The Drinking Fountain Diaries | David Tracy
It’s a hot summer day, the sun is baking my brains, and my water bottle is empty. As I wander through the park, I keep my eyes peeled for a water source; one of those vendors with a cart, a kiosk, , nothing. I continue to walk, and the longer I walk, the more my thirst takes over. Things are getting desperate; I need water, and at this point, even a pond will do! Suddenly, in the distance, something catches my eye. An iron bollard topped by a concave dish presents itself to me as a divine gift. Frantically, I search for some way to activate the fountain. I spot a circular button underneath the dish. I press it and a spurt of water emerges from the spigot followed by a barely existent stream of water. The water pressure is so weak that I might have to put my mouth on the spigot … screw it.
It’s a Wednesday morning at the office and I’m recovering from a late night out with friends. Cottonmouthed, muscles aching, head throbbing, holding back nausea, I make my way to the drinking fountain seeking liquid salvation. I arrive at my destination lightly press the the gray bar mounted to the front of the fountain. Magically, the fountain’s internal chiller activates, and an eruption of ice cold water delivers me from evil. My life is saved.
Drinking fountains are perhaps one of the oldest pieces of interactive technology in use and have taken on many forms throughout their long history. Though Crawford wouldn’t consider these devices to be highly interactive, or interactive at all, they’re important to us. As illustrated in my memoir above, their public presence accommodates a public need for fresh and free drinking water, in my case for very thirsty people on very hot days and for people with hangovers. In fact, in the United States, drinking fountains are required in all public places. (This could be taken to mean that water is a universal right, though in many places, this doesn’t seem to be the case.)
Through their various physical incarnations, their primary function has always stayed the same. This is how a drinking fountain works: I’m thirsty, I see a drinking fountain, I push a button, water appears, and I drink it. The fountain responds to my action. Pretty simple right? Below are some of my observations on drinking fountains and suggestions for how water fountains could be better.
the ancient outdoor drinking fountain
As I sit eating on a slice of pizza on a park bench in Washington Square Park, I casually monitor the water fountain across from me. The body of the fountain is a nice looking toned down piece of throw back art nouveau cast iron topped by a bronze bowl, spigot and drain. The button to open the spigot is concealed beneath the bowl of the fountain. It’s a simple button that requires just a couple pounds of pressure to activate.
Five minutes, no use. This is pretty good pizza, I would call it deep dish, but I think I heard it called Sicilian, exotic. Ten minutes, a sip from a passerby. I’m stuffed. Twenty minutes, several gulps by man on crutches, he first fumbles to find the push button to open the spigot, then struggles to lean over to reach the spigot. I get up to toss my paper plate and napkin in the trash receptacle. Thirty minutes, a water bottle is refilled, a nice consistent water pressure makes this easy. I could use a sip, but I’ll stay put for now. Forty-five minutes, someone uses the fountain to wash the their lunch remains from their hands. What a concept! I follow suit. All in, the interactions range from five to thirty seconds.
The fountain’s simple function lends it alternate uses besides drinking; drinking bottle refill, hand washing, face washing, spitting, bird bathing, bacteria breeding, disease transmission. Whatever novel form it takes, the drinking fountain is stuck as a universal device to accommodate the general population.
After I rinse my hands, I lean over to take a sip from the ancient cast iron apparatus. Not very cold, but good to cleanse my palette of the Sicilian slice I just devoured. As I drink, leaned over, I feel the contents of my stomach turn, then the sudden urge to vomit. I quickly stand upright. I’m too tall for this drinking fountain! Discrimination! Design crime! Call the police!
Of course, the mounting height of the spigot and the fountains dish is mounted at the best height for the most people. As much as I would love a drinking fountain spigot mounted at 5′-9″ this would exclude most of the population from interacting with such a device. Not to mention those disabled and bound to a wheelchair. This may be the lowest common design denominator for spigot mounting height; a low water-fountain will accommodate the wheelchair bound as well as the able bodied, though it might occasionally induce the urge to vomit. Aside form that, the mounting height of the spigot presents problems for people who are able bodied but may have limited mobility, like that man on crutches. He would be well served by a fountain with a higher spigot. Maybe the spigot wouldn’t have to move but the water pressure could be regulated to provide a higher stream of water. The shape of the basin would have to adjust to accommodate the variable heights in turn.
The same man fumbled to find the button to activate the spigot. He figured it out only a few seconds. Should he have been able to immediately figure out the button’s location? Is it ok that he needed a few seconds? Is this bad design? In the case of the drinking fountain, it’s hard to say, these public devices are elements of life that we familiarize ourselves with from an early age. With this in mind, most of us have a frame of reference for how a fountain works and should be able to find the button after a few short seconds. The button’s location is clearly an aesthetic decision by the design, who determined that a little functional ambiguity was worth the concealed appearance. The fountain’s appearance allows it to fit into the aesthetic context and serve as a functional piece of sculpture.
The woman who refilled her water bottle was able to do so because the fountain’s water pressure was strong and consistent. While this has little to do with the fountain’s design, it illuminates a larger piece of infrastructure, public water. The public water system is a complicated beast, which might be considered extremely interactive. Water is drawn from lakes and reservoirs and expelled into an amazing wastewater treatment system. The fountain is but a node in this system. The disappointment and despair of low water pressure on a hot summer day …
Water fountains are great things and they’re disgusting things. People spit in them, rinse food down them, birds shit in them, and all that crap partially sits in the drain, and festers in a dry drain on a hot day. Not to mention the microbes that can grow in and around the spigot. The activator button or push panel is touched by thousands of people with varying levels of filth on their hands. Perhaps this is all ok, we don’t necessarily touch any of that gunk in the basin or put our mouths on the spigot, but we do have to trust that our municipal water is clean and chemical and disease free. Perhaps the most problematic part of the water fountain is the actuator (button or push panel). Maybe if there was a small infrared sensor on body of the fountain that activated the spigot, contamination would be eliminated. This sensor would require a low voltage connection, perhaps powered by a small solar cell … or a gigantic wind turbine.