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Trump’s Showerhead Plan Is Here

But there already are many models on the market that deliver a satisfying soak

President Trump would like to relax current regulations on showerheads, but the plan is really a gimmick that undercuts existing law. Photo courtesy Andrew Magill / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr.

In the midst of a pandemic, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) followed up last week on President Trump’s January pledge to get “rid of the restrictors” on showerheads, part of his repeated false complaint that toilets, faucets, and other household fixtures have been ruined by federal efficiency standards. DOE proposed a rule to approve new showerheads that waste enormous amounts of water and energy, which would increase utility bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

(The DOE also announced a proposal that would allow new clothes washers and dryers that waste unlimited amounts of energy and water—see ACEEE/ASAP statement in response.)

The showerhead proposal comes just months after a study published in the journal Science, as reported by the Washington Post, found that a “vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona, and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought.”

The new plan is a gimmick in search of a problem. Complaints about inadequate showerheads were frequent decades ago, immortalized in a 1996 “Seinfeld” episode. But for many years now, we’ve had a fix for poorly performing models, one that requires no action by the Trump administration.

“Tired of a shower that produces more of a weak sprinkle than an invigorating stream?” Consumer Reports asked readers in 2009. “Change your showerhead.” In the wake of years of innovation, including the improved use of aeration, the magazine found that “the top water-saving and rain-shower models we tested provide a strong flow.”

Today, about three-quarters of the showerhead models for sale use at least 20% less water than the maximum allowed, by ASAP’s count of a federal database. And while there are always going to be some sub-par models, the top-rated one on the product review website Wirecutter (which testers said delivers a “powerful, dense soak that envelops your entire body”) uses only 70% of the water permitted by federal rules.

So, what is DOE trying to do here?

Proposal seeks to subvert 1992 law

Many manufacturers were already making lower-flow, 2.5 gallon-per-minute showerheads by the early 1990s, in part responding to severe droughts in the late 1980s that strained water supplies in several regions.

Congress put a 2.5 gallon-per-minute maximum flow rate standard into law as part of a 1992 energy bill, which passed the U.S. House in a 363-60 vote and the U.S. Senate without even a roll call. The showerhead provision went into effect in 1994.

Initially, federal law prohibited states from setting stricter requirements, but this state preemption expired when DOE failed to update the national standards. Six states, comprising about one-fourth of the U.S. population, have their own showerhead standards that save at least 20% compared to the national levels.

The federal law, like others concerning appliance and equipment standards, doesn’t permit DOE to weaken the standard, or “backslide.” So how is it claiming it can do that now?

The trick DOE is floating here is to try to dodge the law by reinterpreting what the word “showerhead” means.

The proposal, if finalized, would allow manufacturers to make giant showerheads with several nozzles within them. DOE proposes to accomplish this through a change in the test procedure that would characterize each of those separate nozzles as a showerhead. The full device could have as many 2.5 gallon-per-minute showerheads as the manufacturer wants. Get it?

The issue has actually been debated before, primarily in 2010 and 2011. DOE took a more clear-headed reading of the law at the time: “[I]t has always been the Department’s view that when Congress used the term ‘any showerhead’ it actually meant ‘any showerhead’ – and that a showerhead with multiple nozzles constitutes a single showerhead for purposes of [the] water conservation standard.”

DOE’s 2011 guidance showed these examples of model types that would not comply with the 1992 law if the full device used more than 2.5 gallons per minute.

This gimmick would raise costs

In response to a historic drought, the president apparently wants showerheads that spray water every which way. It’s an absurd use of DOE’s time, and it’s not going to help our water reservoirs.

The existing showerhead standard has spurred manufacturers to make devices that are more satisfying while using less water. That reduces our water bills, and it also reduces our energy use. Utilities require enormous amounts of energy to deliver water. Even more importantly, because showerheads deliver hot water, reducing the water flow through them cuts home water heating needs—which account for about a fifth of the average household’s energy use.

In other words, if the new proposal is finalized and makes it through the courts (DOE will almost certainly be challenged for violating the provision in the law prohibiting backsliding on standards), consumers who use the products will pay the price on their monthly energy and water bills. Ultimately, the plan would raise greenhouse gas emissions when more fuel is burned in homes with gas water heaters and at the power plants that supply power to homes with electric water heaters.

The new multi-nozzle showerheads would not only needlessly waste water, exacerbating shortages caused by drought, but also boost the carbon pollution that has made long-term droughts worse. No one benefits from this gimmick.


-Andrew deLaski is executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. This post originally appeared at the website of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and is republished here with permission.

19 Comments

  1. Nola Sweats | | #1

    I live about 200 yards from the Mississippi River in New Orleans. On average, about 3.5 million gallons of water passes my house every second. I understand why water conservation is a big deal in the West, but in much of the country it's not an issue. In fact, we've got more than we know what to do with. Why should the whole country's water use be limited by the least common denominator, so to speak? We don't require R-60 insulation in Florida.

