For the 2 billion people in the world who still lack sanitation, Caltech is creating a cheap, safe, and clean toilet. But building this cool product is really the easy part.

There’s no point to developing fancy new technology for the developing world if you don’t have a plan to maintain it. History is filled with innovations that never took off because inventors didn’t consider what might go wrong as much they did what could go right, and the developing world is full of broken wells, water pumps, and cheap tablet computers.

The team behind Caltech’s “toilet of the future” hopes not to make that mistake. Alongside the sophisticated solar-powered treatment unit it’s developed, it’s also working on a sensor system that minimizes the need for skilled repair. This feature could be key to making the project an on-the-ground success, as opposed to merely a nice product.

First, some background. The Caltech group, led by Michael Hoffmann, first won the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge back in 2012. The challenge was to create a cheap, safe, and clean toilet for the 2 billion-plus people in the world who still lack sanitation. Caltech’s prototype took solar power and, through a biochemical reactor, turns poop-and-pee slurry into clear, sterilized water. It even developed technology that produces hydrogen and fertilizer as byproducts (though it’s not installed in the models currently in full testing).

Caltech is trialling aspects of its system in three places. Mahatma Gandhi University, in Kerala, India, has a full bathroom and treatment system. About 10 people a day use it. Then there’s installation in Ahmedabad, in northern India, where the treatment unit is hooked up to Eram Scientific’s self-cleaning “eToilet.” And, third, in China, an engineering group is working with a government agency on a toilet housed inside a shipping container. It plans to send toilets, based on Caltech water treatment technology, to schools in South Africa.

But the Caltech team still realized it needed to address the maintenance issue. “We’ve been in the field with this sanitation system for a while, and we’ve noticed that things have a tendency to break down, like any product,” says Cody Finke, who leads software development on the project. “The difference between technology in the developed world and the developing world is that when things break down in the developing world, they don’t tend to get fixed. Even with all the spare parts and instructions, people lack the abilities to repair things.”

The toilet is equipped up with sensors that monitor leaks, water clarity, particulates in the water, pressure, and voltage. If they find a problem, they alert an operator who gets a picture of exactly where the problem is, and exactly the screws that need to come out to replace the bad part with a new one. “There’s no diagnosis on the operator’s part. It’s extremely simple,” Finke says. “And it doesn’t really matter how the part is broken, because in each case, the system is just fixed by replacing the part.”

The Caltech Sanitation Project recently won first prize in Vodafone Americas Foundation’sWireless Innovation Project challenge, an accolade that comes with $300,000 over three years. Finke says the money will go towards refining the system app (the interface was designed by Anastasia Hanan), and improving the way the sensors interact with the software.

Some have mocked Caltech for creating elaborate technology when the underlying problem is quite basic—and you would think—quite cheap to deal with. But Clement Cid, another researcher on the project, counters that the Chinese version of the toilet costs only $15,000, meaning it meets the Gates Foundation’s original target of sanitation for five cents per person per day. The Mahatma Gandhi University version, which is being developed with Kohler, a plumbing products supplier, is likely to be priced at more than that. But then it will probably be sold to apartment building owners, not the average person on the street.

Finke says his maintenance system will help keep costs down by reducing the need to employ trained specialists. “We do expect the mobile maintenance component will bring down the long-term cost. We’ll be able to employ people who aren’t engineers. Single operators will take care of many systems, which will allow the distributed sanitation solution to scale to need.”

Article and image credit Fast Company