A leaky faucet is not just annoying: It can also stain your sink or tub and it wastes tons of water. Luckily, a leaky faucet is also easily prevented. By choosing a reliable faucet at the outset, you are less likely to encounter problems with your hardware. Whether you are planning a remodel, replacing a broken faucet or freshening up the look of your kitchen or bathroom, you should make a decision based on more than looks and price. The construction of a faucet determines its reliability.
Mechanically, there are four types of faucets: compression, cartridge, ball and disc. Each of them has different mechanisms for controlling water flow, some which work better than others and some which are more durable. All are relatively easy to fix if a washer, seal, O-ring or cartridge needs replacement and starts to leak or drip.
Compression faucets will, at some point, drip. They utilize rubber seals or washers that will eventually wear out and need to be replaced. These seals are located at the end of a compression stem that stops the water flow when the handles are tightened. When the seal or washer deteriorates, water gets past it and causes a leak. The good news is that even a novice can replace a seal.
Compression faucets are the least expensive type of faucet. They are most often found in older homes in the bathroom, kitchen and laundry room. They are still available, but because of the maintenance required, they are no longer as common as they once were. You can tell whether you have a compression faucet if there are separate knobs for both hot and cold water and they work when you twist them to either open or shut the water flow.
The other three types of faucets are "washerless." Most experts would recommend a washerless variety as a better value as they tend to leak much less than compression faucets.
A ball faucet, commonly used in kitchen sinks, has a single lever that controls a slotted ball that aligns with the cold and hot water. The user controls the water pressure by lifting the lever, which lifts the ball to let the water through. The temperature is controlled by moving the lever from side to side. This aligns chambers in the ball that mix hot and cold water to control the temperature. A ball faucet has many parts and is the leakiest of the washerless faucets.
A cartridge faucet has a hollow metal cartridge that seals the faucet and controls water flow and temperature. It can have one or two handles and is typically found in bathrooms and kitchens. A single handle works by being pulled up or down to adjust water pressure and moved back and forth to adjust temperature. A double-handle cartridge faucet works much like a compression faucet, but is easier to use since you don't have to apply force to turn it off and on. Because little pressure is needed, it's better than a compression faucet for young children and people with arthritis. The cartridge contains all of the parts that are subject to wear, so a leak or drip is a sign that a cartridge needs to be replaced. Many manufacturers offer a limited warranty, as the quality of these faucets is generally very good.
Ceramic Disc Faucet
Last and certainly not least is the ceramic disc faucet, the latest in faucet technology and the most reliable. This faucet controls water flow with two fire-hardened ceramic discs: one stationary and one that moves sideways or up and down. The user controls the discs by turning the handles on a double-handle faucet or raising the lever on a single-handle faucet. The movement causes a mobile disc to move across a stationary disc. By sliding across each other, the discs control both water flow and temperature. Disc faucets tend to have a wider body to house the discs, which are located inside a cartridge. They are used in kitchens and baths and are considered the most reliable faucet types; the cartridge rarely needs replacement. They are the most expensive and often come with lifetime cartridge guarantees.
If you are looking for ease of use and low maintenance - in some cases guaranteed by the manufacturer - a cartridge or ceramic disc faucet is the way go. That's not to say that a new ball or compression faucet wouldn't be a worthwhile investment, but you will have to figure eventual maintenance into the equation.