Americans slowly embrace the bidet

Americans slowly embrace the bidet

The bidet. Talk about a bathroom fixture with an image problem. For one thing, it's French. Sure, the French gave us the Statue of Liberty. But what are they doing in our bathrooms?

Turns out they are doing quite a lot, and in more and more bathrooms across the United States.

Contractors installed more than 650,000 bidets in 2006, or about 12 percent of all bathroom projects, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

That was the first time the association tracked bidets. What it doesn't track, and what plumbing supply companies say are growing in popularity, are high-tech toilet seats that have a bidet function without taking up extra space.

Marlene Burch of Dallas loves her UCI biobidet (retail $500). "It's neater, cleaner and just nice," she says. The seat delivers hot or cold water, massaging jets and a drier. "It will even give you an enema if you so choose," Burch says.

She bought the seat for her 97-year-old mother for health reasons. That didn't work out, so Burch and her husband put it in their bathroom.

Burch's previous experience with bidets - the stand-alone type - was on her honeymoon in post-World War II France. It would have been nice to have one in America, she says, but "we would never have expended that much money when we were younger."

Cost is not the only obstacle. Americans seem to have a psychological barrier to the bidet. Historians say it may go back to American soldiers seeing them in European brothels; others say that for most of their history Americans have been pioneers with no time for niceties.

Deborah Carata of Chicago speculates it's because of our Puritan heritage. In the minds of many Americans, a bidet is something you use "post-sex," she says. It's good for that, but for oh so much more.

Carata installed a traditional bidet when she remodeled her bathroom last year. Her husband is Italian, and she lived in Italy for 24 years. For them, a bidet was a no-brainer.

In addition to her feminine toilette, she uses it to shave her legs and wash her feet. "Once you get used to it, it's hard to do without it," she says.

She sacrificed a tub to make room for the bidet, and therein lies the strength of the bidet-style toilet seats.

David Clancy of DS Construct Inc. in Deerfield Beach, Fla., has installed about a dozen bidet-type seats. He prefers the Toto Washlet. "Maybe 25 percent of my clients will put in a Washlet," he says. "It's not something I push. They aren't cheap."

Still, his high-end bathroom projects typically include them. "In the $50,000 range, everybody's getting them," he says. "They'll have a Washlet and a TV in there somewhere."

Clancy says the seats require a ground-fault interrupter electrical outlet next to the toilet.

Toto introduced its Washlet to the United States in 1989. Last year, the company launched an aggressive marketing campaign on the heels of American fixture giant Kohler unveiling its C3 bidet toilet seat.

Whoopi Goldberg, moderator of the ABC show "The View," named the Washlet one of her "must have" products of 2008, an unpaid endorsement, a network spokesman says.

"It's a cultural leap forward," says Toto spokeswoman Lenora Campos of the Washlet, which ranges from $700 to $2,000 depending on features. The Kohler models range from $900 to $1,600. "We wouldn't think anything in our lives was clean if we just ran a piece of paper over it," Campos says.

"At that crucial juncture of our bodies, we think paper is enough and it's not. People who use traditional means come away with matter still on the body. If you ride the subway on a hot day, you know it's true."

Toto continues to sell traditional stand-alone bidets, but the Washlet seat has been more popular in the United States because of space and convenience. "There is no need to hop between fixtures," she says.

Highly rated Economy Plumbing Supply in Indianapolis installed Washlets in the women's bathrooms to let customers try them. "Definitely the thing that sells them is the test drive," says company President John Strong. The bidet-style seats outsell traditional bidets in his showrooms, and sales continue to grow as people learn of the hygienic benefits, he says. In addition to Toto, he offers a more affordable line from Brondell that starts at $300.

Regardless, some Americans don't want water shooting up their backsides. Clancy recently finished an $80,000 bathroom remodel. "She had a steam unit, chandeliers. It was a sick, sick project," he says. "But she didn't see the need for a Washlet."

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(Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Alexander S. of Jersey City, N.J.)
(Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Alexander S. of Jersey City, N.J.)

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