For literally decades, I have been fuming over the myriad design errors of the so-called “modern” bathroom. Whether through historical habit, inappropriate penny-pinching, or just a chronic lack of design intelligence, there are all kinds of ways that a bathroom could serve its customers better. These missed opportunities range from “what it does now works well enough, but wouldn’t it be nice if it also did this other thing” to “it doesn’t suck at that, but for little or no extra cost/effort, it could do it a lot better, so why not?” to “that’s totally stupid and irritating and no bathroom should every be built like that again.”
Let’s start with the sink. What is a sink for? Personally, I find I use the bathroom sink for two main functions. One is washing stuff off my face and hands, and the other is as a convenient way of disposing of something. Start with the classic task of washing your hands before dinner. The recommended method is to wet your hands, apply soap, scrub them (front and back!) for about 15 seconds (longer than you think!) then rinse.
Hopefully you didn’t leave the water running the whole time you were scrubbing your hands. But if you didn’t, now you have to turn the water back on in order to rinse. How many sinks have round knobs on the faucet? Way too many. Your hands are covered in soap! One of the best designs for faucet valve handles was introduced over a hundred years ago; those classic white ceramic cross-shaped knobs. Even better is a long lever that you can push to get the quantity and temperature of water you desire, perhaps even moving it with your wrist so you don’t even have to wipe soap off the handle when you’re done.
In fact, we can do even better than that. My parents are, even as I write this, planning to upgrade their bathroom sink to a hands-free faucet; one that turns the water on by using a sensor to detect your desire for flowing water. Public bathrooms have had these for years as a way to keep people from leaving the water running indefinitely, but some home models are wave-on, wave-off or use proximity sensors to keep the water flowing as long as you’re near the spout. However, currently all the ones I looked at still need some kind of handle to set the water temperature, so whether you get a sensing faucet or not, you still deserve a faucet that has something better than slippery round knobs.
We do have such faucets, of course. But we also have showrooms full of dysfunctional crap, suitable only for a McGuest Bathroom. This would be the lavatory near the entrance of a McMansion, the overly-large, overly-pretentious houses that homebuilders have thrown up in cheap suburbs. They almost always have cathedral ceilings in the entryway, because one of the purposes of a McMansion is to try to impress a visitor with how important/wealthy/upper-class-y the owner is. We don’t want visitors wandering into the giant master suite bathroom with the sunken tub, so they get a little half-bath conveniently located on the main floor, with the stone or blown-glass wash basin and artistic faucets that are so high-end that you can’t even figure out what part you’re supposed to move to make water come out.
I confess that there is a part of me that really loves Bathroom-As-Art. The sink basin that was a rubber sheet, with the drain in the bottom pulling the sheet downward to keep the water from going everywhere. The sink that sort of rose from the floor, everything balanced on one thin chrome stalk. The infinity-pool bathtub with window panels that allow one to take a bath outdoors on nice days. Gorgeous showpieces, as long as nobody has to actually use them, or even worse, keep them clean.
But for your day-to-day working bathroom? I think not. The bathroom is a workspace you use multiple times every day. Unless you’re trying to relax with a long hot bath, you want to get in, get done, and get out quickly and efficiently. You want it to stay as clean as possible with as little effort as possible. You want it, in short, to just work.
Back to that sink. Is the basin big enough? Is there even room under the faucet for you to get your hands, and rub them, in order to get the soap off? If you want to rinse soap off your face, can you bend over, catch water in your hands, ‘splash’ it on your face, and have the water fall back into the basin and not onto the counter? The basin needs to be deep enough that you can swish something around in it (a safety razor, your hands) without water getting out, and wide enough that you can work over it and have it catch things (water from your face, hair trimmings).
Now, “wide enough” depends a lot on how far away that basin is. This is one place where almost every bathroom I’ve ever used has demonstrated institutionalized stupidity. It’s almost impossible to find a home remodeling book or design text that will even consider the issue of counter height. For that, we have to turn to industry, and the OSHA regulations. They have very strong opinions, based on mountains of ergonomic research. For the kind of stuff you do in front of a sink, your arms and back will be best served if your work surface lies just beneath your hands when your forearms are parallel to the floor. I’m referring to tasks like shaving; applying make-up; combing, brushing, or blow-drying your hair; and other tasks where you’re picking things up from the counter, or working on the counter but in a way that doesn’t require applying a lot of force.
Now, that’s OSHA’s recommendation for a general work surface. A sink needs to be a bit lower, because you need to be able to get your hands down into the basin for washing and rinsing, so a better height is one where you hold your upper arms against your sides and angle your forearms downward at a 45º angle. The sink basin should surround your hands.
Go ahead, try standing like that in your bathroom. How far away is the basin? Six inches? A foot? Foot and a half? Oh, I know, it’s much easier for tall people to bend over to get to a sink that’s too low than for short people to use a sink that’s too tall, but the ‘standard’ height of bathroom counters is so low that it’s too low for anybody more than five feet tall. What about children? Oh, please. Children are old enough to use the sink long before they’re tall enough even under the current stupidly-short standard; they have to use a stool for a few years. Putting the sink closer to a comfortable and more functional height for grown-ups just means the stool has to be there for another year or two.
I am, to be sure, unusually tall for a human being. I do not expect the world’s bathrooms to be engineered to keep a 193cm person happy. Nor am I talking about what needs to happen in public bathrooms here; those should be built to provide useful services to an extremely wide range of people, even if it means making it inconvenient for many in order to make it accessible for a few. But the residential bathroom is used by just a few people over and over again, and it should be built accordingly. Because at 30”, the ‘universal’ bathroom sink is quite a bit shorter than my pants’ inseam, and if I can pee into the sink, it’s just too damn low.
Please, in the name of intelligent thought and good design, do not confuse what you’ve gotten used to with what actually works best. If you tried standing over your bathroom sink with your arms out and then said “Oh, no, that would be way too high,” then try imagining it just 6” higher than it is now. Does that still seem too high? It shouldn’t, because that’s the height of just about every kitchen counter in the USA. Maybe you cook (or use your bathroom) very differently from me, but I do more stuff on the countertop in the kitchen, and more stuff above the countertop (usually looking in the mirror) in the bathroom, and (again, as per OSHA’s exhaustively researched regulations), the industry-standard kitchen countertop height of 36” is ideal for somebody who’s about 5’5” tall.
