Monday, November 14, 2011

The British Faucet Conundrum


This post concerns the silly faucets, or “taps,” that predominate in the U.K. I will explore the possible reasons why such an inferior design persists, and what it says about British vs. American culture.

Double-taps everywhere

Consider this photo, from my UK vacation last summer:

I love the sign: “Now wash your hands.” In the U.S., of course, people (and especially customers) don’t like being told what to do, even if it’s something entirely reasonable. This is called Freedom. So the sign will say something like “Employees must wash hands” or, more likely, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work,” the implication being that if your shift is over, you can skip the hand washing. But there’s something else in the photo I want you to look at. It’s the sink. Pretty fancy, and with fancy taps. Two taps per sink. Now check out this photo, from the same trip:

Another fancy sink, but still the primitive two-tap design. This time a sign warns against scalding, which is a big risk when you try to wash your hands in such a sink. Look carefully at the round thingy at the back of the sink. I think there’s supposed to be a little chain with a rubber stopper attached there, so you can mix the hot and cold water in the basin. Since there isn’t, you have to move your hands back and forth between the taps, alternately parboiling and cooling them. And now, on to Exhibit C:

Look how short that tap is. It is impossible to run your hand under it without scraping it against the back of the sink. Is this because it’s a tiny little space-saving sink? No:

It’s a giant sink, actually. The tap is so short because, well … no reason. That’s just life. But wait, there’s more. Assuming this next sink had a stopper, would you dare mix water in its basin to try to clean your hands with?

Of course not. Now, we’ve all dealt with grody public restroom sinks (that one was in a $150 a night hotel in London). But at least in the US you can get warm water without involving the basin. Basic sanitation in the case of a grody British sink requires you to either wash your hands in cold only, or to scald/relieve/rinse/repeat.

Is this just because the sinks are really old? No, this next one looks like it’s from around the ‘70s when everything (including bathroom fixtures) became ugly:

All of the photos in this post are ones I snapped myself, of sinks I used during my summer vacation in London and Glasgow. During this trip I encountered exactly one sink offering the miracle of warm water out of a single tap. (I didn’t get a photo of it because I hadn’t yet thought up this blog post.)

Why double-taps?

In an attempt to answer this question I turned to the available literature, that being what I could easily find on the Internet. I found a number of interesting and amusing explanations for double-taps, not one of them satisfactory. Here are some highlights:

“With 2 taps on a basin, it is much better to wash and rinse off your face. With a single tap which is set in the middle of the basin, you can’t do that because you can bang your head on the tap if you tried to rinse off your face.”

Red tape. Older British homes often have storage tanks in their attics that feed water heaters. Under certain conditions, those tanks could be contaminated–for instance, by the intrusion of a rat–and tainted hot water that flows into a mixer-tap might get sucked into a cold-water pipe leading back to the public water supply, endangering the whole neighborhood. So regulations forbid mixing of hot and cold water streams inside a tap unless the tank meets strict standards or protective valves are installed.”

“Having the choice of either hot or cold for washing hands is an incentive to get it over and done with and not waste water.”

“Because we find 2 taps more aesthetically pleasing as well as being able to wash your hands and brush your teeth at the same time.”

“As far as double-taps go, it is the best way to deal with zombies.”

“I’m British and some houses in our street have an indoor toilet. Though we don’t speak to them as they think they are better than the rest of us.”

Now, I’m not going to comment on all of these, but I must refute the bit about banging your head. Consider Exhibit G:

If you look closely in the upper right corner you see the bottom edge of a drinking class—what the Brits call a “toothbrush holder”—and if I’d framed the photo a little differently you’d also see a glass shelf. I bashed my head into that shelf multiple times. The shelf was a real danger, as it was clear and at head level. But hitting your head on a tap? Please. (I mean, have you ever done it?)

As for washing your hands and brushing your teeth at the same time, I don’t see how this would be done, nor how double-taps would facilitate it. Perhaps it’s as facetious as the zombie explanation.

Which brings us to the “red tape” business. I’m not buying it—I mean, this isn’t the Dark Ages. How many homes and buildings still have the hot water tank up in the attic? And how hard would it be to rat-proof the tank? It’s not like you ever hear about the unregulated American water supply being fouled in this way. Besides, the UK regulation clearly does not apply anymore because there are single-tap warm water faucets to be found there.

USA #1 Let’s Roll … right?

