That Sinking Feeling

Written by cvan on

Washing your hands in a public washroom can be delightful.

Sink with analogue faucet

Traditional “analogue” faucets are reliable, so why have most been replaced with hands-free ones?

Known limitations

  • Faucet requires electric technology and sensors.
  • Finicky motion sensors make the water take a long time to start running or prematurely stop running before I’ve finished washing.
  • Water temperature is too warm/cold, or the water pressure is too strong/soft.

Ideal solutions

An ideal faucet is either an analogue faucet or a hands-free faucet with the following features:

  • Works without electricity. A good sink should be enhanced by electricity but not require it. I ought to be able to wash my hands by lifting a lever or pressing a mechanical button.
  • Start running the water when I say so. How does a good sink know a person is ready for the water to start running? The term “hands-free” doesn’t need to mean “wave your hands” or “stand in front of the sink.” Sinks with motion sensors use common gestures to make assumptions of intent. At best, the sink starts nearly instantaneously (even if you don’t want to wash your hands); at worst, the sink doesn’t start at all, and you walk out of the washroom with your hands still dirty. Although extraordinarily rare in my experience but effective: a foot lever. It prevents you from having to have to wave your hands, so you tell the sink when you’re ready (instead of it assuming), and it’s more sanitary avoiding the need to touch a physical knob. The design ought to be mindful of folks who are missing, unable, or unwilling to use their feet. Additionally, near the sink and at eye level in the mirror, there ought to be clear signage in an obvious location (and ideally with accessible signage in the commonly spoken languages of the washroom location, and with braille text as well).
  • Allow me to change the water temperature and pressure with a foot lever. I started noticing that in some washrooms with several sinks, the sinks appear to be arranged in order of faucet water temperature. from warmer to colder or vice-versa, colder to warmer. I’m still unclear whether these are intentionally designed patterns or a coincidental occurrences because of water flow and/or distance of pipes. For washrooms with more than one sink, arrange hands-free sinks in a predictable and uniform order based on water temperature: cold to warm. Or, riffing off the foot-lever idea, you could have the water temperature change based on the intensity with which you press your foot down.
    • The washrooms at the Shoreline Ampitheatre (Mountain View, California) have two circular communal sinks with about a dozen faucets. There’s a single foot pedals which controls the water pressure; one person presses it, and water runs from all the sinks.
    • The washrooms at the Golden Gate Park (San Francisco, California) during the annual Outside Lands Festival are port-o-potties. To wash your hands, there’s hand sanitiser in a dispenser that’s bolstered to the wall. Because these require a lot of manual maintenance to keep the dispensers full, it’s difficult to know if there is even any hand sanitiser in these stalls before entering. Many festival-goers bring their own portable travel bottles of hand sanitiser (usually hooked to a purse/backpack/fanny pack). Near most of the stalls there are portable sinks with foot pumps! You harder you slam your foot on the pumps, the more the water comes out (albeit it in drops, to conserve water). It’s effective but there are two obvious problems: not knowing whether there is any available water and being able to control (or discern before using) the temperature of the water. The solution to the temperature would be to actually show the water level (à la Keurig coffee machines – the personal, not industrial, ones). This not only helps set the correct expectations before using the sink, but it also hopefully helps you think about the amount of water you consume by washing your hands.