To get from “that’s so stupid, why would anybody ever do that” to “it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t suck,” the counter needs to move up about six inches. But why settle for that? The best solution, and only marginally more expensive than the worst solution, is to have adjustable height counters. I recently went shopping at Ikea for a replacement to the piece of crap holding the sink in the house I moved into last year, and discovered to my utter joy that they have a line of cabinets that bolt to the wall! Hooray! I can put this cabinet at whatever height I flippin’ well want to! I have a stool for shorter guests, and if/when I move out, the new owners can reposition it to suit themselves.
One huge advantage that might not be obvious to many is it’s so much easier to clean up after I’ve trimmed my beard. In my old bathroom, the short little bits of hair ended up all over everything, because they had such a long way to fall before landing on the counter. Now they all fall into the basin, since the basin’s actually up somewhere kinda near, oh, y’know, my face.
That’s my biggest use for a sink that falls into my second category, “disposing of something.” I’ve also used the bathroom sink to wash out fountain pens, scrub gummy label residue off jars, and other small cleaning tasks. For years the canonical sink drain could be plugged by either a rubber stopper (perhaps on a chain), or by a chrome disk that rose and fell when you pulled a knob on the back. To get the knob to work meant having a bunch of levers and stuff inside the drain, and having a hole in the drain for the lever to pass through. All kinds of things well suited to impede the drain flow, catch hair, and leak. The lever often doesn’t lift the disk more than a few millimeters, so lumpier things (maybe some small gravel you’re cleaning off your shoes) can’t go down, and the sink takes a long time to drain, even before all the hair that gets tangled inside starts making it even slower.
The one positive feature I see is that you can open the drain without putting your hand in the water. How often have I filled my bathroom sink with water that I then don’t want to put my hand in? Not very often. Not often enough to make up for the times I’ve had to get inside the cabinet and unscrew parts of the drain in order to release the plug so I could clear all the slimy disgusting hair that was clogging things, or replace the broken plug, or adjust the lever so the plug would rise high enough to drain the sink in less than an hour.
As long as we’re down there looking at the plumbing, let’s take a closer look. There are cabinet doors in front of the sink, yes? And you do keep some stuff in that cabinet, but probably not a lot, because there’s all those pipes right in the middle that take up space and are just generally in the way. This is another case where some thoughtful designer at Ikea caused me to quit taking ‘stupid’ for granted.
You see, with just a tiny bit of thought and practically no extra effort, it’s not that hard to position the drain pipes so the first thing they do is head toward the back of the cabinet, especially if you don’t try to include all the mechanisms to make the stopper rise up and down. You direct the drain pipe toward the back of the cabinet, and then plumb the P-trap (that’s the U-shaped segment, and yes, it’s there for a couple of very good reasons, the main one being smell management). There are also sink designs where the drain is already near the back of the sink instead of smack-dab in the middle, but wherever it starts, if it heads for the back of the cabinet first, it leaves you with much more usable space under the sink.
Something else I’ve put under the sink a couple of times is a hose bib. “Hose bib” is the technical term for a faucet to which you can attach a garden hose. It’s one of those things that you might never need, but on the other hand, might be really really handy. When a plumber’s installing the hot and cold water pipes for the sink, it’s a trivial bit of extra work (maybe $5 in parts and $15 of extra time) to include an extra cold-water outlet right next to the one that the sink hooks onto, with the threaded nozzle for a hose. And what would you use it for? Well, I’ve used it to fill my waterbed. I can easily imagine somebody with a large dog who’d managed to get covered in mud using it to wash the poor dear. The hand-held shower attachments usually don’t have a hose long enough to easily use down at the level of a dog, nor do they put out all that much water. You might have an inanimate object that needs cleaning, where being able to blast it with water from your garden sprayer would be a lot faster than what the tub/shower normally provides. Or if you have a lot of indoor plants, I’ve seen kits (generally intended for outdoor potted plants) where you attach a small coiled hose to your faucet and wander around squirting water on the plants without having to lug a full watering can all over the place.
As I said, you could have one for a decade and never use it. You only have to use it once, though, for it to have paid for itself. I plan to include a hose bib under either my kitchen sink or my bathroom sink whenever possible for the rest of my life, because it’s been handy enough to justify the minor extra effort and cost.
How many electrical cords do you have near your sink? I have an electric toothbrush, my electric razor, and the beard trimmer. Ten years ago, living in a house where the bathroom didn’t even have a counter (it was a pedestal sink), there was also my spouse’s water-jet tooth cleaning gizmo. Twenty years ago, when I was living in a condo, I also had a hair dryer.
The condo was fairly new, and the bathroom sink had a generous amount of counter space to either side as well as electrical outlets in the walls on either end of the counter. Still, it wasn’t hard to use up the outlets, and I had cords running across the counter. So I tapped into one of the junction boxes, and added four more outlets inside the cabinet. Then I cut a hole into the counter, and dropped in one of those cord portals like you see in some office desks.
After that, the electric razor and toothbrush sat on the counter near the sink, where they were very handy, but the cords disappeared right away, down into the cabinet. The blowdryer was in a drawer, but when I opened the drawer, I could start blow drying instantly; it was plugged in inside the cabinet. Everything was handy, everything was ready, everything was neat and tidy.
In my current bathroom with the fabulous wall-mounted cabinet, I have a power strip fastened inside near the back, and my various electrical devices are in the drawers. (It has drawers, not doors, because Ikea routes the plumbing so far back in the cabinet that they can actually have big deep drawers right underneath the sink.) The power strip cord comes out the bottom and plugs into the outlet in the wall. The counter on this cabinet isn’t really big enough to leave everything sitting out, but all the rechargeable stuff still stays plugged in as it should.
Outlets inside the cabinet? Won’t they get wet? No. The power strip is up high and on the far left, so it’s above and not that close to the hoses and pipes. Back in the condo, I didn’t put the counter cut-out right over the outlets! They’re off to one side and fairly high, where it would be very hard for water to reach. And even if it does, for the last few decades, building codes have required GFCIs (ground-fault circuit interrupters) in bathrooms, which will cut power to an outlet blindingly fast if they detect any sign of electricity going places it’s not supposed to. In-cabinet electrical outlets are another bathroom feature I intend to never live without again.
