ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 1. The water-saving tap

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The Independent Culture
THE THEORY of the water-saving tap is sound enough. Taps in public places get vandalised. They are left running. They drip, their washers worn from excessive use. When the self-closing tap was patented by Pegler in the early 1950s there was every reason for regarding it as a miracle panacea.

Using a shut-off delay mechanism in conjunction with a diaphragm or piston, it supposedly supplied water-flow for just long enough to wash your hands (the latest examples can be adjusted to last anything from 10 to 30 seconds) and no more. They were designed in a bullet-proof way to foil vandals, produced immediate savings of up to 75 per cent on water and fuel bills and safeguarded against accidental - or deliberate - flooding. Theoretically they were more hygienic, too, because you didn't have to touch the tap after washing your hands.

So ran the theory, all too convincingly. Hardly a service station, hotel or pub in the land is not now infested with these miserable devices. The tap fails, of course, because it is never correctly adjusted. Never. A touch on the handle releases a jet like a fire hose (which ricochets off the basin into your groin). Or - more usually - a mighty shove on the handle yields a two- to three-second trickle. Operating the taps requires three arms: one to depress the mechanism while the other two do the washing. Nor, of course, is it faintly hygienic. The stream generally gives out just as your hands are thoroughly soaped. Unless you choose to operate the mechanism with your chin, you must use your slimily unrinsed hands. Hence the taps' familiar congealed state.

The problem is that these taps are designed for vandals and wastrels rather than for the benefit of their regular users. The result is a device of unparalleled user hostility. They produce savings, as anything will produce savings when it provides less of something. But by catering for the very lowest level of society they are nagging reminders of society's baseness. They are a cover for idleness and parsimony, and as such carry the English tradition of service with a scowl into hard material form.