Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Humble Bathroom

This week we're discussing Bathrooms - British and American. Our guest blogger is Kat from 3 Bedroom Bungalow, who's an American recently dispatched to England.


The first thing you need to learn about bathrooms in the UK is that they are not called bathrooms. They are the loo ,washroom, water closet or toilets. If you ask someone where the bathroom is, they will look at you like you have grown a third eye. The second thing you need to know is to turn the lights on, there is probably a pull cord hanging from the ceiling instead of a light switch. Also to flush the toilet there is usually a button and not a handle. If the button is split in half, you push the smallest part for #1 and both halves for #2 (or at least that is how it was explained to me).

Now in America I am aware that not all showers are the greatest, but normally you are at least privy to at least a hot shower. That is unless you are the last person of a family of 5 to take a shower and you have a small water heater. However in the UK, a hot shower is something that takes a little bit of skill to have at hand. First off, there is the problem of how to heat the water. I was lucky and have a boiler that heats a fair amount of hot water for the house, however I have come into contact where this isn't always the case. Some people have what they call an electric heater in the shower. It is commonly referred to as a "power shower" It is a little box that is located in the shower stall and it is supposed to heat the water as it comes out. As I have found, not so much. When staying in a hotel in London we had a room that had this "handy" device installed. I managed to get a luke warm shower an my husband got a shower of ice cubes.

Another problem with showers here is the water pressure. My house has two showers. We only use one. Why you ask? Cause the master shower puts out just enough water to make you mad. If you have long hair forget about trying to wash it in this shower. You will be there for ages before all the shampoo is out of your hair. The second shower falls in the acceptable category. It has decent pressure, but the draw back is that we have to share it with the girls.

Once you have your shower, you have to deal with the sinks. Once again, I am lucky, the house I live in was previously owned by Americans and they made a few adjustments. They installed what they call a mixer tap. This means on one side hot water comes out and on the other side cold water comes out and they mix inside the tap and come out in one stream "mixed" to make warm water. In other washrooms I have seen taps that remind me of the ancient taps we had back in my elementary school. There is a tap on each side of the sink; one tap puts out scalding hot water and the other puts out ice cold water. There is no in between. You will either blister your hand or lose a hand to frostbite.

Other than that UK bathrooms are pretty much just like American ones, just smaller and more confusing.


The first thing you should understand when Americans say “bathroom” is that there may not be a bath in sight. As many of you know, “bathroom” refers to “the loo”, but even when they’re talking about the place where ablutions take place, it doesn’t always mean a bath-room. Many Americans prefer showers, so there’s often just a loo, a sink and a shower. More confusingly, a house can be said to have “two and a half baths”, which means two bathrooms and a loo; the room with a loo and a hand basin is often called a “half bath”.

And then there are the plugs, which I swear, are for decoration. Usually they are metal disks operated by a device near the taps, and are not removable from the plug hole. They are only supposed go up and down about half an inch but they usually get yanked out by the frustrated and uninitiated. It is impossible to get these plugs back in place and functioning, which usually means showers for all. In addition, I have yet to find a bath tub plug that doesn’t cause a slow leak, meaning that you can only luxuriate for about fifteen minutes.

Americans sometimes refer to a small hand basin as a “lavatory”, which I find quite surprising and daren’t think how “lavatory” came to mean the loo in one country and the hand basin in another!

But I have to commend Americans on their showers. None of that stick-to-your-body shower curtain, and low pressure showers here! Most of them are so powerful they exfoliate as well as clean your bod – whether you need exfoliating or not!!!

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  1. Phew! I have never been to America so I cannot compare the two. However bathroom here can mean *toilet* and I know people in England who are ripping out baths & having walk in showers fitted instead.Lots of these showers develop leaks after a time & water comes through the ceiling!
    Also the button type of toilet is the more modern model in England. It is more common to have a handle to pull for the flush and very ancient models have a handle from a cistern high up near the ceiling with a chain to pull from shoulder height. These are not common though.
    You can be scalded by using a British shower if someone else is using water downstairs & the pressure goes down. Seems we are bad at water pressure here. Other times you can find the water is cold. Most owners of a shower know just how to get a decent heat but visitors might get flummoxed. It varies from house to house so it isn't something you can learn.

