bone boring when you were younger! I was in my early 20s and I simply couldn’t fully relate to someone in their 80s or 90s. Yet. But my work in the senior living has really changed me–and, to Linda’s excitement, vastly improved my sense of humor! On top of that, I started to listen to the music my residents liked, I knew how much they loved Bingo, I watched some of their favorite TV shows with them, I danced with them, we took trips!
I made time each day to hear a good short story from a resident. I learned so much about how life was in 60-70 years ago, from those who lived it – and it sincerely fascinated me. I have a very vivid imagination, so it was easy for me to relate to a good story. Some residents were really good story tellers – and I was a good listener. If I had a work order at a resident’s apartment, for example, and the resident was at home, we always chatted. Often, I would finish my task and sit next to the resident and continue listening. These thoughtful perspectives were so interesting and valuable.
As I was getting closer with my residents, it was emotionally very challenging to see most of them decline physically, and, in many cases, watch their memories fade. Then, of course, there were many end-of-life situations. Helping in hospice situations was new to me then and later it became part of my regular job. In the beginning, I was afraid of entering an apartment where I knew the resident was on hospice. But in time, I got mentally stronger and made a point of visiting, mainly to say hello, ask what I can do to help and ensure the resident was comfortable, especially when it came to keeping the room at a comfortable temperature for the residents in their final days of life.
When it came to keeping the apartments and common areas comfortable for all the residents, this task could become very difficult for me because many of the buildings I managed had two-pipe HVAC systems. As the name implies, the two-pipe system uses two pipes to the building – a supply and a return. In the heating season, the water in the pipes is heated with a boiler and in the cooling season, it is cooled with a chiller. During the peak of each season, this strategy works great. The comfort and temperature-related issues with this type of system come mainly during the shoulder times of the year, fall and spring. I wanted to master these imperfect systems and navigate the weather. Basically, my mind started seeking solutions and here I became more open to the idea that I could impact someone’s comfort and make their surroundings a little more … convenient.
I built garden boxes for the gardening activities and my executive director and activities director guided me to make them at a certain height. While it was easier to build them lower, it was more convenient for the garden club participants if the height was taller – so the residents wouldn’t have to reach too low. This helped with overall ergonomics, but also prevented falls and minimized the chance of the fall-related injury and/or back pain. I noticed how something so simple could make such a big difference and started to shape my thinking towards convenience as it relates to improving the height of an object.
There were multiple safety-related improvements throughout the years. We also hosted mandatory Safety Committee Meetings at all of the buildings once a month or once a quarter, and I was the co-chair or chair at all of them. Besides basic safety and compliance items I was overseeing such as fire drills or water temperature checks, for example, we engaged in regular discussion with the resident care directors about how we could make the residents’ apartments safer, eliminate and foresee the fall hazards, and improve the residents’ life by simple modifications to their daily environment in the apartments – living rooms, bedrooms and, of course, the bathrooms.
My mind was shifting towards the concept of how I could make someone’s surroundings more convenient. I was empowered to make small adjustments, create small life hacks to correct inconvenient things, and improve things such as beds and, yes, toilets.
As the young building maintenance guy in an environment occupied by the seniors, I was empowered to make small adjustments to everything from furniture to, yes, toilets. And at the Safety Committee Meetings, we often discussed bathroom safety improvements – grab bars and installation of the raised toilet seats. I would often get a work order to purchase and install grab bars as well as raised toilet seats. And I could fully understand the benefit of the grab bars since they definitely enhanced safety in the bathroom. Any bathroom can benefit from the added safety of grab bars. They are sturdily mounted onto the wall, do not move and provide a substantial advancement to prevent falls. We would install them in and near showers and tubs, near the sinks and toilets.
We also received requests for raised toilet seats. And here is an important part of the story, because it all started with the raised toilet seats. Even after many years of managing buildings and fulfilling work orders to get the raised toilet seats installed, I had never become a fan of them. First of all, most of the raised toilet seats would easily move, which is not safe. I always asked my building maintenance crew to check the raised seats and we would rush to complete a work order of the raised toilet seat reattaching or starting to fall off. I was just concerned about the safety limitations of this device adding height to the toilet.
I do not know when or where I had my first thoughts about improving something as basic as the height of the toilet – it probably was a combination of things over the years. I was a doer, and I was always thinking about the safety of my buildings and the well-being of my residents. It was my job to prevent accidents and my job literally depended on it. So my mind constantly operated on high alert.
