Faucet Basics: Part 4 Faucet Styles & Configurations

To an increasing extent, faucet improvements are being driven by design, not technology. There have been no major technological breakthroughs since the ceramic cartridge almost a half-century ago. The closest thing to a technological improvement in the recent past is the hands-free, automatic faucet, and the jury is still out on the usefulness of this innovation.

Virtually all name faucets are functionally reliable, economical to operate, and will last a lifetime. So, faucet companies now concentrate on distinguishing their wares through design and style advances.

Even staid, engineer-driven companies such as are meeting the public demand for more appealing faucets by creating new styles that push design limits and adding finishes never seen on a faucet until this century.

Style Categories

Faucet styles are divided into three broad categories, traditional, transitional, and contemporary.


Traditional designs are, as you might expect, intended to complement the classic American kitchen. But, today's traditional designs are far removed from the traditional styles of earlier decades. While traditional faucets take their design elements from classic motifs, they are constantly evolving as designers reinterpret what it means to be traditional.

Traditional faucets are still by far the best-selling designs in North America, and bright, polished chrome the most popular faucet finish. In part, this popularity stems from the fact that the majority of homeowners in North America live in older houses, some as nearly 200 years old, and angular modern styles do not fit the look of the house. Another big attraction of the traditional styles is that they are what we are we are used to, the styles we grew up with, and the designs with which we are most comfortable.


Contemporary styles reflect urban chic and are where the adventures in faucet design occur. These are intended to be a little edgy and reflect advances in materials and technologies.

The designs have returned to basics, becoming very geometric and industrial — featuring angular shapes with sharply defined edges, or stark, unadorned tubular shapes often created by world-famous product and fashion designers such as Phillipe Stark, and Jason Wu as one part of extensive collections of coordinating faucets, showers, tubs, sink, and accessories such as towel bars and tissue holders. Some companies, such as go so far as to include bathroom furniture, lighting and even tile in coordinated suites. One company, will even provide coordinating linens and bathrobes.


Transitional or eclectic styles are somewhere in between, reflecting classic elements with a touch of the contemporary intended for those whose style preference is not quite so avant guard.

The award-winning Vesi Channel lavatory faucet is a good example of this amalgamation. The basic two-handle lavatory faucet has been around for most of a century. By adding a channel spout and crisping up the basic rectangular shape, has transformed the faucet into something more up-to-date that will fit well in a contemporary bathroom and still be quite at home in a more traditional setting.

Choosing a Style

One problem with contemporary and even some transitional designs is that they almost always include built-in obsolescence. They date themselves after a few years. The high arch, industrial faucet so in vogue today will probably become the faucet equivalent of the avocado refrigerator tomorrow.

Consider how many of the "high-style" faucets of the '70s and '80s are still around. They were the "must-have" faucets of their time, and probably still work just fine but they tag your kitchen or bath as archaic, a relic of a bygone time, and are the first faucets to be replaced. Traditional faucets, on the other hand, rarely go out of style. They are, for the most part, timeless designs.

They are also typically the less expensive faucets. Few economy faucets feature contemporary styling. Style innovations start at the top of the line and work themselves down over time to less expensive faucets. By the time the "very latest" has filtered down to the bargain shelf, it is long past being the very latest. Still, except for the ultra-high-style bath or kitchen, a traditional faucet works just about anywhere. And, as older styles are phased out in favor of newer lines, traditional faucets can be exceptional values found on internet discount venues.

Faucet Configurations

Design is more than shape, form, and finish, however. A faucet's configuration contributes to its basic appearance and functionality: how it is mounted, how many handles it has and other features affect its appearance as much and even more than its style elements.

Mounting Holes

Before 1950 or so all faucets required either two or three mounting holes. With the invention of the washerless valve, one hole configurations became possible.

Some kitchen faucets need two holes, some three. If a side spray is installed, add one more for the spray. We have seen as many as seven (add one more hole each for the soap dispenser, lotion dispenser, instant hot water tap, and filtered drinking water tap). The largest number of holes you can get in a sink is five. So if your configuration requires more than five holes, consider a sink that supports faucet mounting through the countertop.

Bath faucets come in one-hole, two-hole, and three-hole configurations. In two- and three-hole configurations, the hot and cold handles are set either 4" apart (centerset) or 8" apart (widespread). There is also the vessel faucet that mounts in a countertop and has a high arc or tube spout to clear the rim of a vessel sink.

