Six questions and answers before replacing or buying.
Updating a kitchen faucet is a quick way to give any kitchen a mini-lift. If it’s 20 years or older, it’s time to change what’s arguably the most often-used kitchen fixture. Nothing is more irksome than a faucet that’s not functioning well or is badly matched to the sink. New faucets have impressive ease-of-use features, a variety of finishes that coordinate with other kitchen hardware, and styles that are wonderfully functional as well as beautiful.
Because I’ve renovated two kitchens recently, I’ve worked to make sense of faucet styles, features and quality. I’ve spoken to trusted experts. Online, I’ve seen which are popular and observed how trends change. I also know that choosing a faucet is akin to picking out jewelry: when you love how it looks it’s easy to forget about function and ease of cleaning — don’t.
As both an interior designer and professional cook, I’ve seen people agonize over expensive stoves then buy the first faucet a big-box-store salesman recommends because it’s a “deal” even though that faucet will get tons more use than the range! I think it’s time for kitchen faucets to get the respect they deserve. Ultimately, though, finding the “best” faucet for any kitchen is simply a matter of answering six basic questions, and seeing where the answers lead.
Question 1: One Control or Two?
Determining the type of faucet control is is a huge decision. Once made, it narrows the search considerably because kitchen sink faucets generally fall into two categories: single-lever controls or separate hot- and cold- water controls. Each comes in a wide variety of styles from traditional to modern, and a range of sizes and height configurations. Making the choice of general faucet type is the first step.
Single-handle faucets, like the colorful Swiss-made Arwa Twinflex [top], or the elegant Dornbracht Tara Ultra [above] mix hot and cold water by a rotating valve (invented by Al Moen in the 1950s). These are installed through a hole in the sink rim, or directly into the counter and generally require one hole.
If there is a separate (called a remote) valve to operate the faucet and/or a sidespray — as for Kohler’s popular Fairfax — a single-valve faucet can require two, or even three holes.
Faucets with separate controls operate cold and hot water independently. Handles can be levers, or spokes like the ones on Waterworks’ iconic Julia set, which requires three holes plus a fourth for a sidespray.
Alternately, a pipe connects the separate hot and cold controls, like this Kallista for Town by Michael Smith. This is a “bridge faucet,” installed on the counter and often raised up slightly on straight extensions, or offset on curvy legs like these. Bridge faucets (with or without a side spray) also can be mounted on a wall behind the sink.
Then there are wall-mounted faucets with separate hot and cold handles and a spout which are installed on the wall bathtub-style. Another less-used type are the old-fashioned pillar taps. These are separate hot and cold water spigots which can lend a historical look to prep or bar sinks.
For me, a single-lever faucet is most practical simply because so many cooking and clean up tasks leave only one hand free. I also feel single-lever faucets take up the least sink deck space and require the fewest steps to clean. However, faucets with separate controls have a definite bling factor and are often chosen for large sinks in traditional-style kitchens where they do double duty as “sink jewelry.”
Question 2: Does the Faucet Fit the Sink?
Faucets and sinks are interdependent so careful attention must be paid to measurements of both. Not every sink and faucet type are compatible. Getting the right match up of sink type and dimensions with faucet type and dimensions — then making sure they can be installed properly in a space — rests on product specification (spec) sheets, diagrams provided by sink and faucet manufacturers on their websites as downloadable PDF documents.
With sinks, there is both interior and exterior length (side to side), width (front to back) and depth (top to bottom) for each sink bowl. Then there’s the position of the drain in the bowl or bowls — which varies. Drains are 3-inches in diameter but a drain can be centered, set off to one side or towards the back. On the spec sheet for my Julien sink [above] I’ve circled the overall dimensions and drain location in red. Note the drain is centered but 6-inches from the back of the sink.
Each faucet also has a spec sheet which includes basic measurements, spout projection (reach) and clearances required for the faucet’s operation and installation. On the spec sheet for my KWC Systema faucet, I’ve circled the spout projection (8-inches) in red, the total height in blue and the distance between the bottom of the spout and the top of the sink in green.
Become familiar with a sink spec sheet before looking for a faucet (or the reverse). Both documents should be provided to contractors, plumbers and counter top fabricators in advance of any work.
By matching the key measurements it’s possible to see how the sink and faucet will work together when installed. Pay close attention to the depth of the ledge behind the sink, the thickness of the faucet stem and the way the controls work.