When you are a facility manager, you get called if there’s a leak in the ceiling. If there’s a strange noise coming from the mechanical room. If someone activated the fire alarm. If the heat was not working, the AC is not cooling. There were dozens of situations of getting a phone call and having to come in to work at night. We had to do it. Being on call was the basic rule in the building management business. And for every building I worked at, I was on call 350 days a year, with the exception of a few weeks of vacation time. But I was used to it. Being on high alert all the time has become a norm. Anything I could do to minimize those emergency calls was important. Any prediction of equipment failure or eliminating a near-miss incident, preventing a fall was ingrained as part of my daily work routine, a habit I developed fairly quickly. I had established a passion for forecasting an issue and taking the proactive approach to resolve it. As many of my fellow facility managers would say, I lived a preventative maintenance doctrine.
I knew that the one time I would notice a possible problem and not act on it, it was going to happen. That one time the ice melt does not get applied in the parking lot properly, someone could slip and fall. It was not an easy way to live and many people take the job building and facility managers perform for granted. There was so much responsibility, it was beyond complicated. It became a lifestyle.
As I was forecasting and sharing my thoughts at the Safety Committee Meetings, the fall risk of raised toilet seats would come up every now and then. It was one of those weird items that we could not resolve. How? I could not remove the raised toilet seat and throw it out – then the toilet was going to be too low. We knew about the problem and we did not do anything new about it. There was not much we could do. How did you get the 15” standard height toilet to 20” tall so the resident could get up and sit down more easily? You installed a raised toilet seat. There was nothing else we could do, there was no 20” tall toilet readily available in the U.S.
I slowly was getting pulled into the perfect storm of becoming an inventor of the Tall Toilet. But there had to be an event, a “super” dramatic situation where I would get a kick to finally take my idea and make it a reality. And there it was.
In this case, high occupancy rates can lead to job security and sometimes there are guarantees made prematurely to the potential new residents to get the future resident to sign the lease agreement. Sometimes the premature guarantees are easy to fulfill, but not always.
In this case, a potential resident asked the sales and marketing team if one important condition could be met, otherwise he would not be moving in. What was that one condition? You guessed it! The future resident was demanding a 20” tall toilet installed in his bathroom. That future resident was Joe. The sales team and the executive director had to get me involved. The occupancy of the building was not at its best at the time, so you can imagine the pressure on the sales team and now on me. I did a quick search for the tall toilets (again), and delivered a response – they were not available anywhere. The sales team did not budge and proceeded to make a promise they could not fulfill – Joe would get the tall toilet and the building maintenance team (me!) was on it. I was thrown in the middle of the new lease deal and left with no other choice – drop everything I was doing and find that tall toilet.
I was told to get in the car and visit all of the hardware stores and the plumbing supply houses around. I was reporting from those locations with nothing to show. I came back empty-handed and started sending inquiries to all big suppliers. The executive director started to panic and gave me a nearly unlimited budget to buy that unicorn kind of a toilet. Just get it here! When replies came back from the healthcare and facility suppliers, they all unanimously concluded that the tallest toilet available was pretty far from 20 inches. It was only 17” tall. I reported back with this information and the sales team was scrambling. Who would tell Joe his hard demand could not be met? Joe was ready to move in the next day, fully confident his condition was going to be met.
Then the unthinkable happened. The sales team sent me to Joe’s house hours before he was arriving to deliver breaking news – there was no 20’ toilet waiting for him in his new apartment.. We chatted for a few minutes and I was open about the situation. I told him, half-jokingly: Joe, no one in the U.S. was able to deliver a 20” toilet for your new apartment, and if I cannot find it, I will make one for you myself. Joe smiled, and replied in his calm voice: O.K., Ed.
That was it. The “O.K., Ed” meant Joe would continue his move into our community and I returned a hero. Joe moved in soon after, the building occupancy went up by one, the sales team was done and everyone forgot about the 20” tall toilet. But I was left thinking – did I just lie to Joe or was I really going to make the tall toilet? Should I drop the issue or pursue it? It was not my choice anymore – something clicked inside of me and I was so inspired to create something that was never created before. It was not going to be a high-end gadget, it was going to be something simple instead. It was going to be a height improvement of the common object and it was going to help so many.
Here and then my quest to design, engineer and manufacture the 20” height toilet lifted my enthusiasm for work to new heights.
I will tell you more about in the next blog post, but let me finish this one by answering a question you probably have. Did I fulfill my promise to Joe? I am so proud to say yes, and even now I get emotional to say that I did. After a lot of effort, I eventually delivered a 20” toilet to Joe’s apartment and had it installed for him. Joe could not believe it really happened. But it did.
Warm regards, Eddie