  2. Maggie May: have experienced something similar to what you describe. It's like a rolling cycle of scalding/freezing water coming out of the shower head and it doesn't seem adjustable.

    In the middle of the cycle there are a few precious seconds of warm water in which to actually soap up, then it's step to the back of the tub while the extremes of the cycle process, step back under the water to rinse off in mid-cycle. Repeat.

    Not every shower is like this, but enough have been to make me wonder. Britons can't be showering like this every day. When experiencing this phenom, I've tried every way I can think of to moderate or mix the two water temps (scalding/freezing) but to no avail. Obviously I'm doing something wrong, or not doing something right.

    Showers seem such an after-thought in the UK, that I also wonder if baths are preferred by the populace?

    It's hard to imagine taking a full bath every morning before going out to work.

    My morning shower is well under ten minutes and more like five, a bath (filling the tub, etc.) would take far longer than that. A bath is such a commitment!

  3. I really enjoyed the concept of a half-bathroom when we first moved here. It was a bit confusing, though, as our realtor said that it used to mean a shower (ie a full bathroom was toilet, bath and shower, and a half bathroom was toilet and shower only), but that over time it had come to mean just a toilet. BUT some people still used the old definition, so as a house-buyer, you weren't quite sure what it meant. You had to check it out for yourself.

  4. So I was looking at bathroom fixture sites in the UK to get a better idea of what people had going on over there and I'm left with a couple questions.

    How common is it to have a tub/bath that's not fit into a dedicated alcove?
    I've seen such a thing before in the US, but only in bathrooms so fancy they have a separate tub and shower stall (you know the kind shown on the Home & Garden channel which can't possibly be practical unless you use it as a dedicated orgy room).

    Looking at pictures it seems like hand showers are pretty popular. Yes, no?
    Even here in the land of the awesome water pressure hand showers have poor pressure compared to conventional shower heads. Probably why they're usually found in conjunction with conventional heads in the US.

    This just seems like a bad idea. Same goes for this.

  5. Ladies, how can you forget the UK carpet in the bathroom debate?!

  6. I quite often have a two inch bath in the morning. Running the water whilst brushing my teeth, finding something to wear off the floor, and yelling at the kids - a real multi-tasking experience!!
    Carpets - I was roundly taken to task by some blogger about a year ago who simply refused to believe that people still had carpetting in their bathrooms. Mind you he lived in London and his house was stripped floors etc. I must admit that less and less people seem to be doing that, or have gone over to carpet tiles so that the wee'd on ones can be easily replaced. Ugh!

  7. Elizabeth - very common in my experience. That's probably due to the lack of showers though. The American strategy of building a wall at each end of the tub is ingenious. Then you can use those tension shower rods...
    Hand held showers are on the wane thank god. I never met one that worked well anyway. In my house I had a shower head put on the side of the tub (for washing little kids' hair) and it's awesome. I can have a bath, wash my hair and rinse it off properly.
    Am I sounding a little obsessive?

  8. I think part of the difference in shower water pressure and temperature can be explained by the respective boilers.

    In my UK house, the gas boiler looks like someone has screwed a cigarette packet on the wall. This small box heats the water and supplies the central heating.

    In my US house, the boiler has its own room. As I approach the door, I hear the rhythmic clanking and start to feel the heat on your face. Opening the door reveals a scene that I thought only existed in the tramp steamers of the early 20th Century. Huge pipes, large red spigots, the occasional jet of steam overhead. I half expect a sweating, coal-stained navvy to be sneaking a quick smoke before returning to feed the beast more fuel.