Mounting Surfaces

Most faucets mount into a ledge on the back of the sink or into the countertop. These faucets are referred to as deck mounted. Some faucets are mounted in the wall over the sink. These are referred to as, no surprise, wall-mounted.

Wall mounting is becoming more popular as homeowners discover that wall-mounted faucets not only provide more room on the countertop but are easier to keep clean.

There are also floor mounted faucets. Most of these are tub fillers but there are floor-mounted lavatory faucets offered by a few faucet companies. Most are from Europe where they are very popular. They are used primarily in very contemporary bathrooms.

Deck mounting is usually assumed unless wall or floor mounting is indicated.

Number of Handles

Two handles were the norm until about 50 years ago when the invention of the washerless valve by Al Moen made single handle faucets possible. A two-handled faucet has one handle for hot water and one handle for cold water. This gives you a very precise control of both water temperature and volume. The one handle on a single-handle style controls both temperature and volume using the same lever. For period kitchens and baths, two-handle designs are most often the preferred configuration.

There are three handle faucets. The third handle is for filtered drinking water. One such faucet is the Triflow faucet by Triflow Concepts sold by The Triflow filtration system allows the delivery of hot, cold, and filtered drinking water through one faucet.

Handle Shape

The original handles were cross handles or levers sprinkled with a leavening of exotic handles, such as the cut glass handle — now almost always made of plastic that seems to be a growing medium for mold. (Avoid these unless they are actually cut glass or contain anti-microbial properties). With the invention of the single handle faucets came the single handle lever, out of which, with a little help from the Atari game controller, evolved the latest incarnation of the lever, the joystick handle.

Cross Handles

Cross handles, as the name suggests, are handles in the shape of a + sign. The style became very popular after compression washer faucet valves replace Fuller valves as the preferred valve. It is standard on many faucets designed to fit with Victorian, Edwardian and Arts & Crafts decor but has never gone out of style. Modern, simplified, less ornamented versions still adorn very contemporary faucets.

Lever Handles

The other traditional handle shape is the lever handle. No one knows for sure but odds are very good that the earliest modern faucet handle was a lever handle. But, illustrations from the early 1900s show both types of handles in regular use, often in the same bathroom.

In the 1930s the lever faucet lost ground to the cross handle until after the World War of 1939-1945 when more "modern", streamlined faucet handle styles replaced both lever and cross handle faucets. The lever has seen a resurgence, once again gaining in popularity after 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The ADA mandated equal access for Americans with physical limitations, and while the Act does not apply to private homes, faucet companies began voluntarily designing and testing faucets for compliance with ADA standards. Lever handles are easier to operate than cross handles for persons with limited manual dexterity and most ADA-certified faucets employ some sort of lever handle.

Post-War Handles: Blades, Knobs, and Flutes

During the Post-war period characterized by the rapid expansion of the suburbs through the construction of hundreds of thousands of standardized tract houses, American faucet companies introduced handles for their "modern" faucets in the form of knob-like shrouds that totally enclosed the faucet stem for the more streamlined look favored during the period. One of the most common of these was the various Blade styles offered by another was the fluted handle, which was often made in acrylic. The plastic used in these knobs had a nasty tendency to turn yellow over time and seemed to be an ideal medium for growing mold and mildew.

The various post-war handle styles never migrated beyond North America. European faucets ignored the "streamline" trend, and when in the 1980s began to penetrate the North American market with better designed and more stylish faucets, the various post-war styles, by then severely dated, gave way rapidly to reintroduced cross and lever handles favored by European stylists.

Most of these post-war styles are still available, however, and ideal for re-creating a post-war bath from about 1955 to 1980. Today's acrylic handles are usually treated with an anti-microbial compound to help reduce mold and mildew infestation.

The handles on single-handle faucets have always been some variation of the lever. The large levers characteristic of early single-handle faucets are now less prevalent. The newer ceramic disk models require less effort to operate and do not need the leverage provided by the larger handles. All handles originally were at the top of the faucet body — a position dictated by the design or early sleeve and ball cartridges — and that has remained a common placement but side handles and even handles divorced from the actual faucet are becoming more common. Handles attached to a ceramic cartridge separate from the actual faucet can be placed in positions more convenient for the operator, including on the wall behind the sink.

