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Mixer taps allow you to adjust water flow and temperature with one hand. Does this convenience come with hidden consequences?

Did you know that unless the mixer lever is right across at the ‘cold’ position, you are using energy?

25% of Australian household energy use is associated with heating water.
And 20% of that hot water is not even felt at the tap.
(Commonwealth of Australia 2012).

These trickles of energy are 100% wasted energy.

This waste means higher energy bills. But worse than the hit to our wallet is knowing that we don’t even think about it. Even worse is that the design of the tap hides the consequences of our actions.

Consider the two-button flush toilet on the other hand. Everyday the toilet ‘asks’ us to think about how much water we want to use. It may not seem like much, but the toilet has helped change the way we think about water.

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Could our tap help change the way we think about energy?

To answer this question I created a concept for a basin, called Rora.

Rora basin Carl Turner 2017.png

The concept is designed for middle aged ‘empty nesters’. Many in this demographic take pride in their bathrooms. These are people who tend to renovate their bathrooms, to create a sanctuary, a place of relaxation.

The basin’s open shape and wooden levers reflect this intention. The smooth movements of the wooden levers (’taps’) enhance the relaxing experience. They can also be operated with the elbow if needed.  The right lever controls flow. The left lever controls temperature. The left lever, temperature, returns automatically when there is no flow. This is a safety feature, and ensures the basin always looks good when not in use.

Redesigning Flow and Temperature
The important point of difference in the energy-use discussion is the levers.

With two separate taps (hot and cold) the flow rate changes when the either tap is adjusted. Often, fiddly adjustment of hot and cold taps is required to get the desired flow and temperature.
Rora-concept-Carl-Turner-2017

Mixer taps, as noted, somewhat conceal what’s going on.
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Rora overcomes these issues with a unique hardware design. The design includes two ceramic disc cartridges (valves) connected in series. It requires a minor modification to existing valve/cartridge hardware, the cost of which would be negligible if mass produced.

Instead of controlling hot and cold, or mixing, they independently control flow and temperature. This creates a direct connection between the user and both energy and water. When the temperature lever is down, flow remains constant but energy is being used and the water temperature increases.
Rora-concept-Carl-Turner-2017 3

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Looking a little wider

To think about the energy associated with water heating at home is a good first step. But the picture is bigger than that. When we turn on the tap we turn on a system of water and energy generation/processing/distribution.
Water-Energy-NexusWe control all this from the comfort of our own homes. The harder we turn on the tap, the harder this system runs. We’re at the control panel. Are we really paying attention to what’s going on?

The familiar image of Homer Simpson is a good metaphor perhaps. The fire in the nuclear reactor, and imminent plant meltdown ARE the big water and energy challenges we’re facing today.
homer

Products like the mixer tap are the interfaces between us – our thinking, doing, understanding – and the world we live in. When these interfaces are designed on narrow criteria like convenience and aesthetic, they enable only narrow thinking, doing and understanding. These products limit our capacity to understand and act in more desirable ways. They don’t help us see that we are at the control panel. The mixer tap limits our capability to act with care1 for the world we rely on.

Often this kind of problem is approach through ‘behaviour change’. But I’m not talking about behaviour change. I’m framing the problem as capability building.

Could we really build capability by re-thinking product design?

Maybe. But perhaps not through a basin alone. We need knowledge of the energy and water systems we’re drawing on, in order to interpret the basin appropriately.

So what’s the value of the Rora basin concept? 
For those who have some sense of their role in the system it provides an easy way to act on their knowledge.

For those without system knowledge, it provides an affordance for their behaviour to avoid unintended/uneccesary waste. It also provides them the opportunity to ask “Why?” – Why does my basin function this way? – and for that question to spark self-directed discovery of the relevant knowledge.

So a useful design question could be:
How might we build capability for ‘care-full’ action, by redesigning our tangible interfaces with the world?

References

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