  9. I just want to say thanks to both Toni and Mike for letting me guest post over here. I had a great time writing this post and would be honored to do it again.

  10. I grew up overseas, and the first time I heard my best friend (from Australia) call out and ask her father if he was in the toilet, I dissolved into uncontrollable laughter while she sat wonder what she had said that was so funny. To me, she was asking if he was inside the actual toilet itself, rather than the room.

    I have been totally unimpressed with the bathrooms (sorry, loo) of England. That's one area where I remain fully loyal to the US. :)

  11. Our flat has a power shower and a tub. The word "Power" is somewhat loosely used, but it provides an adequate shower. My wife is a Brit and therefore takes baths; she seems to have the better end of the deal. (Before you say, "But then why don't you..." just let me say I'm an American, and I do showers. That's just the way it is.)

  12. When my in-laws visited several years ago we were shopping at Lowes home-improvement store and my mum-in-law asked an assistant where the toilets where. They took her to the actual toilets on display. Very funny.

  13. My only experience with a UK washroom was in our hotel room. It seemed no different from standard bathrooms in the US with the exception that the room also had a bidet. The shower was perfect. Of course we stayed at a Marriott Hotel.

    Iota's comment about the term half bath being confusing is true, though I think most people here would assume a half bath is only a loo and washbasin. Recently I've seen the term 3/4 bath in real estate adverts. This means the bath has a toilet, sink and stall shower but no tub.

    As to the US use of the term lavatory. That can be confusing too. Here a lavatory can mean the bathroom or a basin to wash your hands in. I personally never use the word lavatory to refer to the washbasin but when you go to the DIY to purchase a sink the carton containing it may say lavatory on it. I think the term lavatory comes from the word lavabo which is the basin that goes with a ewer that sat on a washstand before indoor plumbing.

    Very interesting topic and blog.

  14. Yeah yeah yeah we do have issues with crappy showers.

    The lavatory thing cracks me up. It probably originated from that time when I...

  15. A different button to flush number 1 and number 2?? How clever! ;)

  16. The biggest difference I have noticed is that US loos have wall electrical outlets. I like being able to blow dry hair etc in there. Agree about US water pressure and showers (no more half-glass door that doesn't keep water in) and taps--I don't understand the plugs but I like mixer taps. We have a dual flush toilet (becoming more popular now to save water) but it flushes with more 'gusto' than a UK toilet. Interesting to me is the US move to pedestal sinks--now that I am used to a vanity (and all the storage) I have no desire to go back to one of those. I also like the size of US bathrooms (the half-baths have room to move whereas our UK cloakroom was a little cupboard) and that many now include a step-in shower. That's very handy to have if recovering from surgery, broken arm, etc.

  17. Who knew we'd have this much to discuss??

  18. Ah but see, you forgot about the group troughs at public places! In America at sports venues and some bars, there is just a long sink where everyone pisses. Its VERY un private, just whip it out and stare ahead. at the University of Michigan football stadium its a series of walls with water running down, its CRAZY! more details here

  19. Excellent topic...I've learned a 'bout comparing U.K. vs. U.S. kitchens?

  20. How funny that such a simple thing can cause so much confusion across the pond! LOL.

  21. I have never heard of the 2-button toilet before. . . never. . . ever!!!

  22. Our ancient toilet died a while back and our new one is a two-button model. Very cool!

  23. It's funny to see our bathrooms through the eyes of an American.

  24. My two-tap British sink annoys me to no end. The kitchen sink has one tap - why not extend this wonderful invention to the loo?

  25. Uh, if I ever move back to the UK I'm buying mixer taps here before I go. I just don't get the two separate taps in a hand basin thing! What is weird is that it is UK specific, the Danes and most of the rest of europe have embraced the mixer tap too.

  26. Definitely not UK specific -- the washroom on the floor of my company's U.S. office (in NYC's Empire State Building) has two separate taps as well. Surprised this girl from Hong Kong (where we also have the two-button toilets)!


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