For this 32″ x 16″ sink, the distance from the center of the drain to the back of the sink is 6-inches and about 2-inches from the back of the sink to the center of where the faucet stem sits. That 8-inches is the approximate faucet projection measurement to the drain center.
For the faucet, consider the height (blue) and how that lines up with horizontal elements behind it. Be sure the projection (red) is long or short enough so the faucet “fits” the sink, and note the working area between the spout and top of the sink (green) while the water is running. For example, my faucet, which has a thick stem, has to fit on a 5-1/2-inch ledge (5-inches is close to the minimum space needed). The faucet turns on and off by rotating to the right. No problem. It swivels back for cold and forward for hot but there is ample clearance behind it to operate. To get enough clearance for an undermount sink, I needed a 16-inch-wide (front-to-back) sink vs a more common 19-inch wide sink. Otherwise I didn’t have a good fit.
With the spec sheet in hand for any faucet candidate, here are the key points to consider:
Scale – Scale is relative size. Overall faucet height (blue in the diagram) should be visually in proportion to the size of the sink. There should be ample space behind or around the faucet between windows, walls, and the backsplash for it to operate. The size of the faucet should look good and not fight any horizontal lines around the sink such as upper cabinets, shelves, windowsills or window features (red arrows show how the faucet height corresponds to the height of the window on the left). The space between the spout and the top of the sink (green) defines how much working space there is when the water is on, which becomes critical when washing delicate glassware or large pots. In general, avoid tall or beefy faucets or faucets with more than 3 holes if a sink is less than 28-inches wide. Avoid slim, low or small faucets with large (30-inch or more) or multiple-bowl sinks.
Stem – The counter fabricator and contractor need to verify the stem diameter. Also check the maximum counter thickness the faucet can accommodate on the diagram (mine is 2-3/8″ so it worked for my standard 1-1/4″ thick marble counter). See whether or not the faucet comes with an escutcheon – a metal base plate – particularly if there is a wall or partition behind the sink. The escutcheon is optional on some faucets while others require it.
Projection – This is the measurement of the faucet spout’s reach into the sink and from side to side as it swivels (see red notations). This is calculated from the center of the stem to the center of the spout. For an ideal installation, the faucet spout should line up with the center of the sink drain so that when the faucet operates, water flows into the drain. This helps avoids many splashing issues, especially with taller faucets. Swivel also is important if space behind the sink is tight, or if there is a tall sprayer or filtered water faucet planned for the deck. Bumping faucets are not desirable. Pay special attention to projection for sinks with more than one compartment since there is more than one drain. Spout projection is also critical if a sink has an irregular shape or only one spot for installation. Also check to see if the spout tip is straight or angled – an angled spout will affect where water hits in the sink.
Operation – Single-valve faucets can operate front-to-back or side-to-side or a combination of both. Some are be installed with controls on the right or left (this is not always interchangeable). Others offer the flexible option of having controls centered in front – essentially inside the rim of the sink. A faucet with a separate joystick control may need space to swivel. Check all clearances, especially when there will be 6-inches or less space between the back edge of the sink and a backsplash, wall, window, shelf or ledge behind it.
Question 3: Sprayer or No Sprayer?
Faucets come with aerators — a mesh screen or screens to help control the direction and diameter of the water flow and minimize splashing. Some faucets also have a sprayer, either on the side or built into the head. In either case, the water flow can be changed from aerator to spray by pressing a button or lever. The spray setting may or may not lock on, and the faucet may or may not default to the aerator when the water is turned off. It’s important to understand how a sprayer will function.
I suggest reading specification sheets very carefully before ordering and never assume any feature is included. Sometimes the only difference between two very different faucets is the last few digits of a manufacturer’s style number!
Traditional sidesprays pull up out of the deck from a singular hole. Some wall mounted faucets also have sidesprayers that sit in a cradle on the front, activated by a lever. It’s best to also verify the length of the sprayer hose to be sure it’s adequate.
Pull-out and pull-down faucets come with and without sprayers and offer all-in-one convenience. These have hoses of various lengths concealed in the spout. The faucet becomes mobile and has an extended reach – a vase or pot next to the sink can be easily filled. A counterweight on the hose helps it retract easily back into the faucet. The sprayer tubing is made of flexible metal or fiber mesh.
Pull-out faucets (like Franke’s popular FFPS 200) tend to be lower (shorter), closer to the sink and the head pulls out toward the user.
