Toilet Paper

Once upon a time, I was staying with a friend. In the morning I got into the shower. I reached out for the hot faucet and gave it a quick twist to the left. At least I tried to. It seemed to be stuck, so I twisted a little harder.


Finally, in desperation, I tried to turn it the other way. Success. Stupid valve was backwards.

Standing in the first blast of icy water, I waited for the hot water to work its way through the plumbing. And waited. And waited.

Eventually I realized I had turned on the cold valve. Everyone knows the hot valve is always on the left, but not here. So I tried to turn the right hand valve.


Of course. That valve was backwards, too.

What I had been betrayed by was my expectation that plumbing standards were universal. They’re not. There is no law or regulation that says the hot water valve is on the left and turning a valve counterclockwise will open it. It’s merely a de facto standard.

We are surrounded by de facto standards, and they lubricate our lives. By having things look, feel, and operate as expected, we can go through life without constantly figuring out how this particular widget works.

Sometimes, there’s history behind our standards. In the old days, when piped hot water was virtually unknown, the cold water faucet was set on the wall, slightly to the right of the center of the sink to be convenient for all us right-handed folks. When they added hot water plumbing, they put it on the vacant left side. Hot on the left, cold on the right. An accidental, but effective, standard.

Others standards seem simply to have grown. There is no iron-clad reason that light switches are positioned 48 inches off the floor. It just serves to be a usable standard for the average person and also happens to be an even measure in our inches & feet system. I suspect if someone did a rigorous ergonomic study, they’d find out that 48 inches is not, in fact, the perfect solution. It doesn’t really matter. It works and we’re not going to change it.

We rely on these standards a lot more than we usually notice. What would you do if every computer connection you had to make required a different, special connector? You’d be at the mercy of the geek squads, who’d charge an arm and a leg for their services. Instead, all our computers and internet connections use standardized connectors and all we have to do is ask a twelve year old to help us set them up.

Or imagine what it would be like if all bicycle chains didn’t use a half inch pitch, a standard nobody can explain. Bicycle repair stores would make a mint, but think of what kind of hell do-it-yourself dads would go through to fix their sons bicycles if each bike brand used a different pitch.

It wasn’t all that long ago when each computer program designer (on PCs, anyway) invented their own menu system and each user had to memorize unique keystrokes to navigate their way around. Now we just assume that menus pull down, the upper left hand menu is “File” or its equivalent. Ctrl-P means “Print” and “Exit” is the bottom entry of the “File” menu.

If you think this is trivial, go buy a new car. It will have a touch screen on the dash, which might look familiar, but the actual menus, choices, and controls are still being sorted out by each manufacturer. The odds are pretty good that the steps you were used to on your old car are completely useless now. Everything has to be relearned. If your family happens to have two or more cars, good luck on keeping them all straight.

Over the last few years our smart phones have started to settle on a basic set of icons and control gestures, mostly based on Apple products. But as new technologies emerge, each seems to go through a learning cycle before de facto standards are agreed upon. Our cars haven’t reached that point yet. And if you want a real giggle, go look at a smart house. All the gadgets, from the TV down to the refrigerator, talk to each other and the central controller. Each system is unique. I suspect that the average smart home buyer will soon be hiring their very own programmer.

De jure standards, fixed by law, have a half-life that seems to be measured in millennia. Long after the logic that shaped them has become obsolete, the laws stay on the books, doing their best to block any change, whether for good or ill.

But what about de facto standards? I recently ran into a case of creeping obsolescence in a de facto standard:

Toilet paper.

Specifically, the outside diameter of the roll. It’s pretty standard. Buy a roll and it will fit your bathroom fixture.

At least, that’s the way it used to be. Recently I bought a package of “jumbo” rolls of toilet paper. I have a nice recessed chromed fixture next to each of my toilets, and the jumbo rolls didn’t fit in either one The distance from my roller center to the back wall of my fixture is 2.5 inches. I.e., it’s designed for a 5 inch roll. My new rolls are 6 inches in diameter.

Hmmm. So I went down to the hardware store and measured all the recessed fixtures they had, trying to find one that would fit. They were all the same: 2.5 inches,. Clearly they were all designed for a 5 inch diameter roll.

What to do? I jumped on the internet and found a fixture that said it was 3.75 inches form the roller to the back wall. Naturally, I ordered it.

They lied. 2.5 inches.

As my nearest and dearest will tell you, I’m more than average stubborn. So when I was done cursing, I figured out a solution that was only moderately dumb and required only a bit too much effort. A little time in my machine shop and I’d made spacers for the arms that hold the roller. It only took a few tries. The roller is now a bit more than 3 inches from the back wall and a new jumbo roll rotates freely.

Point is, it can take quite a while before manufacturers adjust to a change in the de facto standard (e.g. lots of cell phone pockets are still flip-phone sized). And since the marketeers insist that our cars, our phones, our houses, and practically everything else we buy needs to incorporate the latest features before the old ones have had a chance to settle into something approaching a standard, I think we’re all likely to be facing a lot more experiences like mine. Standards we unconsciously relied on for years will be overtaken by “better” ideas.

The Toilet Paper Roll: harbinger of the future.


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