After years of stagnation (no pun intended), the toilet is actually moving forward, thank heavens. Even as we move toward toilets that use one half or even one third as much water as the older units, they’ve been using computer-aided design and research to make them better at moving “number two” down the drain. The biggest problems here tend to be people dragging their feet on installing “better” because it’s “different.”
As previously mentioned, I’m pretty tall, but even short adults don’t usually find the furniture in an elementary school classroom comfortable. Community Playthings recommends a 14″ tall chair for children 6 to 9 years old. Adults are encouraged to go for 18″*. PlumbingPro.com and Mansfield Toilets (and everybody else in the industry) will tell you that the ‘standard’ height toilet is 14.5″. Even if you add an inch for the seat (the seat is the part with a hole in it, the lid is the part that does not), that’s still elementary-level seating. Yes, I know that, in theory, the best position for pushing out poo is with your torso folded almost double. This would make the Asian-style ‘squat’ toilet the theoretical ideal. And yet, even the Japanese are transitioning to Western-style sitting toilets. If you really need the assistance of that geometry, you can always lean forward.
You can get toilets tall enough for adults, but, well, I think the names used for them is very telling. “Standard” is 14.5 inches. “Comfort-height” is 16.5 inches, and “ADA-compliant” is 17-19″. Kohler calls them “Comfort Height®”, but Mansfield and PlumbingPro also call them “comfort height”. American Standard calls them “Right Height.” They also have Right Height sinks, which are 36″ off the ground because “using a sink or toilet shouldn’t be a burden”. I quite agree!
Then there’s the question of cleaning up. How is it that we’re still wiping our behinds with paper? Dry paper? If you’ve just had a yummy meal with mashed potatoes and gravy, do you think you’ll be able to clean the plate by just wiping it with a paper towel? No soap, no water, just the paper towel. Yea, imagine doing that, then putting it in the cupboard. You call that clean? Yuk!
I mentioned this to one acquaintance, and he replied “that’s why the sink’s next to the toilet; so you can get the toilet paper wet if you need to.” Except that it isn’t always next to the toilet. That’s generally only true for really small bathrooms, and quite frankly, I think that’s coincidence, not deliberate design.
A few years ago, I treated myself to an upgraded toilet seat. Since bathroom designers rarely think to put an outlet near the toilet, sometimes I’ve had to find a good place to run an extension cord, but man, has it been worth it. My 21st century toilet seat has a small tank of water, which it keeps pleasantly warm, and which it uses to rinse my posterior at the touch of a button. It also has a blower for drying me off, so it’s theoretically possible to take care of everything hands-free, but in practice, I usually dry off with a single piece of toilet paper; it’s a lot faster than waiting to air-dry. The other luxuries it offers include a lid that gently lowers into position instead of slamming with a bang, and a heated seat, which is so nice when one gets up at night in winter and stumbles in to use the facilities.
When I was a child, I assumed that the bizarre doll with the crocheted dress that sat on the family toilet was just something my mom did for decoration. I thought it was rather ugly, but grown-ups often did mysterious things. It wasn’t until I was in charge of my own bathroom that I realized the purpose of that doll. The huge crocheted dress went over the top of a roll of toilet paper. I had to admit, ugly as it was, the doll was prettier than just having the toilet paper sitting on the back of the toilet, and you wouldn’t want to not have it at all, because then what do you do when you run out of the roll that’s on the toilet-paper dispenser?
Which simply begs the question, why isn’t there someplace for the spare roll in the first place? They figured that one out for public bathrooms years ago! Why isn’t there a little cabinet or drawer near the toilet? Why aren’t there two toilet paper hangers by the commode? Why do people have to come up with ad-hoc solutions to a problem that applies to every single toilet where it’s customary to use toilet paper???
Pardon me while I make a slight digression. There is, of course, a long-standing disagreement around the issue of the proper position to leave a toilet seat in. Let us say, for example, that a woman who lives alone has some friends over one evening, or maybe she’s throwing a party. Later that night, still half-asleep, she goes into the bathroom, sits down, and falls into the bowl because the seat isn’t down as usual. I think it’s safe to assume that a male guest last used the toilet, and left the seat up.
In this particular case, the guy just screwed up. If you’re using somebody else’s toilet, I think it’s pretty clear you should put it back the way you found it. (Actually, I think there’s an even better thing to do, which I’ll get to in a minute.) If, on the other hand, there are both men and women living in the same house and sharing the facilities, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut. On the one hand, since guys sometimes need the seat down, but women always do, there’s a case to be made that seat-down should be the standby condition. On the other hand, since people pee more often than they poo, having the seat down all the time means that there will be times a guy pees, puts the seat down, comes back later, and lifts it back up again, resulting in unnecessary extra seat-flapping, as well as putting the entire burden of seat management on the male.
Personally, I think that the reality is that women need to pay attention to whether the seat’s up or not, even if its their own toilet, if they’ve had male visitors. Even nice people (men and women, thank you) are sometimes careless, thoughtless, or distracted. As to whether men ought to leave the seat down, if it’s a mixed-gender household, I think it’s up to the members to negotiate that, but if you’re male and you’re using somebody else’s bathroom, the proper well-mannered thing to do is put it back the way you found it.
Now, as it happens, although I am a guy myself, I don’t actually have a stake in this, because while I was in college I started peeing sitting down. A (male) friend of mine mentioned that he did, and once I thought about it, I decided it made perfect sense. Sure, I can pee standing up, but by the time I get my fly unzipped and my anatomy extracted from my underwear, I haven’t saved any time over just pulling my pants down and taking a seat. Plus, I don’t have to deal with avoiding the zipper teeth (ouch!) on my jeans, with stray drops hitting my pants, or with the sometimes elaborate and silly maneuvers required to put everything back inside.
There’s also the uncommon but not unheard-of problem of, as one forum poster called it, “diagonal streams.” Occasionally the skin at the tip will stick a bit, altering the behavior of the outflow. You can get a second or two of a bifurcated stream, or shooting off at an angle, before the skin pops free and the normal direction ensues. Long enough to send urine some place other than where it was supposed to go.
