Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Are You British? Does Tap Sanity Elude You?

Why visitors to Britain complain about taps

Most visitors to Britain end up, sooner or later, becoming enraged by the plumbing. If they settle in the country they usually end up complaining about it, sometimes going off on lengthy and even hostile rants. (If this happens in a pub after a few pints, the situation can get very embarrassing and uncomfortable for everyone involved.) Most Britons don’t understand the reasons behind the complaints, since, knowing no other type of plumbing, they consider British plumbing normal. They are therefore, understandably, hurt and offended by the criticism. Since this is a blog dedicated to critique of plumbing of various kinds, we thought we’d try to explain why British taps unleash so much aggression.

Mainly, it’s to do with water temperature. With separated taps, you get two temperatures: scalding hot and freezing cold. Since most people prefer their skin intact and free of dangerous burns, one ends up washing one’s hands and brushing one’s teeth using freezing cold water. This is, simply, unpleasant. Brits often argue that one can fill up the sink with tempered water. This is true, but is it practical, or even hygienic? Would you fill up the sink to wash your hands in a train station, for instance, where you don’t know when the sink was last cleaned, or what kind of bodily fluids have gone into it? And why go to the trouble of filling it up at all, when a mixer tap will instantly provide you with water at the temperature of your choice? (Unless, of course, it is one of those bizarre British mixer taps which separate the hot and cold water inside the water stream.) As to Boris Johnson’s comments regarding getting hand-washing “over and done with”, we consider them downright dangerous. Cf. the NHS guidelines to handwashing.
The author Judith Flanders, in her excellent book The Victorian House, (London: Harper Perennial, 2004) points out that when indoor plumbing was first introduced in Britain, the people who could afford it had servants, and thus didn’t need hot-water taps at all, since they could employ people to heat and carry water (for a factual and unbiased account of Victorian technical developments, see this blog post). When taps became more common, hot-water taps were often added as an afterthought, and thus it became standard practice to keep hot- and cold-water taps separated (for a brief history of British plumbing, have a look at these pictures from the Castle Museum in York).  James R. Hagerty, in his article “Old-Fashioned Faucets: Unique British Standard” in the Wall Street Journal (31 October 2002; we found it on another blog) also lists the desire to keep Victorian houses looking Victorian as one of the reason why Britons so strangely persist with their uncomfortable plumbing arrangements.

How many men end up with burns due to shaving using scalding hot water? How many people with sensitive teeth end up in severe discomfort after rinsing their mouth with icy cold water? How often do you scald your left foot topping up the bath water?  One of the people interviewed in the Wall Street Journal article opines that she likes twiddling the bath taps with her toes. You can still do this with a mixer tap. So many of life’s little unpleasantnesses could be done away with if mixer taps were installed!

There are many other irritating aspects of British plumbing, like the unwieldy, disability-hostile toilet flush handles, the instalment of pipes outside which causes them to freeze in winter (for an unpleasant example and downright scary pictures, see our previous blog post on this subject), and the lack of drains in bathroom floors, causing leaking water to permeate the entire building and making it even damper than it already was, but we fear that contemplating them for too long would have a negative effect on our health and mental wellbeing, and so we believe it safer to leave them for another day and another blog post.

Apparently Jamie Oliver has had to weld the toilet handles to the toilets in his restaurants, since guests habitually steal them. Why someone would steal such an annoying, impractical contraption is beyond us. Image from ifood.

As a counter-argument to the reasons for complaint stated above, let us present the views of a friend of a friend, resident in Sweden:

I've been trying to develop a system to SEPARATE your hot and cold since I came here.
I mean seriously, what kind of country is this with no extremes on a day-to-day basis? You've got summer and winter at opposite sides of the year - we get it every day! Scotland and Wales get it 4 or 5 times a day! Then you develop safe cars, and safe taps, and double glazing (probably not Swedish, but triple glazing has to be!). Everything's so bloody LAGOM!
Great Britain became great through urgency, fear and panic... Daily doses of it! We NEED to be unsure if we can handle the temperature of the water.... How do you think we motivate ourselves to go to war so often? Even if there is no enemy, we can always rely on the French for a fight!.... And as for driving on the wrong side of the road - you guys had it right... then changed! How do you develop xenophobia in liberal people that travel? That's right, force them to drive on the wrong side of the road in the countries they travel to.... Now that's a base-level of fear that can motivate middle-class intellectuals to fight anything foreign.... Sooner we get the empire up-and-running again the better.... Where's my G&T and mogadon?

Does this blog post enrage you? Do you have opinions on British plumbing? Do not hesitate to e-mail us at theprivycounsellor [at ] gmail.com. 

Related Reading
Alien vs. Predator: Blood, Gore and Mixer-Taps
Terminator Toilet
Mixer Taps - The Great Controversy, or, When Will Britain Enter the 21st Century?, or, You Are Not Alone!  


  1. BUT...

    1. You want hot water to be hot, and cold water to be as cold as possible. I very rarely find hot water that's too hot for washing, and cold water should be as cold as possible. If something's too hot, you can quickly move your hands between the taps - maybe the British have evolved this skill - but you shouldn't mix hot water with cold water if it's for toothbrushing/drinking, as the hot water is 'stood' and isn't good to drink. Therefore, no need for mixer taps!

    In fact, this is one reason why I distrust mixer taps - I'm aware that some hot water might be coming through when I want cold water, and water delivered via the hot water pipes is NOT safe to drink - so keep them separate!

  2. 1. A mixer tap will give you really hot water and really cold water, and everything in between!
    2. No, you cannot "quickly move your hands between the taps" - you still burn yourself! This is also annoying and unhygienic.
    3. The rest of the civilized world seems to manage.
    4. When you're ready to leave the middle ages, we will welcome you with a pleasant bath.

  3. Who DRINKS the water when washing their hands/brushing their teeth/washing their dishes? Why would you EVER drink that, whether you have mixed or seperate taps? Use straight up cold water for drinking....pretty simple. Somehow I've managed with mixed taps for my whole life in the US.....

    *Please note, I am not one of those people who swallows water when brushing my teeth.....but even so, I don't see why you couldn't just switch it back to cold when you wanted to 'drink' the water after brushing (although the thought alone makes me want to gag). :-P


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