Being abroad can be a nerve-racking adventure in which even the most common daily routines become a hilarious challenge. Take washing your hands for instance. British sinks are the place where dragon fire meets penguin tears. They have two taps: the hot one will scald your hands, whereas the cold one will shatter them into frozen pieces. So, why do British sinks have separate taps for hot and cold water? Foreigners around the world have asked themselves that question for decades.
Back in the day when our grandparents were toddlers, houses didn’t have hot running water, just cold water that came from a main supply. Later on, hot water systems were added separately to each building for safety and health reasons.
British plumbers were concerned about the pressure difference between cold and warm water. The first came from a main supply with a much higher pressure than the latter, which was stored in a tank inside each house and relied on gravity. In case of an imbalance of pressures, one stream could force its way into the other and pose a number of problems.
There were also health risks involved. Old tanks were made of galvanized steel, which corrodes easily; and they didn’t usually have a proper lid, which made the tank an AquaLand for errant birds, distracted insects and sweaty rodents in need of a swim. Squatting fauna aside, hot water sitting in an attic tank was not considered safe to drink, for it created the optimal conditions for bacteria like legionella to proliferate and wreak havoc on human stomachs. So, what did the Brits do? They came up with regulations to keep them separate and prevent the hot water contaminating the cold water supply.
You might be thinking: “Sure, but that was YEEEARS ago. Why haven’t they switched to mixer taps yet?” – Well, in a word: tradition. Whereas continental Europe reinvented its water supply system after the war, Britain rebuilt its houses clinging onto the separate taps tradition. Chances are that mixer taps will take over in the future, but in the meantime, have fun flapping your hands between the two taps when washing them.