But what really sold me on sitting down was when I had a bathroom of my own. Which I had to keep clean. Because when standing up, no matter how carefully you aim for the bowl, the stream of liquid throws off droplets. Most are large, and fall right back into the bowl. Some are smaller, and land on the sides of the bowl. Some are smaller yet, and drift out entirely, landing on the floor next to the toilet. Over time, this results in a thin sticky film, which must be scrubbed off, unless you’re the sort of guy who likes visitors to your home to go “ewww!” now and then.
Peeing while seated effectively eliminates that problem. There’s far less splash in the first place, and what little remains is mostly contained within the toilet. Less mess! Less cleaning! Less likelihood of your mother being embarrassed by what a slob you are when she visits!
An entirely unexpected bonus was revealed to me about two years ago. I’d invited some friends to take advantage of some time I had to spend in Mexico, and one of my female friends took me up on the offer. At the end of the week that we’d been sharing a room, she complimented me on how I’d been so thoughtful as to never leave the seat up! Why, er, yes! That’s me! Thoughtful! Sure!
If you disagree with my position on seat position, quite frankly, I don’t want to hear about it. You can find innumerable discussions about this with a quick trip to Google, and even some game theory analyses of the issue. This is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a world-shaking issue.
For men that feel it’s their genetic right to remain standing, I’ll point out that the other way that a bathroom could facilitate domestic harmony and cleanliness would be if it had an actual urinal. There are small wall-mounted units, including ones that can be swiveled so that they look like just a flat cabinet door when not in use. One that’s mounted closer to crotch height than a toilet is would also greatly reduce microdroplet problems, and a urinal uses a fraction of the water that even a low-flow toilet needs.
Speaking of saving water, there’s another plumbing opportunity that’s only just starting to get some traction; flushing with gray water. In a nutshell, gray water is water that you don’t want to drink, but isn’t exactly sewage yet, either. Like, say, the water that you used taking a shower. Instead of throwing that water down the drain, some houses now store it in a tank, and use it over again for flushing toilets. This is one of those ideas where it’s a fair amount of expense up front, but pays off in the long run.
Unfortunately, nearly all the houses built new in America these days are built by homebuilders on spec. They throw up a development, then sell them off to people. As a result, they’re financially motivated to make them as attractive as possible, but as cheaply as possible. Sadly, far too few homebuyers are telling homebuilders “Hey, I would totally spend a little extra now in order to save a lot of money in the long run. I expect my house to have hydronic radiant heat, a gray water flush system, triple-pane windows, plenty of CAT-6 cable, lighting fixtures that use full-size (not compact) fluorescent bulbs†, and star-network electrical wiring.” So I’m not holding my breath for widespread adoption of gray water flushing.
One of the things we use bathrooms for is to get clean. Which means we often enter them dirty, and we’re often barefoot. That means keeping the floor clean is important, no? And that floor’s likely to get wet. When I was a kid, I recall once or twice when my brother and I were sharing the bathtub and having fun, we managed to get rather too much water out of the tub and onto the floor. Not to mention, with all the pipes and hoses and fittings and drains in that room, it’s almost inevitable that sooner or later a drain will clog or a hose will burst or a joint will leak, and you’ll have water all over the floor, maybe a lot of it.
So why don’t more bathrooms have floor drains? That seems like another no-brainer to me! The sewer pipes are already just a few feet away, after all. A friend of mine who lived in an apartment building once was on the hook for a couple thousand dollars of building repair because his toilet overflowed and the water got into the walls and made a mess of things in the unit below his. Especially for bathrooms on an upper floor, put a slight door sill in the entry way, waterproof and seal the molding at the bottom of the wall, and install a drain. That will keep almost any water-based malfunction from doing any damage at all, as well as making cleaning the floor much easier. Just slosh all the soapy water around you want. You won’t need to mop it back up; it’ll just go down the drain. But do rinse; leaving soap on the floor is a bad idea, as the next person with wet bare feet will undoubtably let you know.
In fact, that principle of a waterproof bathroom is even more awesome if you extend it upwards. About six years ago I got to spend some time in Japan. The most inspirational moment as far as bathrooms go didn’t come from the water-jet toilet in the fancy hotel, the separate water-closet in the long-term apartment, or the bathing facilities at the traditional onsen, but rather came from a couple of days spent in an affordable hotel that catered primarily to (Japanese) businesspeople. They had what Americans would call ‘spa facilities’ on the lower floor. Hot tubs, cold tubs (freezing!!!!), sauna, lockers, and the like. But they also had sinks. So what? The sinks were in the main tub space, so they were in a space designed to be wet all the time. They had plastic buckets for stools. I used one for shaving. I had my electric wet/dry razor and some shaving cream, and I sat there and shaved. Then I took the hand-sprayer and just hosed everything down to clean up. Water that didn’t go down the sink drain, went down the floor drain.
It was awesome! Whether I’m trimming my hair, clipping my nails, shaving, washing, showering, scrubbing, dyeing my hair, or trying to clean spilled ink from my shirt, being able to clean up the workspace afterwards by throwing a bucket of water all over everything is incredibly easy. Hit it with a jet sprayer! If I’m holding a stained shirt under the faucet and the water runs across it and off the shirt onto the floor, so what? The room is waterproof, and there’s a drain.
Ever since that trip, I’ve dreamed of a wet/dry bathroom, with part of it holding the tub/shower and a small sink and mirror, all behind a door that will contain water, and the toilet and another sink on the dry side, for things that shouldn’t get too wet. Existing bathtubs and showers have to be waterproof most of the way to the ceiling. Installing tile for the last couple of feet of wall and sealing the ceiling shouldn’t be too expensive, and oh, cleanup becomes soo much easier!
Speaking of tile, I think it’s fairly clear that wall-to-wall carpet in a bathroom isn’t a particularly good idea. The bathroom floor should be easy to clean, dry quickly, and be waterproof. That means linoleum, tile, or some other hard surface. But we put area rugs in them even though having something fluffy and water-absorbent on the floor is hardly a good idea. Why? Because we’re walking around in our bare feet, and those floors tend to be cold!
