There’s a scene in a 1982 episode of Family Ties that has stayed with me for over 30 years. The LOL-worthy scenario plays out with the patriarch of the family showing his grown son his new high-tech “talking” camera—think pre-Siri—explaining that it's the easiest thing in the world to use. However, each time he's about to take a picture, the camera loudly alerts him to “load film now.” But the film has indeed been loaded and as the duo try to figure out what has gone awry with increasing frustration, hilarity ensues.
This was pretty much my experience with a new product on the market called GlowBowl.
A few weeks ago I noticed several of my friends on Facebook posting about a new motion-activated toilet nightlight that could sense your presence in the dark upon entrance to your bathroom, display a rainbow of colors to light your way. Immediately, I was intrigued, mostly because I was continually looking for ways to pimp my throne after my big success with installing a Tushy-brand bidet attachment. Another way to turn my potty into a party? The ability to create a “disco bowl?” Sign me up!
Two friends later posted about how great it was after they had each installed GlowBowl, and how excited they were to have this groovy commode attachment. Lest you think these friends are millennials up for any new gadget, both are in their 40s and 50s, respectively. I began to see ads on my Facebook feed as well.
While I was eager to try one out, I was on the fence (if not bowl) about whether it was merely a silly novelty or actually had some useful purpose. When I showed the site to a colleague, her only comment was, “I don’t understand why anyone should want this.” Still, I headed to the GlowBowl site and ordered one for $19.99 plus shipping; within a week, the tiny package arrived. Aside from the claim on the packaging that it's a “great gift for the person who has everything,” it also lists benefits for men (no more leaving the seat up and no messy cleanups); women (no more “sit and splash!”; kids (great for potty training); and seniors (no more stumbling in the dark).
While it certainly isn’t hard to simply flip your bathroom switch on for a late-night restroom visit, I could see how, especially for children, it might be easier to just walk into a darkened bathroom and have the sensor detect your presence, lighting up the toilet for you.
A friend who wishes to remain nameless explains his rationale for procuring one: “I bought it because my exhaust fan is hooked to the light switch and creates a lot of noise when turned on. So I thought this would avoid that.” Another friend, Meryl Freedman, a jewelry craftsperson in Philadelphia, was immediately entranced by the lights: “I thought the color kaleidoscope feature was fun; it was reminiscent of the psychedelic décor of my college days.”
Aside from being colorful, the GlowBowl appealed to Meryl because she lives in a home built in 1886 which, despite extensive electrical system remodeling, may still have some old wiring, leaving her a little uneasy about using a plug-in nightlight that's on all the time as she sleeps. And, as I surmised, the minimal light exposure seemed an especially good bonus for those who have trouble getting back to sleep once awakened. “One friend is extremely light-sensitive and leaving a light on in the hall or bathroom near where she sleeps disturbs her rest," says Meryl. "The fact that the motion sensor feature allows the room to be dark until she needs it is an excellent feature."
After these testimonials, I was eager to give the GlowBowl a whirl.
The instructions seemed easy enough: Insert 3 AAA batteries (not included) and position the device on the side of the toilet, holding it in place by bending its moveable arm. Because no adhesive is used, the piece could move around a bit. A few foam adhesive dots are included to make it flush to the surface of one’s porcelain throne. I had no problem making it stay put, but there are mentions in online reviews about issues with it moving around. No fear, though, even if it fell in, the waterproof device can reportedly withstand submersion. Fully plastic, it's also easy to clean off.
One drawback for Meryl: "The little bar that bends over the toilet bowl to hold the light in place is thick and therefore, it is a little uncomfortable to sit on it.” By placing it under the toilet seat, it made the seat wobbly so she wished it had a flatter, less obtrusive bar instead.
A single button held down can adjust brightness levels and assists one in choosing one of seven LED colors or activating carousel mode which will toggle between all of them every four seconds, nightclub-style. Upon exit the light remains on for 45 seconds. But before getting ready to do a happy dance, take heed. This is where my trouble began.
After a few minutes of figuring out how to select a color (demure white) and brightness level, I figured I was good to go.
I turned off my bathroom light (and hall light as it sensed that it was on) and as soon as I did, the bowl lit up! Not sure how I felt about spotlighting my own excretions, but still it was pretty exciting. Yet after the light extinguished itself and I walked back in, nothing happened. The device failed to sense my presence. While I’m used to being ignored by people, this tech diss was more than I could take.
Over the next hour I tried everything, including waving my arms and positioning it a hundred different ways, being sure the sensor faced the door. The only way I could get it to turn on was to manually press its button, which was far harder than flipping a light switch. The “crisis” got worse when it stopped working altogether. I was increasingly getting frustrated, and frankly, (pun intended) pissed. I went to the product site to see if perhaps I was doing something wrong, but it appears my mere presence was the only thing that was off-putting to the GlowBowl. (It must be male.)
I perused other purchasers’ reviews on Amazon and saw that GlowBowl is rather hit-or-miss overall—ironic considering the whole allure of it is for those who don't want to miss the bowl or hit the lid (in the dark!). Many complained that after the batteries drained, upon putting new ones in, the device would no longer work. Others said certain colors stopped working or the device conked out completely in just a few weeks.
Because their customer service line is not open 24/7, I had to wait until 9 am to give them a call (although I did use the online page to register a comment.)
I told Meryl about my issues, but she hadn’t experience any. “I had no problem with mine. I read the directions, followed them and put AAA batteries and it worked in carousel mode immediately,” she said. Since her purchase three weeks ago, it has been running like a multi-colored charm.
My aforementioned nameless friend said his noise problem had been solved by the unit.” It's been fine, but found myself mid-wizz and the light went off for some reason and there I was midstream trying to kick my leg up to get it to turn back on.” Upon reaching a customer service representative, resolution was swift and extremely positive. After running a few diagnostics on the phone, the representative said it most likely sounded like the sensor was damaged in transit. She speedily sent me a postage paid label and said upon receipt of the returned device, the team there would test it and issue me a replacement the same day.
She reported approximately 250,000 units sold since July 2015—a rate of nearly 3,500 a day, with only a two percent return rate due to defects, and surmises most are done via shipping.
True to her word, she called me upon receipt, but oddly said when she tested it at her office, it worked. Still, she sent me out a replacement which arrived in two days! I ran through the setup by inserting the batteries and once again chose a color and brightness level and was ready to try it out.
Unfortunately, again this did not work for me. It would not sense my presence in the bathroom, so either I don’t really exist or something about the way my bathroom is set up is making it nonresponsive. After spending so much time on this, I was ready to throw in the towel—and toilet paper—and will continue to go to the restroom in the dark the old-fashioned way.
Needless to say, I wasn't bowled over. But if you can get yours to work, it beats a traditional nightlight. It's also a bit of fun and a kitschy conversation piece. Bonus points if it can actually prevent sprinkling while tinkling.
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