What Is A Toilet Snorkel? (Let’s Dive In)

When planning an emergency kit, there are certain things that you know you should pack: canned food, fresh water, batteries, and a first aid kit. Other supplies don’t always come to mind, such as a toilet snorkel.

Most people think of swimming in the pristine open sea, not the dubious waters of a toilet, when they hear the word snorkel.

However, the toilet snorkel is a real device that was patented in 1982. The toilet snorkel is a contraption that snakes a tube down your toilet, allowing the person using it to breathe air through the sewage system. Its purpose is to help people trapped in high buildings during a fire.

You may be wondering, do toilet snorkels work? And who would ever breathe sewage air?

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the toilet snorkel.

What Does The Toilet Snorkel Do?

The toilet snorkel consists of an elastomeric mouthpiece and a long, rigid hose.

In case of an emergency, the user can snake the end of the rubber hose through a toilet into the pipes behind the toilet bowl. (Link) Then, fresh air flows from the tube into the mouthpiece.

The elastomeric mouthpiece is made of rubber or plastic, some kind of moldable material that can fit to a user’s mouth. The user can bite down like they would on a snorkel mouthpiece and seal the fresh air into their respiratory system.

If you’re having trouble thinking of a situation when you would want to breathe sewage gasses, you’re not alone.

The toilet snorkel is not exactly a device that people use for fun. Nobody sits down and thinks, “Gee, I wonder what it would be like to breathe sewer gas!”

However, the toilet snorkel is useful to have in case of an emergency, such as a fire.
The most common cause of death during fires is not burns as most people think. It’s actually smoke inhalation.

People in tall buildings often get trapped on upper floors where firefighters’ ladders can’t reach and suffocate before they can be rescued. The toilet snorkel was designed to give people temporary access to fresh air until help can arrive. The hose is travel-sized so tourists can take it in their carry-ons and use it in high rise hotels.

You’re probably wondering if dying isn’t preferable to breathing in sewage fumes (and if the end results wouldn’t be the same). However, the inventor of toilet snorkels thought of that as well.

Each snorkel comes with a charcoal filter that should prevent noxious fumes from reaching your respiratory system, only allowing clean air to pass through.

You may not like the idea of a toilet snorkel. However, it wasn’t designed to be a device that you use for fun. The inventor wanted to create something that could save people’s lives in case of a fire sucking out the breathable air in a room.

How Does A Toilet Snorkel Work?

You may be wondering, how do toilet snorkels work at delivering clean air through a toilet bowl, when toilet bowls are full of water? You don’t want to go through the trouble of snaking a device down your toilet only to fill your lungs with gross sewer water instead of precious air.

Toilet snorkels do deliver clean air through the tube thanks to the unique design of American sewage systems. All American interior plumbing systems have to have a vent pipe leading to the roof because the toilet siphons water and air when it flushes, creating a suction effect.

Normally, air from the vent pipe can’t get into your house because it is blocked by the P-trap, a small horizontal section of your toilet pipe that traps a little bit of water in it, even after you flush. The P-trap full of water creates a seal that blocks smelly sewage air from the vent pipe from getting into your home.

In the case of an emergency, you would snake the toilet snorkel past the P-trap and into the vent pipe to get access to fresh air. The P-trap would prevent smoke from getting into the vent pipe, so the air in there would stay cleaner (minus the stench of sewage gasses) long after the rest of the building fills up with smoke.

User guides recommend flushing the toilet first to expel any waste and sewage gasses, then inserting the toilet snorkel.

Is A Toilet Snorkel Effective?

The mechanics of the toilet snorkel make sense, but does this machine actually work?

The U.S. Patent Office clearly saw some benefit to it because they granted the machine a patent all the way back in 1982.

You might spot similar inventions to the toilet snorkel in your favorite action movies, such as Kingsman: The Secret Service. The production team behind many of these movies research their stunts in detail, so there has to be at least some way for it to work.

Do People Actually Use Toilet Snorkels?

Whether toilet snorkels work and whether people actually use them are two different questions.

For a while, it seemed as if toilet snorkels were an answer to a prevalent problem of people suffocating to death in building fires.

A separate inventor even patented a larger version of the machine for hotels and apartments to keep in their bathrooms in case of an emergency instead of expecting guests to bring their own.

However, the device never caught on beyond its status as a novelty. It’s easy to see why. Most people aren’t too enamored with the idea of breathing in sewage gasses, even when the alternative is potentially deadly smoke inhalation.

Using the toilet snorkel is also not as easy as it may seem. You have to snake the toilet snorkel at a precise angle and get it deep into the toilet system to get past the P-trap and access the vent.

Unless you’re familiar with the design of your toilet, you’re unlikely to get the snorkel at the right angle without practice even during the best conditions, let alone when you’re panicking because you’re trapped due to a fire.

What Are Other Ways To Prevent Smoke Inhalation?

There are a few precautions you can take to prevent smoke inhalation that hopefully won’t require you to breathe through a toilet.

If you notice a fire, get out immediately. Don’t wait and see what will happen, seek safety, and then worry about your possessions or calling the fire department. Double-check your exit routes and avoid any rooms that have billowing smoke. If you can’t get out, moisten towels and use them to seal gaps around the door frame or ventilation. This should prevent most smoke from getting in. Stay low to the ground since smoke rises and cover your face with a wet cloth as you wait for help.

The best way to prevent smoke inhalation is to react quickly. Make sure that your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are up-to-date and working. If you’re staying in a hotel, make sure that it has functioning smoke detectors and a good fire prevention system.

Luckily, you have less to worry about than the inventor of the toilet snorkel (who was actually inspired by a spate of hotel fires in the 1970’s and 1980’s).

Over the past few decades, American hotels have developed advanced fire prevention, detection, and extinguishing systems. Most come equipped with sophisticated smoke detectors and sprinkler systems that will put out any fires before you need to think about breathing through your toilet.

It also helps that fewer guests smoke indoors, eliminating some of the most common causes of hotel fires.

Related Questions

Here are a few more things that you should know about the toilet snorkel:

Who Invented The Toilet Snorkel And Why?

The toilet snorkel was first patented in 1982. Its inventor, William O. Holmes, called it “the fresh air breathing device and method.”

He was inspired by numerous cases of hotel fires in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when many guests staying on high floors died of smoke inhalation before they could be rescued.

Its sister device, the larger breathing device that attaches to a toilet seat, was patented in 1990.

Can You Get Unlimited Air Supply Through A Toilet?

Yes, once you get the toilet snorkel past the U-bend of a toilet, you have access to the vent pipe and an unlimited supply of fresh air.

The only factors that could affect your air supply is if the vent floods or if you don’t get the toilet snorkel far enough past the water in the pipe.

Conclusion

The toilet snorkel is the funkiest life-saving device that you’ve probably never heard of.

The snorkel works by connecting you to an unexpected source of fresh air during a fire—the vent behind your toilet.

The inventor created toilet snorkels for business travelers as hotel fires were a real hazard of the job in the 1980’s. For obvious reasons, it never caught on.

Luckily, most hotels today have far more effective fire prevention systems than encouraging travelers to breathe through a toilet if necessary.