Scientists at the University of Waterloo have determined the optimal design for a splash-free urinal: a long, slender porcelain structure with curves reminiscent of a nautilus shell, playfully dubbed the “Nauti-loo”. That’s good news for men tired of having urine splattered on their pants and shoes – and for the poor souls who regularly have to clean up all the splatter. Bonus: It’s quite an aesthetically pleasing design, giving this workhorse of the public restroom a touch of class.
“The idea originated exactly where you think it originated,” Waterloo’s Zhao Pan told New Scientist. “I think most of us have been a little inattentive to our post and looked down to see we were wearing speckled pants. Nobody likes to pee everywhere, so why not just make a urinal where splashing is extremely unlikely?” His graduate student, Kaveeshan Thurairajah, presented the results of this research last week at the American Physical Society (APS) meeting on fluid dynamics in Indianapolis.
It’s not the first time scientists have tried to tackle this problem. Pan is a former graduate student of Tadd Truscott, a mechanical engineer who founded the so-called “Splash Lab” at Utah State University. In 2013, the Splash Lab (then at Brigham Young University) offered some helpful tips on how men could avoid getting their khaki pants stained with urine splashes while relieving themselves in restrooms. “Sitting on the toilet is the best technique because the pee has to travel less distance on its way to the bowl,” I previously wrote on Gizmodo. “If you opt for the classic standing technique, the scientists recommended standing as close to the urinal as possible and trying to direct the flow at a downward angle to the back of the urinal.”
For those who don’t have optimal anti-splash technique, another of Truscott’s graduate students, Randy Hurd, presented an optimal design for a splash-free urinal insert at the 2015 APS fluid dynamics meeting. There are three basic types of inserts. Absorbent cloth is used to minimize splashing; another uses a honeycomb structure – a raised layer (held up by small pillars) with holes – so that urine drops pass through but no splashes come out; and a third type with a series of pillars. However, absorbents cannot absorb liquid fast enough and become saturated quickly, while the honeycomb structure and the layered pillar structures do not prevent the gradual formation of urine pools.
Hurd and Truscott’s insert design was inspired by a type of super-absorbent moss (Syntrichia canine fish) which thrives in very dry climates and thus is very good at collecting and storing as much water as possible. And they found that the man-made material “VantaBlack” mimicked the absorbent properties of the moss. They copied the structure of that material for their urinal insert and found that it successfully blocked pee droplets from escaping – effectively acting as a “urinal black hole”.
Nor have the ladies been left out of this scientific (ahem) piss contest. Women also suffer from urine leakage, especially when they have to urinate in a cup for medical testing purposes. In 2018, the Splash Lab conducted a series of experiments using a model of an anatomically correct female urethra. (They used a soft polymer to model the labia.) The results inspired the (patented) design of the “Orchid,” a funnel-shaped urine cup attachment that reduces spillage. The research could lead to devices that allow women to urinate standing up, which would be a boon for women in the military or female academics working in the field.
According to Pan, the key to optimal splash-free urinal design is the angle at which the urination jet hits the porcelain surface; get a small enough angle, and there won’t be a spatter. Instead, you get a smooth stream across the surface, preventing droplets from flying out. (And yes, there’s a critical threshold at which the urine stream switches from splashing to smooth flowing, because phase transitions are everywhere — even in our public restrooms.) As it turns out, dogs have already determined the optimal angle when they bend their legs to urinate, and when Pan et al. modeled on a computer, they determined the optimal angle for humans at 30 degrees.
Pan and his team also conducted a series of experiments with painted liquids sprayed in jets at different velocities into a series of mock urinal designs (see top photo) made of dense, epoxy-covered foam, including the standard commercial form and a similar urinal . after the one used by Marcel Duchamp in his famous (and controversial) 1917 “La Fontaine” art installation. They all produced varying degrees of splash water, which the scientists wiped up with paper towels. They weighed the wet towels and compared that to how much the paper towels weighed when dry to quantify the amount of splashing. The more the wet towels weighed, the bigger the splashback.
The next step was to come up with a design that would provide that optimal urinary flow angle for men across a wide range of body sizes. Instead of the usual shallow box in the shape of a rectangle, they ended up on the curved structure of the nautilus shell. They repeated the simulated urine flow experiments with the prototypes, and voila! They did not see a single drop splash back. In comparison, the other urinal designs produced as much as 50 times more splash water. There was one round design with a triangular opening that outperformed the Nauti-loo in the experiments, but Pan et al. rejected it because it wouldn’t work at a wide range of heights.