Revolutionary self-cleaning gas station restroom has travelers eager to go Prototype proves to be tourist attraction

August 24, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

BOLINGBROOK, Ill. -- The thought of using a so-called gas station "restroom" makes most people cross their fingers or cross their legs. The only thing worse would be the prospect of cleaning it.

That may explain the flush of excitement that has greeted the introduction of the country's first self-cleaning bathrooms at a busy Amoco gas station in Bolingbrook, a suburb southwest of Chicago.

One of two test sites for an invention heralded by a research and development magazine as one of the top 100 of 1992, it was installed as the solution to an unpleasant task.

But the vision apparently is so irresistible -- suggesting a possible breakthrough in that most odious of Saturday morning chores, cleaning bathrooms at home -- that the space-age cubicles have become an unexpected tourist attraction as well.

The grout-weary pilgrims tell the station manager: "Oh, we don't want to use them, we just want to look at them."

If you clean it, they will come.

The bathroom, equipped with a raft of nozzles, operates on the same principle as a dishwasher, spraying the room with jets of water, then baking it dry with a heating device.

The Amoco in Bolingbrook was chosen as one of two test sites (the other is in Indianapolis) because of the high traffic at the intersection of Illinois Route 53 and Interstate 55, owners say.

It was designed by Glenwood Garvey, an architect/engineer from Santa Monica, Calif., over a period of years after conversations with oil executives who described the sorry state of gas station restrooms. He says the development of a version for the home is three to five years off.

"Nasty, disgusting, grungy," is the way Susan Babis, 18, characterizes the restrooms she was faced with cleaning -- for 45 minutes at a time by hand -- at the station before the new ones were installed in January.

She now is in charge of turning on the self-cleaning mechanisms, one for the men's room, one for the ladies', and has been freed to tidy up the station grounds and wait on customers.

Niquitta Berry, 17, of Chicago thinks it's a good idea. And she should know -- cleaning bathrooms is one of her responsibilities at the fast-food restaurant where she works. "It's not one of my favorite things to do."

Josie Pippins, 39, of Columbus, Miss., also likes the idea, but she is more impressed that the toilet flushes by itself.

"I like it, the fact that you know it's going to be clean," she says.

The public had lost confidence in the ability of gas stations to provide clean bathrooms, says Mr. Garvey, who is president of Self Cleaning Environments, the company that produces the self-cleaning bathrooms.

After quickly sweeping the floor of the bathroom, the gas station attendant removes the arm rails on the walls, releasing magnets that pin a section of two walls to the sides of the room.

These sections rotate in on a vertical hinge to form a sealed chamber similar to a shower stall that encloses the toilet, sink and mirror. The paper products, toilet paper and towels are outside the chamber.

Only about a quarter of the actual bathroom is enclosed in this chamber. The remaining walls and floor are not cleaned by the mechanism.

The attendant then pushes a button and 39 nozzles spray the inside of the cabinet with non-toxic detergent. After the clean and rinse cycle, the cabinet is heat-dried.

dTC About 24 minutes later, you've got a shine even the Tidy Bowl man could be proud of.

In its October issue, R & D magazine will include the self-cleaning bathroom as one of the 100 most innovative inventions of 1992.

Twenty of the R & D 100, as the project is called, will be on display later this month at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, although the self-cleaning restroom won't be included in the exhibit.

"When I first got started, it was an aesthetic issue . . . does it look clean?" says Mr. Garvey.

"The issue today isn't just 'Does it look clean?' but 'Is it clean?' " he says.

The self-cleaning bathroom sells for $22,000 to $25,000 and uses about $1.50 worth of electricity and detergent per cycle, according to Mr. Garvey.

He says the cost of the unit can be recouped in two to three years as attendants spend time on "profit-generating" activities rather than the nose-wrinkling kind.

But for John Jordan, who manages the Amoco station in Bolingbrook and another in Aurora, Ill., the new devices have had the added advantage of eliminating the nightly argument among members of his staff over who would clean restrooms that had been used by as many as 220 people on a busy Saturday.

"That's your job, you know it's your job, it's always been your job," the manager would say to whatever worker drew the third shift, when the bathrooms are normally cleaned.

"I'd just give in and do it myself to get it done," he says.

"Now they're vying to clean it."

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