Of all the components of a house, none affects homeowners on a more personal level than the shower. Knowing this, it is easier to understand why the idea of low-flow showerheads might seem unsettling to some people. You may recall the Seinfeld episode where Kramer, upon learning that his building superintendent was changing the showerheads to low flow, said: “Low flow? Well, I don’t like the sound of that!” Indeed.
But water conservation is becoming increasingly important for many jurisdictions, and because showering accounts for approximately 17 percent of residential indoor water use, low-flow showerheads (or other conservation-minded plumbing products, for that matter) are not going away.
The trick for manufacturers is finding a way to strike a balance between saving water and performance. “We’ve done consumer-based research as well as internally with our employees, and the most important thing we’ve found is [that we need to] reach efficiencies and maintain the showering experience,” says Mike Reffner, group product manager for the wholesale business unit at North Olmsted, Ohio–based Moen.
Luckily, the EPA is working to help assuage consumer fears that using low-flow products will result in less-than-satisfactory showers. On March 4, the agency took a step in this direction, releasing its final Water Sense specifications that manufacturers would have to meet in order for their showerheads and handshowers to be certified under the voluntary water-saving program.
Per the EPA, Water Sense–certified showerheads (excluding body sprays) and handshowers must have a maximum flow rate of 2 gallons per minute (gpm)—20 percent less than the current federal standard of 2.5 gpm. Products also must meet certain performance requirements. “They have to operate with a certain amount of spray force and must meet a certain amount of spray coverage,” Reffner says. “People desire warmth in the shower, so if they don’t get good coverage, you get cold spots.”
Negative outcomes from water-efficient products are detrimental to the entire category. In addition to a congressional threat to repeal the Energy Policy Act that gave us low-flow toilets, manufacturers got an earful from their customers when their first-generation 1.6-gallon-per-flush toilets were ineffective. A similar thing happened to Hansgrohe in Germany back in the late ’90s when the company first made a run at low-flow showerheads.
“We tried to reduce water usage by just using flow restrictors,” says Nicholas Grohe, director of product planning and development for Hansgrohe’s North American division in Alpharetta, Ga. “But we would get angry calls from consumers asking us to improve the showering experience.”
Today, Hansgrohe as well as other manufacturers are better prepared. They successfully reduced the flow rate of their lavatory faucets with aerators, and they’re using similar techniques for showerheads. Hansgrohe began restricting flow by focusing on the size of spray nozzles, Grohe says. “Today, we are going even further by using air,” he continues. “You still have a relatively small opening in the showerhead, but there is a mixture of air and water in the stream.”
Using a 3-1 ratio of air and water, Hansgrohe products operate with as little as 1.5 gpm, but the showers feel more robust and comfortable on the skin than a conventional spray, Grohe says.
Indianapolis-based Delta Faucet Co. also offers showerheads and handshowers with a flow of 1.5 gpm. The company says it accomplishes this with H2Okinetic technology, which produces larger water droplets that retain heat longer and provide a massaging effect with a denser spray pattern. “The end result enables the user to feel more enveloped in the warmth of the water and enhances water delivery without sacrificing the user experience,” Delta says.
With showerheads now functioning at 1.5 gallons per minute, some manufacturers feel the industry has done the best it can do. “We have gotten to the limit,” Grohe says. “There is no way to go lower than that without sacrificing performance. We believe we have reached the absolute bottom.”
Besides, manufacturers say consumers can save water in other areas. Grohe says, for example, they can take showers instead of baths, turn off the faucets when they’re brushing their teeth, and use single-handle faucets, which allow users to balance temperature more quickly and easily.
“In general, American households use four times more water than European households,” Grohe says. “We use less for irrigation or we use smarter irrigation—at night or not at all. It makes more sense to find other ways to save water rather than in the shower.”