Learning to Appreciate German Toilets

Disclaimer: This post – as indicated in the title – is about toilets. Though there are no stories detailing dirty business, it is implied. If you prefer more heart-warming topics, why not consider my posts about my favorite Berliner and having a baby in Germany.

Behold! A German Toilet Photo: Erin Porter

Behold! A German Toilet
Photo: Erin Porter

Today is Rosenmontag (Rose Monday of Fasching/Karneval) which means there will be much drunken celebration, parading and some toilet hugging for those that overindulge. Is that a roundabout way to acknowledge the holiday and write about what I really want to talk about? Yes. Just go with me here.

As heathen Berlin doesn’t do much to recognize the Catholic holiday I have no first-hand knowledge of Karneval – but I do know toilets. Or “die Toilette auf Deutsch. I use one every day and have sampled facilities across Germany. I would consider myself an expert.

The reason toilets and my expertise is on my mind is that I just returned from the States and have a new-found appreciation for German commode engineering. During my time in the USA, I was personally responsible for clogging up two different toilets. As I struggled to locate a plunger and pumped away, trying to clear the stoppage, I had time to ponder differences in American and German toilets and realize that I have never had a German toilet clog.

I haven’t always felt this way. Upon opening my first German lid I was alarmed by two things – the lack of water and what appeared to be a shelf we’ve lovingly come to call the “lay-and-display”. Let me explain…

Where’s the Water?

I never thought about toilet water before leaving the US of A. But the lack of water in German toilets had me re-considering American toilets’ exuberant flow. On average, US toilets use two to three gallons of water for each flush. Two to three gallons (or 7.5 to 11.3 liters)!

Germans have a necessary obsession with energy usage and efficiency as energy costs are much higher in Europe. The extravagance of extra water literally equates to flushing money down the toilet. This is also more environmentally friendly which is sure to make any German happy.

To further facilitate saving water, there are usually two buttons to start the flow – one smaller embedded button for less water for number one and a larger push button for more water for number two. Unlike those jokes of low-flow toilets I’ve encountered in the States, most Germans toilets feature impressive suction despite the low water levels.

While I was back in the States the overabundance of water felt positively decadent. And splashy. I am shocked to say that I am a German convert on this issue.

german toilet

The shelf PHOTO: Erin Porter

German Toilet Shelf

More shocking than the lack of water is the presence of a shelf in many toilets. I can hear you asking, “A shelf?! Like to put things on?”.  My answer is yes, a shelf inside your toilet to put something very specific on. BM. Caca. A #2. Scheiße.

What I came to know as the “lay-and-display” German toilet model has horrified and scarred many an expat or traveler. Instead of excretions making the plunge straight into the water, this toilet has a prominent shelf midway to catch everything.

The natural questions is why, oh why!,  would Germans create this? And Germans have a practical, disgusting answer. I m told that the shelf is indeed to catch one’s leavings for examination. I have even heard this is for easy stool sample collection. How many stool samples is the average German taking?

The obvious downside (besides smell) is how to get the poo all the way down. A good German toilet has turbo suction that whisks away the offending object, but you may be left with Bremsstreifen (skid marks). After some experimentation and chatting with other “lay-and-display” survivors, I have heard of several solutions.

  • Pre-flush – A delicate matter of timing can theoretically lube up the bowl with water just as you send down your offerings.
  • Lay down extra paper – Another preparatory measure, laying down a little nest of toilet paper can possibly help ease the transition of the poo into the water below.
  • Scoot forward – This requires some real maneuvering to aim forward to miss the shelf entirely.
  • Toilet brush – The most common solution is to just clean up the mess. The omnipresent toilet brush can be found beside any toilet bowl in a residence, hotel room or at a restaurant.  If you do leave a mark in a public place it is expected you clean it up.

Obviously this is a rather large flaw for those of us not interested in examining our leavings. But as I mentioned before, somewhere in the mysteries of low water/high shelf I have yet to come across a toilet that has jammed. Maybe I’m just lucky, but after spending even a small portion of my vacation with plunger in hand I am giving it up to the German toilet. I’ll trade a plunger for a brush any day.

So there you have it – the amazing and horrifying German toilet. What toilets have you found on your travels? Ever had a clog? Any tips to share?

8 thoughts on “Learning to Appreciate German Toilets

  1. Pingback: Not wierd… just different! | Shawn & Tony Do Europe!

  2. I prefer the “shelf” in German toilets, as opposed to the “swimming pool” in American ones.

    Though with German toilets there is the smell factor due to the shelf, at least you don’t get “splash-up”.

    I can’t begin to express how much I *hate* — just HATE — getting water splashed on my behind from American toilets, if the job (just like a bomb drop) happens to be a rather large one.

    Putting down a layer or two of toilet paper on the water surface in an American toilet can help reduce splash-up, but is wasteful.

    Too little paper on the surface does no good (though extra paper is still required to wipe yourself dry from splash-up), and too much paper runs the risk of a poor flush or even stoppage.

    And if you happen to do #1 before #2 during the same session, and THEN get splash-up — well then, consider your day ruined.

    So, give me the shelf — I can handle the smell.

    • Well thought-out answer Mars! It is a topic for debate. I have stumbled on many a heated conversation between Germans and us outsiders over the better toilet model. I’m clearly not sold on the shelf, but I am learning to appreciate.

    • You can keep both the Shelf and the Space Station low-water toilets. I’ll take the US swimming pool toilets any day. Here’s why:

      1) In just over 30 years of living in the US, I can think of a handful of times when water splashed on my ass. Compare this with having to scrub the toilet at least 1x/day for the past 8 years and we’re just shy of 3000 attempts to get rid of poop-graffiti vs 5 buttock splashes in less than 1/3 of the time I spent back home. And, let’s be honest here…the splash-back prevention is being replaced by a risk of nasty toilet brush poo-soup water dripping on your foot or on the bathroom floor (yet men are expected to sit down when they pee. Seems legit…) during the transfer of the toilet brush to and from the toilet and probably still at a great chance of happening than US toilet butt-cheek splash. lol

      2) The attempts at preventing all of this hilarity defeat the purpose of these efficient toilets. Extra flushes waste water and laying down TP wastes paper. And, if water conservation was as important as people make it out to be, then we wouldn’t need a zillion glasses for every little drink when the bottle the drink came in works just fine.

      So, yes…give me the US toilet. In an age of soapy-sudsy, flushable tushy wipes for all ages, I can handle a handful of splash-backs over the course of decades vs 365ish porcelain wisks + brush-holder poo-stew stirs per year.

  3. The Shelf! It’s amazing how that particular design just automatically names itself. We had a shelf toilette in our last apartment where we lived for 8 years.

    Everyone, absolutely everyone had an awkward smile and opinionated comment about The Shelf. Even younger Germans who didn’t grow up with The Shelf were fascinated-horrified by The Shelf.

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