You would think that establishing a definition for “showerhead” would be simple. But, as the Department of Energy (DOE) is discovering after issuing a draft interpretive rule on the matter, nothing is simple when it comes to getting people wet.
Some showerhead background
Back in early 1994, under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) of 1975, all showerheads manufactured in the U.S. could have a maximum flow no greater than 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) at 80 psi. The intent, of course, was to save water, particularly hot water and its associated energy use.
Over the years, plumbing manufacturers have gotten pretty creative about how people can get wet in their showers or baths. In recent years, the trend has been toward “multi-spray” systems, which have up to six “showerheads” (each of which complies with the 2.5 gpm flow maximum) and “waterfalls,” which aren’t really “showerheads” and therefore aren’t subject to the requirement (see photos for examples of each). These systems can use up to 20 gallons of water per minute, just for one person. And even though the actual installation number for these DOE-dodging plumbing fixtures is relatively low, they represent an important, high-end product for plumbing manufacturers.
Manufacturers erupt over new ruling
When DOE quietly issued a draft interpretive ruling earlier this year that essentially made these systems illegal, the water world erupted. The ruling said:
1. “…a showerhead is any [emphasis added] plumbing fitting that is designed to direct water onto a bather.”
2. “…the Department will find a showerhead to be noncompliant with EPCA’s maximum water use standard if the showerhead’s standard components, operating in their maximum design flow configuration, taken together, use in excess of 2.5 gpm when flowing at 80 psi, even if each component individually does not exceed 2.5 gpm.”
Bye-bye “multi-spray” and “waterfall” direct-water-to-bather devices.
Water conservation community not happy either
It’s not just the plumbing manufacturers but also the water conservation community and water conservation experts who are upset with the DOE showerhead rule. It all stems from the key word “interpretive”—both camps agree that DOE should have invited them to comment on this “interpretation,” which they say actually represents a rule change.
Here is what DOE says about its action in the draft rule itself:
“This draft interpretative rule represents the Department’s interpretation of its existing regulations and is exempt from the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. See 5 U.S.C. § 553(b)(A).“
In other words, DOE did not need to treat this rule as a “substantive” rule change, an approach with exacting and lengthy requirements for input from the outside. So plumbing manufacturers and trade industry groups are upset because they consider this change to be more than a little bit substantive and one in which they should have a say (see the trade industry letter to DOE Secretary Chu opposing the interpretive rule affecting multiple showerhead systems).
Water conservationists are upset for the same reason, but from a different side of the issue—they’re quite certain that manufacturers will manage to find loopholes. “This is a substantive change and working out all the definitions and conditions to make sure the language is watertight will take a lot of effort from a lot of folks,” says water expert John Koeller, P.E. “And frankly, lots of hard work has been done on this topic within ASHRAE 189.1 (a code-ready green building standard) and the IAPMO Green Building Supplement, work that is not reflected in the DOE interpretive rule.”
One source within the plumbing industry who asked not to be named said, “I know that DOE is way behind on its rulemaking and is even under a consent decree including this particular rule, but this is not the way to get caught up.”
Rule will harm the elderly? NAHB goes too far
Of course, every rule change brings along a few fear mongerers. I was flabbergasted to get an email press release from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) entitled, “DOE Showerhead Rule Limits Choices for Elderly and Disabled, Says NAHB.” The release included this quote from current NAHB President Bob Jones:
“This is going to make it much more difficult for older Americans to live independently. Under the new definition, replacing a traditional, single showerhead with one that includes a flexible hose to take a shower while seated will result in half the water pressure for each—which would be too weak for either one.”
This sort of overstatement undermines NAHB’s credibility and the legitimate concerns the building industry has with the nature of the rule change. I contacted Marsha Mazz, the Technical Assistance Coordinator for the U.S. Access Board, the agency that handles accessibility issues for the federal government. “We don’t see it as a disability issue at all,” stated Mazz. “People with disabilities will not use both showerheads simultaneously and all the combination hand-held/mounted showerheads of which we are aware have a diverter that directs all of the flow to one head or the other.”
NAHB’s e-release (and the NAHB letter to DOE regarding the rule, supplied by NAHB to BuildingGreen) goes on to express the same legitimate concerns expressed in the trade letter above. NAHB should have stuck to that line; the unfortunate title and quote lands them squarely under a compliant showerhead, fully dressed.
A bit of good news on WaterSense
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) WaterSense¯ program is merrily proceeding on its way to market its WaterSense labeled product and new homes, using its specification for water-efficient showerheads and shower compartments—a specification achieved by consensus. And it is not luck but hard and intelligent work that resulted in specification language that holds water and aligns well with the DOE draft rule, ASHRAE 189.1, and the IAPMO Green Building Supplement.