The latest trends from Europe.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of my treks over to Frankfurt, Germany, to take in the wonders of the European plumbing world. As usual, I heard comments from some that there wasn't much new this time, and, as usual, I didn't agree.

I felt that there were plenty of innovations. That's one of the advantages of an every-other-year schedule, in fact -- it gives manufacturers space to work on the more significant product introductions rather than mid-term tweaks. Here are the trends I noted, and the high spots I found interesting this time.

Finishes and colors back to the basics.

Fixtures were predominantly white, and faucets and hardware mostly chrome. This is in sharp contrast to what we saw for many years involving an endless spectrum of colors and finishes.

Continuing trend toward angular shapes.

The era of jellybean forms has faded in favor of squarish forms - some quite severe. In faucets, this is especially evident, with bodies that look like blocks and spouts that look like flat bands.

A continuing trend is the use of flush-mount controls. By this, I mean the cartridge is buried down below the surface of the fixture, leaving just the control component (handle, lever, etc.) projecting up from deck. (Before this, the conventional approach has been to have a housing for the faucet cartridge extend up from the deck or faucet base, and for the handle to sit atop that.)

“Two-peg” flo-thru faucet models.

Last time at ISH, we saw the beginnings of a trend involving the use of what we call flo-thru cartridges. With these, the water enters the bottom of the cartridge and flows up through the stem to the spout. Control, whether single-lever or cycling, was provided by means of a small lever (peg) coming off the side of the body.

This year, we saw a continuation of the trend in the form of designs that had two levers coming off the side. With some, this meant hot and cold levers - with others, it meant one for volume and one for temperature.

More cycling type faucets.

If you're not familiar with the term, “cycling” means a rotary turn-on-thru-cold control that does not provide volume control. Traditionally, we have seen this type of control on shower valves - especially pressure balance types. Not having volume control on faucets is not really that important in our age of mandated flow restriction. Add to this the growing use of laminar flow devices today, and you have reasons enough to make this a pretty practical control concept.

Top-mount faucets.

This is a concept we're beginning to see on both sides of the pond. The concept here is to install a “mounting platform” into the faucet hole of the fixture - essentially a plate to which the supply tubes and mounting means are attached. With this in place, the faucet itself can be secured in place with a set screw, and, more significantly, can later be replaced with another faucet without having to go down below.

Whirlpools on the decline?

It seemed to me that there were fewer tubs with whirlpool or bubble systems than in years past. Has this type perhaps peaked in popularity?

Innovations in lavatory basin shapes and drain configurations.

There are increasing examples of lavs without basins - flat or extremely shallow surfaces - slits or baffles over the actual drain outlets. You see similar creativity directed to shower receptors; rarely do you look down at a utilitarian grid drain anymore.

Mirrors plus.

There were many examples of mirrors with built-in lighting and/or flat panel TVs.

Stainless still hot.

Stainless-steel faucets (solid in some cases) and fixtures continue to gain momentum. There were many examples of hybrid lavatory constructions that use stainless for the basin portion, but another (often warmer) material for the basic fixture.

Radiating creativity.

In the United States, our ideas of a radiator design are pretty limited and dated. Europeans do some artsy things with theirs. One type I found especially clever was made in the form of architectural columns.

“Second Wave” electronic controls for faucets.

Back in the 1990s we saw the beginning of a movement toward electronically controlled faucets that fizzled after a few years without gaining much traction. Well, electronic faucets are back again, but in some different forms.

What we saw mostly last time around was a touch pad sort of thing, looking somewhat like a scaled down microwave control panel. These provided the control functions of volume, temperature, on-off and in some cases, even user memory settings. Clever, but probably too clever for simple water drawing tasks. (If I just want a glass of water, don't make me do a computer entry.)

The ideas we are seeing now are less complex, and probably easier for the user to understand and do. The technologies this time are a bit different, as well and involve either piezo switching, capacitance sensing or a combination of the two.

Here is how these two technologies work. A piezo switch is one that is typically embedded flush with a product's metal surface, and though there is no actual movement involved when pressed, it “reads” an applied pressure to relay the signal. Piezo technology always requires the user to touch the control.

Capacitance, or charge transfer technology, on the other hand, involves the creation of an electrical field, that when disturbed sends the signal. This remote sensing technology is widely used in computer touch pad mouse pointers, smart cards for facility access, level controls, and moisture sensing. It can be “tuned” to allow either hands-free activation (by bringing your hand close, but not touching), or require actually touching the faucet.

Unlike infrared, there is no specific “aim” factor involved. The user can approach or touch the faucet from any direction.

One of the bigger buzzes at the show took place in the Hansa booth, where they demonstrated two new electronic faucets. One had an “American type” base that on the right end had “on” and “off” indices. On the left side of the base were red and blue markings, as well as a narrow LED band. This faucet is equipped with piezo switches, and when touched “on,” the water begins to flow in the default full cold mode.

To change the temperature, the user touches the red mark, which has a time factor, meaning the longer it is pressed, the more the temperature moves in the hot direction until released. While this is happening, a color indicator in the LED strip changes to reflect the change in setting.

Hansa also showed a hands-free version of their popular “glass spreader” lavatory faucet introduced last year. This model uses capacitance technology to turn it on, so you wave your hand near the metal disk in the center of the spreader to do so. It then flows for a preset time period and shuts off. There is a manual temperature control stick at the back that is moved left or right.

Jado showed an electronic faucet with four piezo switches on the top of the faucet spout providing functions of on, off, cold and hot. (Jado also had a personal handshower that turns on when it is removed from its nest.)

Damixa showed a faucet with a small, simplified touchpad screen with buttons for on-off, full cold and preset warm. The recharging of the battery in this case is water-powered. A readout screen shows the temperature of the water when the faucet is in use - otherwise, the time.

Another interesting concept from Damixa is a faucet spout that stows below deck, and comes up for use when the remote single lever control is activated.

Dalmer, Madgal and Technical Concepts (the latter a U.S. firm), demonstrated faucets using capacitance technology. In the case of these companies, the faucet is a simpler proximity on-off type, activated by bringing your hand near the faucet from any direction. Dalmer showed just spouts with water tempered through a mixing valve below deck. Madgal and Technical Concepts showed how any faucet could be converted to a hands-free type with the addition of their electronic components below. Temperature control in these cases is accomplished manually with the standard valving that comes with the faucets.

Another firm with the capacitance concept was Villeroy & Boch, once again showing a lavatory with a red and blue dot on the back surface of the basin. When the user waves his hand near the blue dot, the water comes on full cold, if the wave is done near the red dot, the water comes on in a preset warm mode. Moving away from the fixture then turns off the water.

There were two other interesting electronic innovations indirectly related to water control. Duravit has an arrangement in which lighting around the perimeter of a mirror turns on when the faucet below is activated. Kueco showed a telescoping shower column that activates by means of a control knob on the side (to adjust the height of the shower).

Arnold's Best In Show

A couple of off-beat candidates this year. I really liked a fixture series designed for small children. We have seen half-size toilets in our market, but these appeared to be about one-third-size, and included toilets, bidets and lavs.

The other wasn't really a production item, but a whimsical entry from a competition conducted among Ukrainian designers (including students) on exhibit in the Masco building. (I think I know the guy who donated the Levi's for this, by the way.)

Wacko Winner Of '05

I always have my eye out at ISH for something way out in terms of design or function. This year I spotted something for steam bath and sauna purists who like the tradition of having a bucket of cold water dumped on them.

It's a plumbed-in bucket on the wall that you simply tip for drenching. Between dousings, the bucket is automatically refilled by means of a toilet ballcock inside.