    FWIW, I'm a tree-hugger whose house runs on about 90% solar. I also have a Consumer Reports-approved showerhead that I have to stand under for about 60 seconds to get wet. Because it does take energy to purify water, I'd prefer to take a Navy shower under a high-flow showerhead, where I'd get soaked in a few seconds, soap up with the water turned off, then rinse off in a few seconds -- even in Nevada, that's a more efficient use of water than standing under a misting device for 10 minutes.

    1. John Clark | | #9

      Answer: Businesses whose products are subjected to regulation prefer standardization in order to reduce their costs. In aggregate the economies of western states are huge so it accounts for a big chunk of their business.

      Of course the regulations concerning the amount water flowing through shower heads, sinks, toilets, is directly related to poorly written water rights agreed to among the states and certain early-entrants to these states.

      Basically the price of water is NOT based upon the actual supply and demand but on water rights. This is especially problematic in AZ and California where agriculture takes place in arid/semi-arid climates.

  2. Burninate | | #2

    I'm also not onboard with these. 80% of Americans live somewhere without any water shortage issues.

    This entire approach to environmentalism is backwards, the notion that we can make all our problems go away by just telling manufacturers to restrict functionality and design around that restriction, is a (neo)liberal fantasy. Fantasies aren't good enough anymore.

    We need to start employing financial incentives, like "Pricing water proportional to its scarcity", and "Raising the price of emitting carbon". Giving this stuff away for free (eg our highly subsidized fossil fuel industry that pays for none of its externalities) and then micromanaging how people use it (eg CAFE) is a recipe for failure. You can't cover all use-cases, you can't invent all mitigations at the legislative level, and you have categorical problems ("If I call it a sprinkler is it legal to have in a shower?"). To actually make a dent, you need to make people actually WANT to make things better, even if it disrupts the status quo. Money is how we do that.

    Phoenix describes its water system like this:
    https://www.phoenix.gov/waterservices/customerservices/rateinfo

    "Phoenix water rates contain a generous "allowance" of water that is included each month in the fixed charge. For those that keep their water consumption within this allowance, average monthly bills will increase by only an additional 83¢ per month in 2020. Phoenix water bills rank as among the most affordable in the country.* "

    https://americanhomewater.com/average-water-bill-in-phoenix/

    "The average water bill in Phoenix is roughly $41.69. This is well below the national average of $70.39 per month. "

    By contrast:
    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/rain-soaked-seattle-has-nations-highest-water-bills/

    " In Seattle, for a typical family of four in which each person uses 50 gallons per day, the monthly bill totals $171.48."

    This is ludicrous.

    Los Angeles uses half of its municipal water to grow lawns, making any kind of household water usage reductions feel trite. But when you compare it to water used in marginal agricultural land, to legal title to surface water rights that must be exercised (even to zero economic purpose) to be retained... When you compare it to subsurface water that's basically entirely free... Their whole system was set up to MAXIMIZE the amount of water extracted. No amount of appliance changes are going to fix that.

    If sizable taxes on these things are too regressive, then put in a UBI to deal with that problem, don't just give up. It's a lot easier to hand out money than it is to hand out "free" water and fuel and then try to tell people how to use it.

  3. User avater
    Jon R | | #3

    I agree that the focus should be on including all externalities (like environmental damage) in pricing. Micro-regulating behavior is a recipe for inefficiency and dissension.

    FWIW, I shower with < 1 GPM.

  4. CarsonB | | #4

    The wirecutter article only seemed to list models that meets California's lower flow standards, hence all of their models chosen are 1.75 or less. "In 2018, California reduced the maximum showerhead gpm from 2.0 to 1.8; Colorado has similar restrictions. We sought models that are available everywhere." This may also explain why a large number of models were under the federal standard- because of stricter state regulations, not because of consumer demand.

  5. William Hullsiek | | #5

    I remodeled 2 floors and 3 bathroom with low flow components from Kohler. Works great! Being a conservative, it is important to not waste water, energy, money or any other resource. Getting rid of restrictors is a non issue. Just have the manufacturer list their water usage, truth in advertising. Most people will do the right thing if they are informed.

  6. Antonio Oliver | | #6

    I would point out that even in places where water is in abundance, a lot of energy and effort is used to treat that water to make it adequate for consumption. I grew up near the Mississipi myself. I knew no one who had a tap directly from the river. Moreover, the energy used to heat the water for a shower literally rolls off our backs and for most goes down the drain. The point is that water consumption has multiple inherent components that burden our energy and infrastructure systems. Pumping and waste treatment are other examples that come to mind. Reducing water consumption affects way more than how invigorating a shower may feel.

  7. James Someone | | #7

    I am impressed at not one commenter throwing Trump under the bus, instead only solutions offered. It seems only the Guest Blogger hits below beltline.

    "plan is really a gimmick that undercuts existing law" taken from the title of the article could be used to describe nearly any previous POTUS achievements whether helpful or not... Obamacare comes to mind as an expensive dud.

    All people really need to do with this water issue is take short showers and stop watering the lawn. Nothing needs to be bought to solve a problem oftentimes. PEACE.

