Portland markets its solar-powered toilet

Steven Dubois / The Associated Press /

Published Apr 15, 2012 at 05:00AM

PORTLAND — The Portland Loo might be the most loved public toilet — not that there’s much competition.

A lack of adequate public restrooms is an old complaint in cities across America. The bathrooms, when you can find one, are often filthy and smelly, and a magnet for drug users and vandals. Businesses such as McDonald’s and Starbucks often serve as the restroom of last resort.

Big cities from New York to San Francisco have bought high-tech, self-cleaning automatic toilets, with mixed results. In one high-profile failure, Seattle installed five such toilets in 2004 — at a cost of $5 million — only to sell them on eBay four years later because of problems with drug use and prostitution.

Meanwhile, the much cheaper Portland Loo maintains a Facebook page and has 202 followers on Twitter. The five downtown toilets average about 200 flushes each per day. And, unlike toilets in other cities, have not drawn a torrent of criticism about foul smells and rampant crime.

Now Portland is trying to sell its patented loo to other cities. The city has sold one to Victoria, British Columbia, and now hopes contracting with agents who make a commission will generate more sales.

“We can ship them to somebody for $99,000 and all they have to do is bolt them onto their sidewalk and hook them up to sewer and water,” said City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who originated the idea for the loo after Portland had its own publicized failure with public bathrooms.

The solar-powered Portland Loo costs about $60,000 to manufacture, and the annual maintenance is $12,000 apiece. The drab, durable structures stand 10 feet tall and have open slots that expose a standing person’s head and feet, allowing police to check for lawbreakers. The metallic-gray finish is resistant to graffiti. A tiny faucet for hand washing is outside. A worker cleans the loos twice a day.

The toilets were designed with the assumption that people would try to ruin them. Vandals have busted the locks and the flush button, but even the first loo installed in 2008 remains in pretty good shape.

“The whole idea behind it was to design it not as this beautiful, aesthetic piece of work and then be aghast if somebody did something bad to it,” Leonard said. “We designed it anticipating all of that.”

The cities of San Diego and Anchorage, Alaska, have expressed interest in buying the loo.