Now, the fact that anybody in America is still allowed to build a house with anything other than in-floor radiant heat is a whole ‘nother rant, but no room in your house would benefit more from in-floor heating than your bathroom. It’s perfectly reasonable to keep your house at 68º in the winter to save energy; you can just throw on a sweater against the chill. But in your bathroom, you’re walking around naked and wet, and I don’t know about you, but I would be covered in goosebumps and my teeth would be chattering if I tried to take a shower in a room that cold.
That’s why lots of bathrooms have little electric heaters in the wall. It’s a small space, so it’s not that expensive to bring it up to a more reasonable temperature for people who are wearing little or nothing. But a heater in the wall is nothing compared to heating the room from the floor. Heaven! The heat is dispersed more evenly, your feet are always happy, there’s no noise, there’s no vent to block or hot grill to avoid, and if installed correctly, it’s cheaper to run.
In South Korea, all buildings are heated via in-floor radiant heating. Here, it’s rare and exotic. Oh, the dumb-anity!
I have saved the worst offender for last. But first, a brief summary of some aspects of modern American building codes.
To get, say, hot water from your water heater to your bathroom involves pipe. The most common material used these days is copper pipe. Holes are drilled through wall studs to allow the pipe to go from one place to another, and joints are used to connect various straight bits together. The vast majority of the time, when you need to change what direction the pipe is travelling, you use an elbow: a joint that connects two pipes at a 90º angle.When plumbing with PVC (white plastic pipe) or ABS (black plastic pipe), the same procedure applies.
Unless you’re laying sewer pipe. Unlike hot or cold running water, sewer water isn’t under pressure. Also, it’s more likely to be carrying solid material (e.g. hair, or, ahem, other stuff). The standard right-angle elbow is very abrupt, and would be a very likely place for solid material to jam or clog, especially since such a sharp turn would interfere with any momentum that the water had already built up. As a result, sewer pipes, in addition to having a minimum downward slope required by code, also are expected to use special sewer-grade elbow joints when they need to make a 90º turn. These special joints are larger, allowing for a gradual arc rather than an abrupt one.
The minimum (which is also the standard) size for sink drain pipe is 1″. Toilets must have a 3″ drain pipe, and 4″ is greatly preferred. Note that a 4″ pipe’s cross section is more than 16 times that of a 1″ pipe.
A bathtub doesn’t need to drain as fast as a toilet, but personally, I would like it to empty out a little bit faster than my sink does. And yet, check out the illustration (right) of what the plumbing industry has settled on as the canonical bathtub drain plumbing. Note that there are two direction changes from the drain to the down pipe, and both of them are sharp right angles; exactly the sort of joint that is normally forbidden.
Now, there is a reason for this. It’s a pretty stupid reason, but it’s a reason. The reason is, if your bathtub is installed onto a solid floor, and the plumbing’s in the wall, then you only have an inch or so of space between the bottom of the tub and the floor.
The obvious thing to do is to not put a solid floor beneath a bathtub, and, in fact, of the four times in my life where I’ve been able to see the floor beneath a tub, in three of them, the floor was cut away by the drain to allow more clearance for the drain plumbing. So while there’s certainly a need for the sharp-right-angle drain, it should clearly be something you do only when you have no other choice.
By the way, it’s also not allowed to put a T-joint in your plumbing that looks like the one in the diagram. A ‘normal’ T-joint looks like, well, a T (see “Standard T”, right)
But a sewer pipe T-joint has an arc between two of the arms (see “Sewer T”, right) See how it curves downward? Again, it’s all about making sure the water can flow as smoothly and efficiently as possible, with minimal turbulence that might slow it down or create a spot for things to collect and clog. Why on earth don’t they include those as part of the bathtub drain setup? I have no bleeping idea.
I had a tub with a slow leak in the drain a few years ago. It was more than 75 years old, and the gasket that sealed the overflow drain to the tub had basically crumbled to dust. It wasn’t possible to take the overflow pipe apart without unhooking the main drain, and it all being made of metal, it had corroded enough that I couldn’t unscrew it, but had to cut it apart.
Well, specifically, I had to cut the drain flange apart (see the diagram). The shoe was fine. I figured I’d just buy a new flange. That turned out to be impossible. My shoe was slightly larger than 2.5″ in diameter, and since my shoe’d been made, the industry had standardized on a flange slightly smaller than that. So I had to get a new shoe as well.
There were about 12 different boxed tub drain plumbing kits at Home Depot. All but three of them used 1″ pipe. Are you kidding me? We really think that the drain pipe for a bathtub doesn’t need to be any bigger than the one for a sink? The two that were metal used 1″ pipe. There were three kits that had 1.5″ pipe. Two were made of black ABS, one was white PVC. Since my other pipes were ABS, I went with that.
Now, even though the pipe was bigger, the drain was not. ALL the bathtub drains had the same size flange, which gives you a hole just a bit over 1″ in diameter for the water to flow through. But what about some of those really big fancy bathtubs you can lust over in showrooms? Jacuzzi for two? A tub you can sit down in and have water up to your neck? Surely there are bigger drains for tubs that hold three to five times as much water as the typical bathtub?
Nope. Apparently the Plumbing Gnomes cannot conceive of anybody ever wanting a tub that would drain at any speed other than “really slow.” But it’s even worse than you think! Take another look at that diagram. Do you see how the flange is threaded? So that it can be screwed into the shoe nice and tight? The shoe, obviously, also has threads on the inside, as you can see in the photo.
Now check out the cutaway diagram of the inside of a plastic drain shoe.
Yes, that’s right. Half of the pipe is blocked by the structural threaded wall! Plumbing manufacturers are idiots! Idiots! In fact, I was so exasperated with the miserable design of this thing, that I ended up chopping it up into something less stupid. By cutting off the elbow bend of the shoe, I ended up with just the cylinder and flat disc part at the top. That, as it happened, fit neatly and snugly into the end of a 2″ diameter ABS pipe joint. Specifically, a 45º joint. Once I’d solvent-welded the parts together, it looked something like the next illustration.