Pull downs (like the Brizo Solna) may be tall or short.
Some of the newer faucets, like the Delta are activated by touch.
Hi Arc or Pro style faucets are the current darlings. This style is adapted from the commercial restaurant rinse-down sprayers. A metal spring holds the sprayer up in an arc (some as high as 30-inches) which allows it to move all over the sink without falling. Generally there is a hook that holds the sprayer in place and some faucets also have a spout in a combination assembly. Combination aerator-sprayer high-arc faucets operate with a lever or button.
Articulated faucets are a new, very flexible combination sprayer style. The best known in this category (so far) is Kohler’s Karbon which has an infinite variety of movement and positioning that is both dramatic and slightly magical. When not in use, it folds into a compact shape.
Question 4: Which Color and Finish?
It’s a good idea to look at the various finishes offered by different brands. Manufacturers like Kohler offer a wide range of choices for the popular Vinnata pull-down, while others have a limited range of finishes.
Faucets tend to be metallic colors, whose names may change from manufacturer to manufacturer. Typically, chrome, nickel, stainless steel, brass and bronze are basics that go under a variety of names. Enameled plastic is often used for colored faucets.
Metallic finishes include, but are not limited to, polished (shiny), brushed (matte), satin (sheen), or rubbed (oiled), weathered or antiqued.
Tarnish-resistant polished chrome is the most commonly available finish, followed by nickel (either polished, brushed or satin) which can tarnish slightly, stainless steel and bronze. Brass was popular during the 19th century but is seen less frequently today. To promote wear and reduce scratching and corrosion, many faucets are coated by a high-tech process called physical vapor deposition or PVD, which bonds the finish color to the faucet.
Choosing a finish is a question of taste but, in general, it’s nice when faucets coordinate well with finishes on cabinets, appliances, countertops and backsplash since – as a vertical elements – these will be seen against those backdrops. Matching isn’t necessary.
Question 5: What’s the Best Value?
The good news is that kitchen faucets at every price point offer years of trouble free service – excellent quality and value. However, value can be relative and quality subject to opinion and the budget. When one of our favorite experts picked the best value in a kitchen faucet Grohe’s Minta won out.
In general, the heavier the faucet – the more brass it contains – the better the quality. Certain brands are known for their all brass or stainless steel innards and are priced accordingly. Lighter-weight faucets tend to have a higher percentage of plastic components.
Faucet innards can be based on ceramic disc cartridges or compression. Experts will argue in favor of ceramic discs which are easily replaceable (often for free from the manufacturer with a call to customer care or for a nominal charge). With these, the disks control water flow. One remains stationary while the other moves. When closed, they lock down with an airtight seal.
Old-style faucets utilize rubber washers and compression. Washers can leak and require repair or replacement. That said, many centuries old, high-end English faucet brands are compression faucets.
As with so many consumer goods, a famous name generally commands a higher price. Yet some very high-end brands, which are less well known or less prestigious offer amazing values. Material quality being equal, marketing can affect price. Before purchasing a prestige brand, be sure to check the warranty policy. Ideally, these should offer a lifetime warranty that covers the replacement of a broken cartridge or a faucet itself due to material defect or malfunction. Some of the most prestigious manufacturers stand behind their products unconditionally for a very short period of time in the life of a kitchen faucet.
Before buying, it’s best to see the faucet, pick it up by the stem to feel its heft and determine how comfortable the sprayer or pull-out head feels in your hand. No matter how much or how little a faucet costs, or how high the quality might be, it isn’t a good value if it isn’t a pleasure to use.
Question 6: How Do I Find the Right Style?
In general, modern faucets have straight lines and sleek delicate silhouettes while traditional faucets tend to be curvier and more detailed. The Minta and Vinnata (above) are clear examples of the two poles. However, there really are no rules where style is concerned and there is a huge selection for every style at various price points. For my last faucet, I began the hunt by saving photos from magazines or online. I printed out spec sheets and photos of those I liked best and kept them in a folder. Then I sat down with the spec sheets to see which ones had the right projection to fit my sink. I did some research online to see the range of price points for each and called to find out which faucet actually was in stock (websites are often wrong) — or how much lead time an order required. I went to a faucet showroom — always dangerous due to love-at-first-sight — to be sure I liked the feel of my final three. Searching for a new kitchen faucet can be a challenge but answering key questions had helped me define what I needed specifically and gave me great confidence when I chose “the one.”