An increasingly popular style of single-handle lever is the joystick, adapted from computer game consoles by Chinese designers for use on faucets about ten years ago. The design concept has begun to appear in Western faucet designs but is still not as sweepingly popular on this side of the Pacific.

Hospital Handles

Specialized easy-operating lever handles used in hospitals and restaurant kitchens where it is often necessary to operate faucets with wrists or elbows due to dirty or contaminated hands, have spread to home kitchen use for the same reason. These make it possible to easily turn the faucet on and off and regulate temperature without using dirty fingers. Typically called "hospital handles", they are more commonly referred to in the industry as "wrist blades".

Wrist blades are frequently specified for residential kitchen faucets where one or more family members has a physical limitation that prevents easy hand operation of the faucet. All hospital handles meet ADA standards.

Spout Shape

Spouts are made in just about every configuration that will hold water. But, while spouts are important to a faucet's style, only a few geometric shapes figure in determining a faucet's configuration.

Low-Arc "Standard" Spout

A standard spout juts out from the faucet base with either little or no arch. It may angle slightly up or down and may have a little hook at the end.

This is the classic spout shape for kitchen faucets, pioneered in faucets sold by the big-name faucet companies, in the 1940s and '50s. The Delta 2100 kitchen faucet with blade handles and a side spray featured a low-arc standard spout. It has been in production for over 70 years and is still a Delta best-seller.

Articulating Spout

This is a very new design in which the spout is jointed at several spots and can rotate, extend or retract at the joints so that it can be moved into any position. It has both a long reach and a generous clearance. It is, in fact, a spout and sprayer rolled into one, so it's hard to say whether it is a new spout shape or a new sprayer location.

Invented by and introduced to the U.S. as the Karbon faucet, Kohler has pretty much had the category to itself for several years, and will probably continue to do so until its patents run out. We were initially skeptical of the design, figuring that all those articulating joints provided ample opportunity for leaks and material failure. So far, however, these do not seem to be a problem. Of course, we have to wait about 100 years for the real test of reliability.

High-Arc "Gooseneck" Spout

If the spout arches up a lot it is called a "high arc" or "gooseneck" faucet. A gooseneck faucet has more clearance for filling tall pots, or, in a bathroom, more height to reach over the rim of a vessel sink. The Kohler Parc faucet pictured ar tight has a gooseneck spout.

Exotic Spout Variations

There are any number of spout configurations that are essentially just variations on one of the basic three, and function much the same way. A channel spout, for instance, is a standard spout in the form of an open trough used to create the effect of an old-time well pump. The Vesi faucet, pictured above, is an example of this variation. The waterfall spout spreads the water leaving the faucet into a sheet, to recreate a waterfall effect. These are primarily of Asian origin and are very popular in the Far East where the falling water effect is a popular design motif.

Spray Location

In kitchens, retractable sprays aid in the rinsing of large pots and can extend to hard-to-reach areas. Rarer are bathroom sink sprayers, designed to aid hair washing at the sink. Now that hair washing usually takes place in the shower, these faucets have fallen out of favor but some are still around. There are at least three standard sprayer locations.

Side Spray

The original side spray configuration is still available and still very popular. The sprayer is attached to the faucet with a hose but is mounted to one side. Its control is in the sprayer head. The spray pattern may be adjustable and usually can be switched to spray to stream with a lever mounted on the sprayer head, a feature pioneered by .

Pull-Out and Pull-down Spout Sprayer

In the 1980s introduced the European pull-out spout sprayer to the U.S. market. The pull-down faucet still makes up a major part of Rohl's faucet line. and other large American manufacturers immediately copied and mass-marketed the innovation. It was an overnight success. Most sprays are now of the pull-out or pull-down spout variety. In this configuration, the spray and spout are the same. The spout is connected to the faucet with a flexible hose that can be extended for use then retracted. In its retracted position the spray head becomes the spout.

There are problems with this spray configuration.

If the sprayer is also the spout and the sprayer fails, you have no water at all. Spout sprayers do tend to break with some frequency and chances are the failure involves the hose or hose attachment which are usually the weak points of the faucet. A braided, stainless steel hose is the best choice. Plastic hose makers claim their hoses are nearly as strong as steel braided hoses but after having responded to a lot of leaks involving plastic hoses, we don't think that's true.

