Justin Wilson has been specifying ultra-low-flow showerheads for more than three years. But his biggest surprise when comparing water-efficient fixtures to typical builder-grade showerheads is that there is no surprise at all.

"Most people don't know the difference," says the president of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Building Performance Solutions, a building science consulting firm. Perhaps the pattern of water is a little different or less water goes down the drain, but most homeowners think they're just getting the regular showerhead, he says. "It's a showerhead," he states. "It works."

That seemingly mundane statement reveals just how far water-efficient showerheads have come from the days when the low-flow experience felt more like a trickle than a refreshing, drenching flow. These days, manufacturers are providing a satisfying experience with a lower flow than the standard 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm), and some even offer styling options that match a variety of bath hardware.

Go Low

The move to ultra-low-flow shower fixtures is particularly imperative in areas like Colorado and the Southwest, where water conservation is critical, Wilson says. Not only is water there relatively scarce, many homes in those regions use solar hot water systems, which are most cost-effective when the homeowner uses less hot water. It's a growing necessity elsewhere, as well, as anyone living in northern Georgia, which declared a drought emergency last year, can attest.

What's more, water utility rates and energy costs to heat water are going up every year, points out Rob Zimmerman, senior staff engineer for water conservation initiatives at Kohler. "Water is going to get more expensive," he says. "People are looking for more options to use less water in their homes."

Despite water-supply issues, few locales mandate showerhead flow rates lower than the national standard of 2.5 gpm. But environmentally savvy builders and organizations are starting to take notice. The EPA's WaterSense program, which already labels high-efficiency toilets and bathroom sink faucets and which some manufacturers believe will become the industry standard, is developing a specification for high-efficiency showerheads that should be released this year. Manufacturers believe the standard could be anywhere from 1.3 to 2.0 gpm.

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes program allocates certification points for showerheads that operate at 2.0 gpm or less, and additional points for "very high efficiency" showerheads that operate at 1.5 gpm or less. The NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines also provide points for low-flow shower fixtures.

Enhancing the Experience

The challenge, manufacturers say, is to give consumers the experience they expect while using less water. "There are quite a lot of options to reduce the flow rate of the showerhead and still have the showerhead have a good flow and feel good," says Michelle Troconis, product director of shower systems for American Standard. At their most basic, the technologies fall into two categories: those that change the shape or pattern of the spray nozzles and water droplets, and those that aerate the spray.

Hansgrohe's 1.6-gpm EcoAir system, for example, uses air-injection technology to suck air into the showerhead, which "helps boost the volume of the droplets coming out of the shower, so it feels like you're getting more volume then you actually are," explains marketing communications director Jason McClain. "It's the size of the water droplets that make it feel like you get more water."

Introducing air into the stream can sometimes reduce the temperature of the spray, however, causing the user to turn up the temperature to compensate. So other manufacturers are manipulating the shape or pattern of the flow. Delta's H2Okinetic technology, for example, channels water so that each stream oscillates left and right, says Paul Patton, senior product development manager for Delta. "Now the whole area is filled with water, so you feel like you're getting blanketed with water."

Water Wary

While manufacturers say there is no need to sacrifice performance to save water, consumers who were dissatisfied with earlier low-flow technologies aren't rushing to try the newer products, says American Standard's Troconis. "They've already had some kind of experience with a low-flow showerhead, and it wasn't a good one," she explains.

Even plumbers who haven't had any problems can be wary because their customers aren't used to them. "It's not that they don't perform well," says Gary Kozan, co-owner of Ridgeway Plumbing in Boynton Beach, Fla., who has installed low-flow showerheads in multifamily units and a few single-family homes. "If the water flow is a little less than what they're used to, then they think something's wrong. It concerns me because I don't like getting callbacks." He says his builder clients often feel similarly: "They didn't want to hear the complaints."

Consumers also may be thrown off by the appearance of some low-flow showerheads, which can have as few as four holes in the face. "People are saying, 'Am I going to get enough water out of this?'" Patton says.

Meanwhile, some manufacturers haven't offered a broad range of designs, but that's set to change with a slate of new high-style choices coming out this year.

Kohler, for example, says it will offer high-efficiency fixtures similar in shape and style to its FortÉ showerhead, which has long, concave curves and a wider face, and its Stillness showerhead, which has a sharper, minimalist look. American Standard already offers low-flow fixtures in three styles and four finishes, but Troconis predicts a push to offer a variety of designs, just as the company does in its shower systems line.

As for cost, most manufacturers offer their more-efficient products at the same price or with a small premium to their 2.5-gpm fixtures, and utility companies in some water-conscious areas are giving away low-flow fixtures. It appears that saving water is one example of how it doesn't always cost more to go green. -- BUILDING PRODUCTS

Safety Valve

Switching to an ultra-low-flow showerhead seems like an easy way for a homeowner to go green and save money on water bills, but pros need to be aware of the plumbing behind the scenes, specifically the mixing valve. The valves, which usually include a regulator that minimizes any changes in temperature, are designed to work at a minimum flow rate, explains Kohler's Rob Zimmerman; if the showerhead is operating at a very low flow, the valve may not be able to handle changes in hot or cold water pressure, causing those bursts of scalding or freezing water that bathers detest.