Are we to conclude that, as evidenced by our single-tap (aka “mixer-tap”) faucets, the US is just better than the UK? Of course not. We fall short in so many ways. Most of our cities don’t have a decent subway, and the Bay Area one I use is way louder than that of London. Amtrak, though very cool, is a cruel joke compared to the train systems in the UK which are cheaper, quieter, more reliable, and have far greater reach. For retail purchases, America still hasn’t adopted the chip card (more secure than our old-fashioned magstripe cards). Meanwhile, our broadband Internet access is both slower and more expensive than what Europe and the UK have, even though we fricking invented the Internet.

Even around here, when you call a taxi, it can take forever to arrive, or it won’t come at all. Getting a cab in Glasgow was an amazing experience. I dialed the number, and a computer system read my caller-ID digits, looked up my address, and instantly announced that a cab would arrive in x minutes, or I could press 1 for more options. About a minute later the phone rang and the computer voice said, “Your cab is here.” (Actually it probably had some charmingly quaint name for “cab.” In fact, I seem to recall that the computer voice had a charming Scottish brogue.)

Evil faucet – American edition

Of course it would be irresponsible to discuss the inconvenient double-taps of the UK without admitting that we have some pretty awful faucets in the U.S. Consider our modern public restroom with all its little electric eyes for the faucet, the toilet, the paper towel dispenser, even liquid soap dispensers. These might be okay if they actually worked right, but so often they don’t. My hands, which aren’t exactly small, somehow miss the faucet sensor. Or the water comes on for a second and then cuts out, and I’m doing a little hand jive down there trying to get more. Or I’ll walk by the paper towel dispenser on the way to the urinal, and it’ll spew out unwanted paper. At the urinal, I’ll shift my position and it’ll flush while I’m still peeing. Worse yet is the toilet in the stall: once I’ve carefully arranged the little paper doughnut on the seat and then turned around to sit, it thinks I’ve left and flushes, taking my paper doughnut with it.

And what I just described is the Brave New World of automated restroom fixtures. What preceded these (and are still found in older restrooms) were really awful. Think of those spring-loaded restroom faucet handles, where the flow would stop if you let go. This meant you had to wash one hand while holding the faucet handle with the other. Washing just one hand was pretty much impossible—“one hand washes the other” being more than a figure of speech—plus you had to choose between cold and hot water unless your hand was big enough to span both handles.

When you stop to think about it, the public restroom sink reflects how the owner of the restroom views his society. In the UK, the assumption seems to be that the restroom user either a) enjoys the methodical process of mixing warm water in the basin to wash with; b) is okay washing with only cold water; or, c) doesn’t mind the scald-and-relieve cycle, being a stoic Brit with a talent for resignation. In the US, it is apparently assumed that the restroom user can’t be bothered to turn off the damn water, and would blithely walk away while it was still running, wasting untold gallons.

Consumer demand

Of course we Americans have never suffered spring-loaded faucet handles in our homes, and throughout my life I’ve enjoyed mixer-taps (with the one exception of a really cool old apartment in Rockridge, which also had radiators instead of forced-air heating). I’ve already replaced both of the older mixer-tap faucets in my house (with new mixer-taps): the kitchen one because it was a piece of crap, and the bathroom one because it wouldn’t stop dripping. I hired a plumber to fix the bathroom sink, and he told me that the thing was obsolete, and the $0.04 washer we needed was no longer available, and we had to get a whole new faucet assembly. Worse yet, our sink (which looked no more than ten or fifteen years old) was outmoded and wouldn’t accept the new faucet, so I had to replace it, too. By the end of the ordeal I was out over a grand.

Did I mind? No way, man, I’m an American consumer! This is what I do! As everybody knows, we Americans are well steeped in the tradition of keeping up with the Joneses (actually, surpassing them) by buying the latest and greatest of everything. Planned obsolescence is not only tolerable, it’s something we’re complicit in. Not only do we want that new thing, we want to be the first to have it. Think of the people who lined up to get the iPhone, and before that the people who lined up to buy Windows 95.

I don’t get the impression that the British are like this. Recall that double-tap explanation I quoted earlier: “I’m British and some houses in our street have an indoor toilet. Though we don’t speak to them as they think they are better than the rest of us.” Of course it’s a joke, but I think there’s something to it. Solidarity seems to still have a place in the UK, in contrast to the American spirit of outdoing your fellow man whenever possible.

Can we learn from the British?

Look, I’m not going to say we should all try to be British. A lot of their self-imposed consumer restraint is fricking lame—like not having a microwave oven or a dishwasher or a clothes dryer. I went for years without a dishwasher and it didn’t make me a better person. And of course for an American to special-order an English-style double-tap sink would be an absurd affectation. (Meanwhile, washing your hands with cold water, as the double-tap arrangement tends to involve, is non-hygienic according to this article and this one.)

