As We Now Think

Reflections, commentary and analysis from Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

The Frustrations of a Luddite Handwasher

foot faucet

I have spent much of the last six months traveling. I’ve been in countless airports and train stations and I’m continually frustrated. No, it’s not the passport controls or security checks or baggage scans. It’s the bathroom sinks.  At least two decades ago it became fashionable in these places to equip the sinks with infrared scanners that you have to trigger with your hands before water comes out.  And I loathe them.

I have two major problems with them. First, at times they make me feel like a ghost. I put my hands right in front of them and the infrared trigger doesn’t seem to notice that I exist. I sometimes have to wave and jump up and down to trigger the flow of water. I have even been known to swear under my breath out of frustration. It is rather odd to fight with a sink so there are times when I simply give up and move to another faucet in the hopes that it will be more amicable.

Second, the faucets also offend my environmentalist side. I prefer to waste as little water as possible. When I wash my hands I turn the faucet off when I use the soap. The water is only on when I am using it. Electric sensor faucets don’t afford me such a luxury. If I can get them turned on they often stay on for the entire time I’m soaping my hands and then promptly turn off when I try to wash off the soap.  Sometimes I can sneak my hands back in before the water stops, but inevitably it is never enough time to finish the job. My hands are still soapy.

And then there is the probationary period.

I don’t know a lot about the technology, but I’m pretty sure there is an electronic brain in there somewhere.  That’s the only way I can explain the erratic nature of the water flow. It seems simple enough to turn the water on when hands are present and off again when they are not. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. The sensor designers must have been absolutely certain that teenage boys would go around putting large objects in sinks to trigger a continuous flow of water, thereby flooding bathrooms all around the globe. The electronic spigot engineers therefore put in an automatic stopping mechanism with some sort of time buffer before the water flow can be retriggered.

So as I stand there with soapy hands, I must wait… wait for the faucet’s electronic brain to decide that I’ve left before I put my hands back under the sensor in the hopes that it will start the water flow anew. It then, of course, will continue to spew water until after I’ve dried my hands and am just about to walk out the door. All told it will waste twice as much water as I would have used left to my own devices, delayed my exit from the bathroom, and left me quite frustrated.

I don’t know why our infrared faucet technology is so poor. I would like to think that after a decade of development and a couple decades of production we would have worked out the kinks. Our automatic public bathroom hand dryers put our faucets to shame. But what really frustrates me is that human ingenuity created a far superior technology that we have largely abandoned – the foot pedal faucet actuator.

You may have never seen one. But at some point in the grand history of technology a brilliant plumber created a simple lever attached to a foot pedal that, when depressed, opens the pipes and allows water to flow out of the tap.

Why do I like this technology so much?

First, it’s simple and easy to use. It responds immediately to the touch.

Second, it actually saves more water than a faucet equipped with normal hand knobs. Because you use your feet to turn it on your hands can be under the flow of water for every drop of water that comes out.

Third, it allows a complete separation of the electrical system and the water system. It’s not generally a good idea to get electrical devices wet. The foot pedal eliminates this possibility by simply eliminating the electronic device.

Fourth, it replaces climate change causing electrical power generation with free human power, which also means that it works when the power goes out.

Fifth, it requires almost no maintenance and can be fixed by anyone who understands basic levers and gears.

As with any technology, however, I must admit that there are some drawbacks. It’s probably not the easiest method for someone in a wheelchair to use. Perhaps it would be wise to keep one electronic tap for them. And foot pedal actuators can make novices very confused. I’ve seen people puzzled at the lack of hand knobs hold their hands up to a nonexistent sensor in the hopes that it would cause water to flow.

So if foot actuated faucets are so great, why don’t we have more of them? It is a common question in the history of technology. Often what some experts deem the “best” most efficient solutions are not widely adopted.  Some technical experts lamented the demise of Betamax for VHS since Beta had a better picture quality. But once the major movie studios (and much of the porn industry) signed up for VHS, consumers wisely flocked to the format and left Beta behind. So perhaps the infrared faucet marketers were brilliant and got everyone on board?

I suspect that there was a period when infrared sensors were in vogue – they satisfied the previously nonexistent desire to update your bathroom to the computer age. But I sort of feel like that desire should have worn off by now. I like to think of automatic spigots in the same category as talking cars and digital pets. Sure these are interesting technologies, but eventually their novelty wore off and we as a society decided we were better off without them. I would like to think that we could do the same with infrared faucets.

I know this is a trivial example, but I think it is a reminder that we often make our technologies more complicated than they need be. I’m not a complete Luddite. I am writing this on a laptop while flying in an Alitalia Airbus A321 on the way to Rome. I am very glad that this computer and plane are equipped with the latest microchip technology.  But when a mechanical mechanism works better than a more expensive, less reliable, power consuming electrical system, why not refine the original?

One comment on “The Frustrations of a Luddite Handwasher

  1. Cindy Salo
    December 27, 2012

    I say, “Yes, absolutely,” to your foot-operated handwashing sinks! I only see such things next to the porta potties at rodeos and state fairs in rural states. The ones I use are free standing and require you to pump the water from the reservoir to the faucet. But that’s a good thing, because I often need the exercise after eating a burger or corn dog at such venues.

    I have another beef with “modern” public restrooms: They’re terribly noisy! Noise is stressful and wears us out. It takes energy, usually fossil fuel, to generate the energy to make the noise. And all that noise frightens children. I’m hearing more kids in public bathrooms reluctant to use automatic toilets–because they flush unexpectedly–and the latest “Excel” hand driers–which must seem as noisy to them as the engine of the plane you’re on.

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This entry was posted on December 20, 2012 by in Technology Policy.
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