  8. Rick Evans | | #8

    I first learned of this from Sara Cooper. (See video link below). Although, it was clearly Trumps's voice, I thought it was fake because the whole concept seemed so bizarre. Yet here we are...

    https://youtu.be/XGHzK7PQqCs

    1. Andrew Bennett | | #19

      Sarah Cooper....love it...she's hilarious.

  9. Peter L | | #10

    Nobody lives in a bubble so anything one person does with water usage, will affect something or someone down the line. Pump water out of an aquifer and the stream miles away which flows via the aquifer fed spring, might not flow as much or stop completely. Drying up the stream which then affects the wildlife that need the stream for survival.

    In my area, the population and housing has increased in the tens of thousands in the past 15 years but the town actually uses LESS water now than it did 15 years ago. This is solely due to the low water use fixtures and conservation of water being employed. Old toilets would use 5-8 gallons per flush and now they use 1-2 gallons and actually flush better due to engineered chambers and more suction force. Multiply this by thousands of households and the city sewer filtration plant numbers add up fast. Low water use fixtures put less burden on the waste water infrastructure. Those living on septic systems know that excessive water down the sewer line can cause problems in the septic tank and leach field systems.

    I leave the issue to the scientific experts and data. Listening to "non-experts" tout remedies and cures is a fodder for fools. There is a Bible verse that states, "A wise person is hungry for knowledge, while the fool feeds on trash."

  10. Nola Sweats | | #11

    "Nobody lives in a bubble so anything one person does with water usage, will affect something or someone down the line. "

    Any fresh water that we do not take from the Mississippi River in Louisiana will just be dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. The average is about 500,000 cubic feet per second, or 3,500,000 gallons per second. A butterfly effect, maybe.

    If low-flow showerheads worked, no one would care. Low-flow toilets are a marvel -- they really work better than the old ones. Low-flow showerheads use tricks like aeration and pressurization to make it look like a lot of water, but thimblefuls of water still take forever to saturate your hair, regardless of how much air they can pack into it.

    In response to another comment, if the reason for low-flow is because the industry wants to make manufacturing easier, why does every company seem to make a hundred different models of showerhead? Why can't states regulate this as appropriate?

    1. Burninate | | #12

      @Nola: Most low-flow showerheads take a model sold globally and add a plastic restrictor plate. With the current political environment, regulation of even very simple things about consumer goods has become difficult.

      @James: The right course of action isn't always "Whatever Trump doesn't want". Though his administration has done its best to fight against every sensible environmental measure in order to "trigger the libs", they don't _understand_ enough of it to get it wrong 100% of the time.

      If there's an argument for these restrictions, it's that they represent a war that was fought and won on behalf of putative environmentalist reasons in the 90's. That's no small thing. Backsliding is not something to encourage. I just happen to think this is the wrong approach on merits, and because it's so limited in scope, ineffectual in practice relative to a serious attempt to optimize our water use (which begins with completely rethinking how and where and at what price we supply potable water).

      If there's an actual sincere *functional point* to these restrictions that is grounded in reality, it's that it allowed Clinton's generation in the 80's/90's to largely stop paying to build & upgrade infrastructure like water purification & sewage treatment plants. They can treat what was put together in the 60's/70's as the final phase of America being built at scale, the end of New Deal era collective projects to further our built environment. That extends far, far beyond the case of water supply infrastructure, and in many areas represents a pathology of modern American life, since that generation still holds on to control of our national, state, and local political agenda.

      1. John Clark | | #13

        [Most low-flow showerheads take a model sold globally and add a plastic restrictor plate. With the current political environment, regulation of even very simple things about consumer goods has become difficult.]

        -Do they in the US? I thought Western states but the end to that because homeowners were removing the plate?

        1. Burninate | | #15

          Do you have a link? If you read that, it may just be that they're not allowed to aggressively market it as removable anymore. I bought one a year ago and ultimately determined that flow restriction was what the big plastic washer was for. Google suggests they're still ubiquitous.

    2. John Clark | | #14

      Some instances the States can regulate. For example states have latitude with regards to building codes. California has the explicit right to require more stringent vehicle emissions standards under the Clean Air Act.

  11. Tom May | | #16

    Well what happens to water once you use it? Does it magically disappear or does it recycle itself in the no longer taught water cycle? Sure cleaning of water does take time and effort, but isn't it worth it? Does one have to shower once or twice a day or can you skip a day and let your skin recover from all those harsh soaps and shampoos? Can you take sponge bath, shower with a friend, use an outside shower so all those nasty's don't go down the drain? Go outside when it's raining and soap up using natures shower head. Collect rain water for free water and set yourself up a bathtub or shower for some summer time cleansing. Solar hot water via garden hose or black tubing. Jump in the bird bath with your fellow creatures. Dump a bucket of water on yourself, it's not just for ice bucket challenges or model photo ops. Jump in your neighbor's pool.....So many options for getting clean, not just a government issued shower head.

    1. James Someone | | #17

      Tom, you forgot one. We can lick ourselves like cats!

      1. Tom May | | #18

        LOL....yup, we're animals just like them, and they do it for free.......

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