But there’s something to be said for the Brits’ “don’t-gimmick-me” approach. I’ve seen some really pointless innovations in the US: the electric can opener; oval-shaped chainrings for bikes; the motorized necktie rack; and most recently the Rabbit instant wine bottle opener. Why do we need to open a bottle of wine in three seconds flat? If we’re in such a rush, why not go all the way and swap out the cork for a spigot? (Oh, wait, we’ve done that, too.) And as if the original Rabbit weren’t bad enough, we now have the electronic Rabbit with an illuminated LCD screen showing how many cork pulls are left before the battery is dead. God forbid we should have the thing conk out unexpectedly, and have to open a bottle using a hand-powered corkscrew.

But wait, you might say, why should I hold people’s stupid gadgets against them? Isn’t that their business? No, because once the consumer gets used to being overly coddled, he gives up the old ways, and the market follows his lead, depriving people like me of traditional products. Too often, aesthetics suffer for it, as mere utility trumps all. For example, the modern ketchup bottle: just look at it, compared to its vastly superior ancestor:

It’s almost as though the plastic bottle is designed to reflect the stout physique of the modern American. Instead of having to master the subtle air-bubble-sliding technique, the consumer can now force the ketchup out as fast as he wants to speed along his feeding frenzy. The squeeze bottle even makes a fitting flatulent sound as it spews. Revolting. And yet the plastic bottle has become so popular it is now the norm, and you can’t even find a proper glass bottle in the supermarket anymore. Until recently, I had to talk waitresses into selling them to me. But guess what? It turns out you can still get the traditional glass bottle of Heinz ketchup in the supermarket—but only in the UK.

dana albert blog


  1. "Surpassing the Jonses," that brought back memories--remember when Billy's parents renovated their kitchen in Yuppiedom, and how critical we were of their $200 faucet? We were critical of their fancy hinged cupboard doors, fancy drawers and so many other things, but it was the faucet that took the cake. You could buy a bike for that kind of money! Just for a faucet that you'd use a few minutes a day! We were there for the kitchen-remodel-open-house when another mom from down the hill in Yuppidom, who was considering her own remodel (to keep up, or, if possible, surpass), came to see the faucet. She was practically drooling over it. Ah, youth, we knew so much.

    Speaking of youth, it's no wonder Americas need to be told to wash their hands, it's practically impossible in most rest areas, for example, as you note--they're not making this lesson any easier. I found that the only way to do it was to balance on one foot and hold the faucet knob open with the other foot, while washing both hands, together, at the same time, under the stream of frigid (or boiling, take your pick) water. This technique doesn't help the knob be any more hygienic, but then again, was it ever?

    I remember using this amazing hand-washing machine in a McDonnald's bathroom once: it was this big box you put your arms into, reminiscent of a "glove box" ( used for handling radioactive materials. First it sprayed your hands with jets of hot, soapy water from all directions, then went through a rinse cycle and finally a dry cycle. It was amazing, the coolest thing I've ever seen at a McDonnald's, and if I had had kids at the time, I'd have considered installing one in my own bathroom. Come to think of it, it would probably have cost more than $200, though...

  2. Just the other day I heard some Brits complaining about how American taps mix the hot and cold water together. Ok for washing, but disgusting for drinking (apparently).

    NOT AMERICAN... so stick that in your hat and smoke it.
    In typical fashion of most americans you try to take credit for most when you don't have a creative bone in your bodies.. give credit where credit is due.. not to mention the fact that you stole most patents off of the Brits when you decided to pathetically decided to pitch up for the tail end of ww2. thanks.. wankers.

    1. WWW is not the Internet, it's a internet service (one of many).

  4. There is a remarkably simple solution to the 'hot water tastes bad' problem - you let the cold water run for a second or two before you fill your glass. Flushes the water in the tap out, replaces it with pure cold. It's not exactly rocket surgery.

    (Tim Berners-Lee did indeed invent the world wide web, which is a system that runs atop the internet, which predates it. The Americans can quite legitimately claim the internet.)

  5. The Two-Tap system is a most loved grievance of mine,yet in the kitchen.Where there is one faucet,regardless it doesn't help.It appears the hot and cold come out the faucet in discrete spots,which leads to the fascinating experience of burning your hands while freezing them in the meantime.

    Eric Franklin.