Bathroom Checklist

A couple of the bathrooms I’ve done recently have had issues with the water pressure in the shower. It’s the first thing that the client comments on and the one thing they really want improved with the upgraded shower. But I have bad news for you. Sometimes it’s not the shower that’s causing the problem. Sometimes it’s the boiler.

When a system is plumbed the route that the pipework takes is the most direct that the structure of the building allows. But if that pipework was run by an owner three of four ahead of you and the bathroom has had changes made along the way, there’s no telling how many alterations to the original route have occurred – nor indeed the age of the boiler itself. The reason that’s important is because of technology. I can see head scratching, go with me, here.

fired earth style shot

fired earth style shot

As technical processes become more advanced and the making of bathroom metalware is done by precision instruments, the fittings available to us are a great deal more intricate. On the outside they look uncomplicated and streamlined but on the inside they have restrictor valves to adjust water flow rates and they need a certain amount of pressure to operate at their best. For something so comparatively small, the inside (the gubbins – one of my favourite words) is extremely high tech. And here is the problem. If you try and plumb one of these sensitive, modern belles to a boiler that is 10+ years old, you’re going to get a few generational differences. It’d be like putting your great aunt behind the wheel of a Ferrari.

The output of your boiler is designed to take both hot water and central heating activity, but it can’t adjust to the demands of fittings that are trying to second guess it. What I mean by that is if the fittings make allowances for the boiler output and it isn’t keeping up with the factory settings of the fittings, then the two components are out of sync and the end result is lost pressure. The thing to remember is that with current regulations, the factory creates a setting that inhibits the temperature – so you can’t scald yourself. Often this can’t be altered which is tough luck if you like a HOT shower! And even more annoying this is only apparent when the fittings change. So, you may have hated the old shower but the pressure may have been fine and with the new shower the pressure is awful – or much less hot than you had. The first option is to take out the restrictor valves, but this doesn’t really solve the problem because with every upgrade you do to your property, the boiler will have to supply the fittings.

tiled shower enclosure

As the designer, I’m often the person specifying the fittings and so I’m likely to be asked to sort this out. The problem is that often I’m not told about the boiler – because the clients don’t necessarily see it as part of the problem – but it definitely is.

If the work is done in stages, then the technology of each fitting (tap, shower, bath, radiator) will be step on step more advanced than the boiler – and the blame will be laid at the feet of the contractor that fitted the bathroom (or the radiators) not the boiler. But the workman has no control over regulations nor indeed the build quality or specifications of the metalware. This is something that should be factored in when you decide to make changes to your bathroom. If the boiler isn’t modern enough to have factory updates done remotely (the time now updates automatically when the clocks change, for example) then you’re likely to suffer with issues of compatibility when you do want to make changes. Yes, it adds money to the work being undertaken, but contrast this to how upset and dissatisfied you’ll feel when the bathroom you’ve been planning for months doesn’t meet your expectations. In that situation it’s natural to want to lay blame with the workmen, but with issues of compatibility between fittings and appliance, you only have two choices – live with it, or upgrade the oldest parts. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of having the work done, surely that should mean you’ve done your homework, you’ve researched the minimum requirements and understand the problems you could encounter if you decide to ‘take your chances?’

mother of pearl mosaic

A Busman’s Holiday

Richard, the contractor I work with, recently had to have surgery on his foot and ankle and as a result was stuck at home for a few weeks unable to drive. To be honest having someone with an injury on site is dangerous, they can’t move fast enough to get out of the way and for that reason cause a hazard just by being there. Even worse, if they should overbalance or land awkwardly, the risk of damaging the surgical repair is quite high. Would you want to go back to the surgeon and say ‘I’ve ruined your work’?

So nobody wanted him around and not being one for sitting still, he decided to rip out his bathroom at home! I know, right? So this is the only family bathroom; WC, handbasin and bath, quite a small room. Downstairs luckily, there is a separate WC – so far so good. **This was the reason he thought replacing the new bathroom right at the same time that he was sporting a surgical boot was a good idea.

plumbing the shower valve

plumbing the shower valve

One wet Sunday in March he investigated the tiles on the wall and low and behold, they ‘fell off the wall almost without effort at all.’ Hmmm. So the walls were completely stripped and the pipework for the WC was capped off (because there was still the WC downstairs.) Then it all got a bit complicated because the only place for the family to bathe was in the bath that he was removing. He ran the pipes for the new shower position and put the bath in its place. He ran the pipework for the new WC position and the new handbasin position. He skim coated the walls with plaster around the area that the bath had previously been in. He started tiling the floor and did half of the room, waited for the adhesive to go off (dry) and then moved the bath back to its old position and tiled the other half of the floor. He repeated the process to do the grouting, moving the bath around the room as he went. The bath could still be used at that point because he reconnected the taps to the new handbasin position and had the waste going out via the new WC position.

the existing bath position

the existing bath position

But then it all got a bit difficult because he had to wait for the shower tray and every time he needed to do something, he had to move the bath and re-plumb it. So for a couple of days the family showered at friends or the gym, while the project inched forward and the wall tiling was done. But even when the tiles went in, the shower tray was installed and the shower valve and shower head were plumbed, there was still the shower screen to be fitted (which was a special order – and it was delayed.)

By that stage Rich was mobile and his name was mud at home. Complete mud. Think about how frustrating it is to have delays on site when the project is your own, you want someone to blame, don’t you? When it’s a project that you haven’t really asked for and certainly not when the builder is on sick leave, I imagine that you don’t hold back. So Rich was living in a building site and going off to work in one every day. Complaints at home and complaints on site.

awaiting the vanity unit

awaiting the vanity unit

How fun – not. If you decide to refurbish your bathroom while you’re living in the house, expect to be unpopular!

mirror and hand basin

It all turned out well though, the shower screen is in and the family are really happy with their new bathroom. And it looks fabulous – Rich is back to valued member of the family status. Woop!

walk in shower

Don’t let this put you off, it is possible to do the work and live on site with a bathroom that is the building site. It isn’t fun, but it is possible. And if you’re prepared to put up with the frustration of delays and having dusty feet and a gritty handbasin, you will save yourself some money in the process. Keep in mind though, when you’re living on site, there’s no escape from the dust and the noise – and generally work takes longer if the site is habited – especially if fittings need to move every day and be re-plumbed or re-wired every time this happens.

wc and shower

The interesting thing is you get a perspective of your own home that you wouldn’t otherwise see, the raw, vulnerable side of a building with wiring hanging out and pipework exposed. And I think that makes you feel more protective of where you live, more inclined to care and less blasé about the responsibility of homeownership.

vanity unit

When you see that your property needs you to care for it, I think that is when your house becomes a home.

glass jar