If the sprayer is separate from the faucet, as in a side sprayer configuration, then if a hose fails it is merely a mild inconvenience until it is repaired or replaced, and not a four-alarm emergency requiring your plumber to respond on a Sunday at double his or her normal rate.

A recent innovation in residential sprayer technology is the pre-rinse sprayer borrowed from commercial rinse faucets common in restaurants. These feature a long hose on a very high, elongated gooseneck (up to 36 in. tall) and a spray head that sometimes offers choices of spray strengths. Some offer a gooseneck spray separate from a swivel spout, in others the spout and sprayer are one.

Some home versions of the high-arc sprayer are very good. Some, however, have plastic sprayer spouts, which are not as good. The best choice is probably an actual, heavy-duty, restaurant pre-rinse faucet. These are available from manufacturers of commercial faucets such as


All two-handle faucets have some sort of arrangement for connecting the hot and cold water inflows so the temperature of the water can be mixed inside the faucet before it is sent to the spout. In most faucets this connection is hidden: either inside the faucet or under the countertop. A bridge faucet is a variation of the two-handle faucet in which the tube connecting the cold and hot water (the "bridge") is visible rather than concealed beneath the counter or hidden inside the faucet.

These were invented in the early 1900s as one of the first attempts to mix hot and cold water inside the faucet, and are popular when resurrecting Victorian or Art & Crafts styles but modernized versions, such as the Graff bridge faucet show at the top of this page, have resurrected the style for contemporary kitchen and baths.

Bridge faucets are by necessity always two- or three-hole mounting (one hole for a side spay, if any) and have two handles.

Hands-Free Operation ("Automatic" Faucets)

Hands-free or automatic faucets have been around since the 1980s but only recently began migrating from public restrooms into home kitchens and baths.

These fixtures work with a sensor of some kind to turn the water on and off. Most systems use electric eyes or motion sensor technology. uses a different system in its hands-free faucets. Sonoma's hands-free feature operates by generating a small electromagnetic field that surrounds the faucet. Hands held anywhere near the faucet interrupt the field and the faucet turns on. When the hands pull away, the continuity of the field is restored and the faucet turns itself off. The technology works like magic and does not require an electric eye or external sensing device that detracts from the look of the faucet.

Automatic faucets need electric power to work and can be hard-wired or battery-powered. Engineers are working on faucets that recharge their permanent batteries from the energy of the water passing through the faucet but there has yet to be a commercially successful version of this concept.

The drawbacks of automatic faucets are two. First, the temperature and volume of water must be preset. The electronic control merely turns the water on and off. If you want to adjust the temperature or water flow rate, hands are again required. Second, it's largely experimental (and temperamental) technology. The electronics required to make automatic faucets hands-free is relatively delicate and prone to failure. Even the major faucet companies, with lifetime warranties on their faucets, offer no more than a 5-year guarantee on the electronic sensor apparatus and other companies guarantee the circuitry for as little as one year.

Our impression is that, outside of public restrooms, automatic faucets are a technological solution in search of an actual problem to solve. The main arguments for the use of the technology in the home, that they save water and reduce the spread of germs, are not holding up in the face of research.

A 2011 study conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore found bacteria that causes legionnaires disease in half of the automatic faucets tested for contamination. The results persuaded Johns Hopkins to remove automatic faucets from the hospital. A study in 2010 sponsored by the California Urban Conservation Council concluded that the claims of water savings using automatic faucets were "unsubstantiated". After manually-operated faucets were replaced with automatic faucets in public washrooms, water use increased more than 30% from an average of 654 to 856 gallons per day.

Our experience with automatic faucets suggests that the feature is not used after the initial "novelty" period. We have experienced several instances of electronics failure where the customer decided it was just too much trouble to repair the hands-free system that they seldom used anyway. Most automatic faucets are designed to work manually if the automatic feature fails.

If you want a hands-free faucet and are not willing to wait until you replace your faucets to own the technology, there are devices to convert your existing faucets to automatic operation. EZ Faucet makes a battery-powered control that can be retrofitted to your existing faucet to turn the water on and off electronically. You use the regular handles to adjust temperature and volume.

The cheaper and better solution, however, is hospital handles which provide most of the benefits of hands-free technology, and none of the problems.

For more information on automatic faucets visit the company that helped start the trend, Sloan Valve Co.

Rev. 07/29/19