Let me walk you through the advantages here. First, and most obviously, because gravity can keep pulling on the water once it’s past the flange, it’s going to move a lot more quickly then when it has to flow horizontally for a few feet. And it’s flowing through a 2″ pipe, not a 1.5″ or even 1″ pipe. And said pipe is not half-blocked by the shoe threads. So it was hardly a surprise that once I had this installed, my tub drained about 4 times faster than it had before, even though “before” was using a non-half-blocked metal shoe that was larger than modern drains.
Less obvious is that, because there’s more water, and it’s moving faster, it is far less likely to ever get clogged! There’s still a P-trap, not unlike the one under your sink, a bit further down the line. Even so, if you’re running water through it at higher speeds and volumes, it’s harder for anything to stick to the sides or build up or get caught up.
Now, yes, most of the time, it’s your sink that gets clogged, not your bathtub. Slow-draining tubs aren’t a blight on the landscape; most people have probably never even considered how long it takes to drain. They just get out and leave it, and it’s empty when they get back. But when the building codes have very specific rules for the Right Way and Wrong Way to drain water through a house, and yet the only fittings you can possibly buy for your bathtub clearly do it the Wrong Way, and doing it the Right Way would, 96% of the time, be no more work and take no more material, and would drain tubs three to five times faster, and greatly decrease the frequency of clogs? I am left baffled. How can the entire plumbing industry be so stupid?
No, it’s not a clever plan on their part to keep plumbers in business fixing clogged drains. If they were smart enough to do that, they’d be smart enough to know that deliberately doing poor work just makes it easier for somebody else to come along and put you out of business. Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity. This is just stupidity.
Have you ever had to clean your bathtub? Maybe you never take a bath; you just take showers. But if you bathe, and use soap or shampoo, then after a while, you’ll find a little ring around the tub at the waterline, where soapy water sloshed upwards, and then dried, leaving the soap behind. So every now and then it needs to be scrubbed. Or maybe you needed to wash some mud off your boots, so you put them in the tub and scrubbed them down, and now there’s a bunch of mud that you want to clear away.
So what do you do? I turn on the water, and then use my hands to push it toward the shallow end. When the muddy water runs back toward the drain, some of it is blocked by the water coming from the faucet, so then I place my hand so that the incoming water is diverted around the drain to one side, thus allowing the dirty water to leave.
Dear Plumbing Industry: I have some surprising news for you. Water flows downhill. So how about we put the spigot on the shallow end!? We could have the water start there, flow across the floor of the tub, picking up the dirt as it goes, and then drain smoothly down the drain! Yea! That one simple change would make it so much easier to clean the tub, as well as cleaning things in the tub.
There’s also the fact that when I’m in the tub, my feet don’t really get a lot of benefit from being at the deep end. I’d really rather put my butt there. My feet will still be completely submerged, but I could get more of the rest of me wet before I had to skooch down. But I can’t do that, because if I try, then I get stabbed in the back with that stupid spout.
I actually had an argument with a plumber about that. It was when we were having the plumbing done for a basement bathroom before the new concrete floor was poured.
“Yea, those plans look good. Except I want the bathtub drain on the other end.”
“Okay, I can run the hot and cold pipes around the wall to that side.”
“No, the inflow pipes and the faucets and spigot go on this end.”
“So you want the drain on this end.”
“No, that’s exactly what I don’t want. I want the drain on the other end.”
“But it should be on this end.”
“No, that’s . . . look, I don’t care if you think it’s crazy. Just do it, okay?”
“If you say so . . . .”
Once upon a time, plumbing was very hard, and way back then, you’d have the “wet wall,” the wall where all the pipes were. So sure, the spigot and the drain were both close to where the plumbing was. But we here in the lovely 21st century have pressurized water. Our hot and cold water can easily go upwards, and around corners, and generally wherever we want. They can certainly go around the side or beneath a bathtub to appear on the opposite end from the drain.
Remember me mentioning getting stabbed in the back with the spigot? So here’s another idea from the lunatic fringe: don’t put the damn thing right in the middle of the wall! As long as it’s over the tub itself, the water’s going to flow to fill. Water does that. So if your bathtub is the common style where it’s built into sort of an alcove, with solid walls at both ends and one side, why not put the spigot closer to one of the far corners? That thing is dangerous, after all. If you slip in a bathtub, you’re probably going to be much better off if your head hits anything besides that horizontal chunk of metal.
But I have an even better idea. Get rid of it entirely. Like so much of the stupid in a bathroom, it’s there because it used to be needed, back when bathtubs were always free-standing affairs. Pipes would enter the bathroom, and then have to climb up and over the edge of the bathtub. It was hard enough to cast an entire bathtub in iron without getting fancy. Now, though, they’re often fiberglass, and even enameled steel is much easier to work. So why not just put in a port in the side of the tub, aimed downwards, but recessed? If it’s below the level of the overflow drain, then plumbing code would require a check valve to make certain that one could never have water go back out of the tub and into the water pipes, but check valves aren’t rocket science, they’re a standard off-the-shelf plumbing part. Such a fill spout would be safer and quieter.
I mentioned earlier about how small drains are even more stupid when you’ve got an extra-big tub. While you might not be all that aware of how long it takes a big tub to drain, you’d definitely notice how long it takes to fill. The standard valves and spigot for bathtubs are rated for five gallons per minute. The standard bathtub will hold a maximum of 42 gallons. You generally won’t fill it completely full, since some of it will be filled with yourself, but you’re still looking at five or six minutes before it’s full.
Fancy bathtubs can easily run from 70 to 120 gallons. A friend of mine recently bought a house where the bathtub is a fancy one that takes up a corner. It’s shaped rather like a quarter-circle, and probably needs around 100 gallons to fill. A standard spigot will take more than 20 minutes to get that tub reasonably full.
You can get valves and spigots that are designed for greater inflow. If you run 3/4″ pipes instead of 1/2″ pipes to the bathtub, you can easily do 10 gallons a minute, and with 1″ pipes, 15 gallons a minute isn’t hard.
Nor is it very expensive, unless you also want another part of this system to be less stupid. Having a knob for “hot” and a knob for “cold” is the easy-peasy solution for the plumber, but it’s not what the bather wants, is it? What I want, and I’ll bet you do too, is a control system where one control limits how much water you get, and the other controls what temperature you get. Usually this is a single knob where you pull it out for more water, and you twist it left and right to change the temp.
