Rinsing under dismal dribbles and lukewarm mists can leave bathers with persistent soap lather and a bad impression of low-flow technology. The EPA’s WaterSense program seeks to rectify this problem—whether real or perceived—with its new label for showerheads, which requires units to deliver a satisfactory deluge while remaining well below the federal water restriction.
Thirty gallons of water disappear down the shower drain every day in the average household, according to the EPA, which is why the group added showerheads to its labeling program in early March. As with existing WaterSense standards for faucets and toilets, qualified showerheads not only must not exceed a maximum flow rate (2 gallons per minute, 0.5 gpm below the federal standard), but also must meet user-satisfactory pressure and coverage requirements.
“What we don’t want to do is take a 2.5-gpm showerhead and put a flow restrictor in there and have it flow at 2.0 or 1.75 gpm and feel different or weak,” says Mike Reffner, group product manager at Moen.
Simply choking down a showerhead can leave a weak spray or chilly dead spots; alternatively, blasting the water through smaller spray formers to increase the intensity creates a stinging sensation that is far from satisfying.
In consumer test reports, the EPA found bathers did not enjoy showerheads that spat water from a single, central jet, nor did they like a ring of drenching rain with an empty spot in the middle, so in order to earn a WaterSense label, the showerhead must pass the spray pattern criteria to ensure complete, even coverage. The standard also evaluates pressure compensation (i.e., how well the water flows at different pressures) and spray intensity (how effective the flow is for rinsing soap and shampoo). In addition, WaterSense set the maximum pressure at 80 psi to avoid needle-like sprays.
Makers have taken up the challenge, engineering larger droplets, experimenting with air induction and vacuum technology, or arranging the spray pattern in new ways, all to earn a low-flow label without the low-flow feel.
“A 1.5-gpm feels like a 2.5-gpm because the spray pattern oscillates and feels like it’s enveloping you in a lot of water,” says Delta representative Christiana Brenner of that manufacturer’s new H2Okinetic technology, “but it’s because the water droplets are slightly larger and coming at you from many different places.”
“We have spent time and engineering resources to come up with solutions,” says Moen’s Reffner. “If you don’t incorporate that kind of thinking into the product ... the efficiency is lost and instead of spending 10 minutes in the shower, you have to spend more time to rinse the shampoo out of your hair. So who wants to be frustrated by more time and really not saving anything?”
Using the mathematic Phi ratio found in organic designs such as plants, animals, and even galaxies, Moen’s Biomimicry designs use nature’s calculations to fit as many spray formers on the surface of the showerhead as possible for complete spray coverage.
Like traditional showerheads, WaterSense-certified units vary widely in price, from affordable to high-end. “People really don’t want to spend a lot more if anything on [these] products. They want to be green, but they don’t want to be told, ‘Well, you have to pay X number of dollars more to save water,’” Reffner says.
The EPA says a $30 WaterSense showerhead will ideally pay for itself in roughly 14 months via water and energy savings.
And along with reengineering the products, manufacturers also are working to reverse consumer perceptions about water-conserving fixtures. “We like to call them ‘high efficiency’ because when people hear ‘low flow,’ they get a little scared and they think they’re going to lose their water pressure,” says Cecilia Hayward, marketing manager for Niagara Conservation. “The main challenge is educating people that low flow doesn’t mean you’re losing pressure; it just means you’re saving water.”
Evelyn Royer is assistant editor for Building Products magazine.