Portland, Ore., markets solar-powered public toilet

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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, B.C. The solar-powered Portland Loo costs about $60,000 to manufacture and the annual maintenance has run $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. The toilet itself is prison-grade and there is no sink to break. A tiny faucet for hand-washing is outside and 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.”

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