It doesn’t take me long to know where to make it point to give me the temperature I like, and then I can just pull it all the way out to start. As the tub fills up, I push the knob in. I’m getting less water, but it’s still the temp I like. With the old controls, I have to dial down the hot a bit, and dial down the cold a bit, then check, oops, too cold, turn down the cold some more, oh, now there’s hardly any water coming out, turn both knobs up a bit, blah!
Making that work is actually a bit trickier than you might think. The hot water has to run through a lot more plumbing between your water supply and the bathroom than the cold does, because it has to detour through the water heater. For a sink, that’s not all that important, but if you’re filling a bathtub, and especially if you’re pulling more than five gallons a minute, then you might be pulling water from both lines fast enough to cause some drop in pressure. Let’s say you pull the knob out just a little, then check the water with your finger until you get the temperature you like. Now you pull the knob the rest of the way out. The increased plumbing on the hot side means that once you’re pulling enough water to cause a pressure drop, the hot side pressure will drop more than the cold, so what was the right temperature at a low flow becomes too cold at higher rates of fill.
To avoid this, the bathtub valves that work like this have pressure balancing mechanisms that keep the ratio of hot to cold water constant over varying flow rates. Alas, if you want such a valve that can also deliver more than five gallons per minute, well, that costs a lot more, mostly because they don’t sell very many of them. A pair of ordinary plumbing-grade 3/4″ gate or ball valves would easily deliver up to 15 gallons a minute and would cost about $20. Kohler’s 1/2″ pipe “Rite-Temp” pressure-balancing valve for bathtubs with a 5 gpm flow rate has a list price of $107. The 3/4″ version with a flow rate of 13gpm lists for $428. Ouch.
So, maybe in this case you have to choose. Either you have the better faucet, that works the way humans want it to work, or you have the faster faucet, where you don’t have to sit around waiting for your tub to fill up. Of course, if you can afford an extra-large bathtub in the first place, you can probably afford the more expensive pressure-balanced valve.
I am hoping, one day, to be able to build a bathroom that is free of stupid. However, as far as I’m concerned, a bathroom without stupid ought to be the least you should expect. I’d really like to fill my bathtub in a way that’s not merely un-stupid, but is, in fact, downright fun. You see, I know exactly where I want the filling spigot for my bathtub to be. I want it in the ceiling.
Now, ordinarily, this would be a terrible idea, because the water, after falling that far, would splash and splatter and just make an awful mess. Unless! it’s coming from a laminar flow nozzle. A laminar flow nozzle takes the normal turbulence in a stream of water and straightens it out so that all the water’s moving along in a nice smooth fashion. The result is a stream of water that looks more like a solid glass rod. Most people, if they’ve seen laminar flow water, will have seen it as part of a fountain, with water jumping in arcs from one place to the other looking more like acrylic or glass rods being thrown about, very unlike the usual splash-and-bubble that fountains display. Kohler has two laminar flow nozzles in their catalog, the K-922 and K-923. They look almost identical: a disk-shaped plate with a hole in the middle. The difference is that the 922 can deliver 5-10 gpm, and the slightly larger 923 can do 7-15 gpm. Voilá! A fast-filling tub and special effects all in one!
Growing up, all the bathtubs I got to use were enamel-coated steel. Enameled steel is a crappy thing to make a bathtub out of. Why? Well, let me put it this way. When I took a bath, I filled the tub twice. The first time I turned the hot water on full, and filled it up. Then I drained all the water out, and filled it again, because that freezing-cold steel had such a high heat mass that the first tub-full of water was lukewarm by the time it had filled. Even after the second filling, I couldn’t sit still for too long, or whatever part of me had been in direct contact with the tub would be chilled.
It might not be as durable, but fiberglass is so much better for not sucking the heat out of the water. But here’s an even better idea. How about we take the hot water pipe, and wrap it around the tub a couple times before it comes out the spigot? Or even better, just include some kind of low-level heater in the thing. Every now and then, I like to just relax and soak, and that means draining an inch or two of water out every now and then, and refilling with hot water. If only the tub would stay hot, I wouldn’t have to waste water re-heating it. That would be nice.
Speaking of relaxing and soaking, part of the pleasure of a long soak is being able to do some recreational reading while I'm there. Now, when e-books first appeared, one of the amusing if rather dumb objections to the dedicated readers was “but you can’t read it in the bathtub.” Oh? Firstly, sir, do you read in the bathtub? I certainly do, but I’ll bet you don’t, and if you don’t, then why do we care if you can’t use an ebook reader there? Secondly, ebooks are far superior to traditional ones for reading in the bathtub. If I drop my magazine or paperback, it’s a rather soggy mess that will be hard to dry out. My e-reader is unharmed, because I put it inside a ziplock bag before climbing into the tub.‡
More importantly, it’s much easier to read, because most bathtubs have lousy lighting. Yes, I know bathtubs and showers use water. I also know that watertight light fixtures are not that hard to find. However, since clearly there are very few people demanding good reading light in their bathtubs, a waterproofed e-reader is a godsend for those of us who do. But that's no reason not to provide good lighting in the bathtub, even if it's just to give you decent lighting for shaving.
Most people, though, wash themselves by taking a shower, not a bath, and the big focus here in the last few years has been on using less water. It’s all very well for some manufacturer to heap glowing praise on their latest super-clever super-efficient shower head that has special nozzles and whips air into the mix to make a little water feel like more. Yea, fine. If you really want me to use less water when I’m showering, the best way is to enable to me to shower in less time.
Right off the bat, we need to go back to the pressure-balancing valve. How about I run it long enough to get wet, and then turn it off while I soap up and shampoo, and then turn it back on to rinse? Yea, I’m pretty sure that would save far more water than any special shower head could possibly manage, if it’s running that whole time.
Do you have to hunch down to get it to actually hit your head? I do. I often have to contort like an acrobat to get some of the absurdly low shower heads to get anywhere near the top of my head. But mounting them higher’s not a good option, either. High enough to let me not bend over is too high for some people to easily reach up to adjust it, and we all have to adjust it repeatedly to get it to actually get our entire bodies wet. Or, you get to step closer to get your upper body wet, then sashay away to get it to hit your legs. Or you stand there for a while and let the water on top run down until the bottom half is wet too. Not bad for the first part, but it’s pretty darn inefficient for the rinse at the end.
