The drinking fountain button is tragically misunderstood

The buttons are magical. You press hereand invisible connections make things happen somewhere else. But “magic” is probably not how I would describe most public fountains.

Who among us hasn’t approached a fountain expecting a bubbling stream of life-giving water, only to experience the crushing disappointment of a meager trickle of water after pressing that button?

But I’m starting to think it’s not the drink button’s fault; these are actually some of the most stylish buttons on the market. It’s one of the few remaining buttons where your press directly and mechanically controls the outcome. They are over a hundred years old. And all the action takes place just inches from the button itself.

When your thumb pushes this metal disk inward, you also press a button. below the button that opens a beak inside beak. There is a gasket inside that blocks the flow of water when the button protrudes and releases it when you press it. By pressing down, you move the seal that normally covers a small waterspout inside the mechanism, allowing water to pass through. Then it’s free to move around, filling the inside of the faucet and squirting the fountain at about 0.4 gallons per minute.

Sounds simple, right? But the genius of the water fountain button is that it is modularly repairable. This entire mechanism is part of a self-contained cartridge that is easy to remove and replace.

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A quick search of patents shows that the idea for the cartridge dates back to at least the late 1950s, and water fountain manufacturers have all but standardized it today. “Three of our four competitors use this same cartridge,” says Bill Epker, a 45-year veteran of Haws Corporation, a company that began building and patenting water fountain technology in 1906. Whether From a push button, a push button bar, or even one of those little silver buttons on top of a faucet head, they almost all have the same cartridge inside, Epker says.

Water fountains haven’t always had push buttons. Haws’ original design, from 1906, had you squeeze a set of plier-like handles, just like this earlier 1897 design from the Hyde Fountain Company. And many of the early water fountains had no controls: Portland, Oregon, still has more than a hundred “bubblers” that dispense water 18 hours a day, all on their own.

A study of 15 different types of “sanitary fountains” from 1912 showed not a single button, only levers, rotary knobs, an optional foot pedal, and models that still worked. A patent application from 1911 suggests this is because the buttons were expensive: “Until now the objection to push valves has been their cost. »

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But water fountain giant Halsey Taylor at least imagined a push-button in her very first patent in 1912. And by 1928, they seemed to have caught on for good: a patent from that year noted that water fountains were “generally equipped with push buttons”. to open their valves – just without the cartridge part.

Why switch from levers to buttons? Haws, who didn’t actually change systems until 1984, says maintenance became much easier with the advent of cartridge systems. Modern models even have dedicated filters to prevent their internal components from clogging as quickly, and a screwdriver hole that allows anyone with a small screwdriver to adjust the jet height – changing the maximum distance between the seal and internal water port.

They’re also harder to vandalize, with no levers to break and a silver (or copper) disc cover that simply spins if you try to twist it. Yet they remain easily repairable: Haws patented a version in 2006 that allows a repairman to easily remove the button and access the cartridge with a single special wrench.

But ironically, it’s a lack even that basic maintenance that turns dabblers into dribbles, Josh Linn, Haws’ technical product manager, told me. Many simply need to clean their strainer or adjust their screw height, he says. One of the business owners used to carry a small screwdriver everywhere he went to fix dripping fountains. If you want to try it yourself, Epker says a 1/8-inch flat-blade screwdriver is the largest that will work.

This is not necessary in the United States, where the crappy public fountain experience is technically against the law! The Americans with Disabilities Act requires them to throw a stream of water at least four inches high. Additionally, controls “must not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist,” and a fountain cannot withstand more than five pounds of force with a single hand to operate.

So, before you blame that button, maybe let your local parks department know that it needs to be fixed?

Purely physical water cooler buttons may not stick around forever. Some refrigerated indoor water fountains already use microswitches and solenoids to dispense their product, and many water bottle fillers use hands-free sensors instead of buttons. Many people now also choose packaged bottled water, even though most bottled water in the United States is refiltered tap water and is not necessarily cleaner.

But Haws says at least customers seem to have cooled the idea of ​​buying hands-free sensors for their normal water fountains now that the covid-19 pandemic has subsided. “I would say people are moving more and more toward mechanical operation,” says Mike Wilhelm, marketing director. “Fewer problems can occur, it’s easier to maintain over time. »

For now, the button is simply more reliable.

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