Posted by: Catherine Weston | February 2, 2012

Hot and cold taps

So why do most British homes have separate hot and cold taps (see December post)? (Note for transatlantic readers, tap = faucet!)

Reasons of history:

A high proportion of British housing stock dates to the 19th and early 20th century, before efficient mixer taps and modern valves were available. Some of our housing is much older than that – one of the consequences of living in a part of the world which has few earthquakes (see August post). When interior plumbing was introduced it would have begun with a simple system piping cold water straight from the mains into the kitchen.  Hot water was later added separately, hence a dual system.

Reasons of health and hygiene:

Early plumbing systems used pipes of lead, so while cold water from a lead pipe may be potable, you wouldn’t want to drink hot water that has come through a lead pipe, as the higher temperature will have caused it to pick up contaminants. I am not unusual in having grown up in a house built in the 1860s, which had some original pipe work. For this reason my mother always insisted that the kettle or any water for cooking should come from the cold tap. It made sense to keep the systems separate.

So much for history, what about today? Mixer taps with sophisticated valves are readily available and new homes are built with plastic water pipes.  All the same, even though many old houses in Britain have had their plumbing and sanitary ware modernised, why is it that you still find separate hot and cold taps?  Here some other factors come into play.

Reasons of cost:

Single taps are cheaper to buy. When it came to renovating our 1930s bathroom on a tight budget a few years ago, the choice between mixer and singles was a no brainer. I guess single taps may also be cheaper to fix.  They may need to have a washer replaced from time to time, but homeowners competent in practical tasks can maybe do it themselves (and we did).

Reasons of practicality:

Who says that mixer taps are more convenient?  In my current bathroom (only 2 years old, but not renovated by me) I would much rather the wash hand basin had one tap in each corner, because the one sticking out in the middle gets in the way if I want to wash my hair in the basin. Seriously! – That’s how I always did it growing up! In some contexts a combined tap makes sense – like the one in the little basin in my downstairs cloakroom, where space is limited.

This discourse was triggered by the thought that cultural values (which we often don’t realise we have) affect every day behaviour and attitudes.  I think the real reason why we Brits hang on to our single taps is because as a nation we are prepared to tolerate minor inconveniences if the alternatives are a) more expensive and b) involve changing a familiar system which works perfectly well. To my American friends who are baffled I say – what’s the big deal?  Learn to use the plug like we do!

Separate hot and cold taps in my utility room

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Responses

  1. We have a mixer tap in our kitchen, and it’s a pain to use. Every time you want a glass of drinking water, you have to let it run for 30 seconds so that the water is cold and doesn’t tase horribly metalic because it’s come from the hot water tank. Then when you need to wash up, you have to run it again to get the hot coming through. For a spiritual application from Jesus, see Revelation 3:14-16!

  2. Reblogged this on Ain't Mine No More and commented:
    One of the enduring mysteries of British culture! I reckon this is the real reason: “I think the real reason why we Brits hang on to our single taps is because as a nation we are prepared to tolerate minor inconveniences if the alternatives are a) more expensive and b) involve changing a familiar system which works perfectly well.”
    I love the place! 🙂 But NOT the single taps!

  3. […] supermarket and public transport and cope with different plumbing arrangements, even if they are mystifying. Setting aside for the moment the hurdle of communicating in another language and dealing with the […]


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