So I find myself turning around like a roast on a spit while stepping back and forth, trying to get the spray to rinse the soap away. This is the best we can do? No, of course not.
In fact, plumbing fixture catalogs are chock-full of all kinds of exotic ways to spray water on yourself. Most of them are rather silly, and all of them are expensive, but some of them make a lot of sense. For example, the spray bar. It’s basically a pipe about three feet long with a number of little nozzles in it. It’s mounted on the wall, and sprays sideways. Stand in front of one of these and you’ll get sprayed neck to knees all at once. I could get in and out soo much faster if there were a few more nozzles to choose from.
Oh, yes, I know there are those hand-held shower heads. Sometimes there’s even a second lower peg to set it on. Mostly, though, it just ties up one hand that could have been helping wash the soap away.
Hand-held shower heads are also sometimes what people suggest for cleaning a bathtub. Well, they’re certainly better than trying to push the water to the shallow end with my hands. However, I’ve never seen one with a hose long enough to effectively clean the shallow end of the tub. I can’t get closer than three or four feet, so I can’t easily spray it with one and and scrub with the other.
There’s also the problem of making sure you don’t mis-aim it and spray water into the rest of the bathroom. Which brings us to those awful shower curtains. I’m shampooing my hair, keeping my eyes closed to avoid getting soap in them, and shuffling back and forth, twisting and ducking to rinse the stuff off, and suddenly I’ve got clammy cold shower curtain sticking to my shoulder and arm. Yuck. Plus, if the bathroom is cold and you’ve got the shower nice and hot, the result is the warmer air in the shower/tub goes up and out, and the damn curtain billows inward, crowding you even more.
There isn’t, alas, an easy and obvious fix for the shower curtain, because the one thing it’s got going for it is that it’s cheap. Sliding glass doors on the tub don’t billow, but they’re a lot of work to keep clean, there’s usually a rail on the edge of the tub that’s very uncomfortable to sit on, and it blocks access to at least half the tub at all times, which makes washing something in the tub while you’re outside the tub quite inconvenient. Really nice bathrooms don’t try to have people bathe and shower in the same space, and certainly, separating the two functions makes both experiences far superior. Showering in a square space rather than a narrow rectangle gives you elbow room, which also makes it easier to avoid a curtain. It’s more likely to have a solid door than a tub because it can be hinged rather than run on rails, and sometimes it can be configured so that you don’t need anything at all in the doorway. Meanwhile, the tub doesn’t have to be nearly as claustrophobic, and will probably end up much better lit as well.
This is another aspect of what, to me, makes a bathroom with a wet side and a dry side so appealing. If both your bathtub and your shower are inside the wet zone, then, whether you have to stand in the tub to shower or not, you don’t need a curtain and you don’t have to worry about water spraying out of the tub. Everything that the water might hit is waterproof. Go ahead and install a spray bar; don’t worry that it might bounce off you and onto the floor. You can have two or three hand-held sprayers and have them on nice long hoses, because you want to be able to get nice and close to every surface that might need to get rinsed off. You’ve got better justification for the high-flow pressure-balancing valve. When you’re not filling the bathtub lickety-split, you can have the spray bar, the overhead shower, and a hand-held unit washing you off lickety-split instead.
Building codes have been requiring fans to vent moist air out of bathrooms for decades. These are usually combined with a light fixture, and they’re almost always horrible noisy things. Crappy bathroom fans are, I believe, mostly another side effect of built-to-spec housing. A builder gets the cheapest piece of junk that’ll meet code.
It’s not hard to ventilate a bathroom without the awful noise. One option is simply to use a bigger and better-built fan. A fan that is physically larger can move the same amount of air as a small fan while rotating more slowly, and the slower it spins, the less noise it makes. Of course, the only noise it should ever make is a whooshing noise. If it’s humming or buzzing or making any kind of noise that has an identifiable pitch, that means the fan motor is poorly made. A well-balanced electric motor with good bearings should be almost inaudible. Once a motor is as big as, oh, say, coffee-can sized, then I expect to hear a fairly clear ‘mmmmmmmm’ coming from them, but you’d never put a 1/4 horsepower electric motor in a bathroom vent fan!
An even better way to cut down on the noise is to not have the fan in the bathroom. There are bathroom ventilation systems that do this already. The vent in the bathroom connects to a vent hose that runs to some sort of port on the side of the house. If you put the fan next to the output vent rather than right there in the bathroom, then it’s going to be less noisy, just from being further from your ears. If the vent runs through your attic crawlspace, or if it’s installed when the house is built, it can also probably be located some place with more space, which means it can easily be physically larger, which as I’ve already pointed out, allows it to be quieter.
The other thing that fans could use is some brains. A humidity sensor would enable it to turn on as soon as it was needed, and turn off as soon as it wasn’t, so you wouldn’t be turning it on when you get out of the shower and end up leaving it running for a few hours until the next person walks into the bathroom. Especially in wintertime, that’s a lot of warm air being blown right outdoors.
Whether or not the fan has a humidity sensor, it should have, instead of an on-off switch, a timer. Maybe you’re running the fan to clear a bad smell instead of steam. Either way, setting the fan to run for 15 minutes is much smarter than just turning it on and letting it run until whenever.
Yes, the bathroom of my dreams is more expensive than a typical run-of-the-mill bathroom. However, even a crappy stupid bathroom is a pretty significant building expense. Waterproof molding, a floor drain, an adjustable height sink with plumbing routed to the back of the cabinet, a hose bib, in-cabinet electrical outlets and a countertop cutout for cords, a toilet at a reasonable height, better lighting, a timer for the fan, a pressure-balanced valve, and a tub spigot near a corner of the shallow end of the tub are either free or only marginally more expense, but would dramatically improve the utility of the space, and even the super-deluxe bathroom would be a fairly modest increase in cost over the basics.
Yes, indeed, the “modern” bathroom isn’t any such thing. Hardly anything’s been significantly improved since the 1950s, and far too much of it harkens back to the 19th century. I’m ready, and well past ready, for a post-modern, well-designed, functional, comfortable, 21st century bathroom.