The valve probably is not an issue for many 2.5-gpm showerheads, but at some point well below 2.0 gpm, temperature swings can be a problem. "We don't know what exactly that point is," Zimmerman says, adding that research is underway to find out. In the meantime, installers should play it safe. "They need to talk with the [manufacturer] and follow their recommended guidelines," Zimmerman says.

Resources

H2ouse: Calculate water budgets and investigate other water-saving opportunities.
www.h2ouse.org
LEED for Homes:
www.usgbc.org/leed/homes
NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines:
www.nahb.org/gbg
WaterSense: Find labeled products and learn more about water-saving technologies.
www.epa.gov/watersense

FloWise showerheads use a small turbine-like mechanism that spins the water stream through the head to create a powerful, energizing spray, according to the maker.

American Standard.FloWise showerheads use a small turbine-like mechanism that spins the water stream through the head to create a powerful, energizing spray, according to the maker. Three models include a basic unit that delivers 1.5 gpm, a more decorative 1.5-gpm showerhead, and a three-function unit that lets users select between a 1.5-gpm spray or two different 2.5-gpm sprays. When the three-function shower is turned off, it automatically returns to the water conservation mode. 800-899-2614. www.americanstandard-us.com.

ETL. TriSpa series showerheads offer three pressurized spray patterns: the Oxygenics core, which infuses air into each drop; a multi-jet hydro massage; and focused streams, which use small pressurized jets of air-enriched water. All of the manufacturer's showerheads adjust their flow based on the incoming water pressure, lowering the flow for lower PSI rates. At a national average of about 50 PSI, the 2.5-gpm-max (at 80 PSI) TriSpa will emit approximately 1.7 to 1.9 gpm, the maker says. 800-344-3242. www.oxygenics.com.

Delta. Operating at 1.6 gpm, the Water-Efficient Showerhead with H2Okinetic Technology manages water droplet size and velocity, spray coverage, and thermal dynamics, the manufacturer says. The technology controls the movement of water without moving parts within the body sprays, eliminating the risk of malfunction. Larger droplets provide more water coverage, creating a more saturating, drenching sensation, the maker adds. 800-345-3358. www.deltafaucet.com.

Hansgrohe. Using the company's air-injection technology, Raindance AIR bodysprays provide the feel of a conventional 2.0-gpm spray while using only 1.0 gpm, according to the maker. Unlike bodysprays that operate on a rotating ball-joint that protrudes from the wall, the Raindance AIR product mounts flush to the wall and features a rotating spray face with slanted spray channels. Users need only rotate the spray face to change the direction of the water. 800-334-0455. www.hansgrohe-usa.com.

Bricor. Delivering 1.125 gpm at 50 psi, the B100 Supermax showerhead uses a vacuum flow booster valve that aerates and compacts water under pressure. The aerated water "explodes" as it exits the showerhead, creating a powerful stream, the maker says. An adjustable handle allows spray stream modulation from compact to wider sprays. Flow rates are fixed at the manufactured pressure; the fixture contains no removable restrictors that allow increased flow if removed. 830-624-7228. www.bricor.com.

Jaclo. The manufacturer's 25 showerhead models can be equipped with a low-flow regulator that will reduce water usage to 1.75 gpm. The regulators keep the pressure and flow of the water strong, according to the maker. A portion of the company's showerheads can be operated at 1.5 gpm and still perform well, and all of the company's handshowers also can be equipped with the low-flow regulator. 800-852-3906. www.jaclo.com.

Alsons. Fluidics spray technology features a series of chambers that control the shape, velocity, and thermal dynamics of water, producing larger water droplets that stay hotter longer for a more saturating, soaking experience, the maker says. Fluidics showerheads are available with a 1.85-gpm spray, a 1.75-gpm spray, and a 1.6-gpm spray. A two-spray unit is also available. 800-421-0001. www.alsons.com.

Niagara Conservation. The 1.5-gpm Earth Massage chrome showerhead uses flow control technology to provide greater force at low pressure, the maker says. The nine-jet turbo massage is adjustable from a gentle needle spray to a forceful jet. The showerhead's non-aerating spray means less heat is lost, the firm says. The fixture has a non-removable flow compensator and a chrome-plated finish. 800-831-8383. www.niagaraconservation.com.

Kohler. The MasterShower Ecofficient showerhead and handshower are engineered for optimized performance at 2.0 gpm, according to the manufacturer. They include three sprays options: soft coverage, rhythmic pulse, and aerated sprays. Flexible spray nozzles prevent hard water buildup and are easy to clean, the maker adds. The showerheads are available in polished chrome. 800-456-4537. www.kohler.com.

Watermark Designs. The SH-1.5ADP water reducer is designed to decrease showerhead water consumption. The unit is adaptable to any of the manufacturer's showerheads. Through the injection of air into the adapter, the showerhead's flow is reduced to 1.5 gpm while giving the user the same feeling as using a 2.5-gpm showerhead, the manufacturer says. 800-842-7277. www.watermark-designs.com.

Moen. The Water Saving showerhead uses innovative spray formers that concentrate the flow of water, reducing the amount of water to 1.75 gpm while still providing a satisfying shower experience, according to the manufacturer. The showerhead is available in chrome, LifeShine brushed nickel, and oil-rubbed bronze. 800-289-6636. www.moen.com.