Low Flow Doesn’t Mean No Flow – Low Flow Showerheads

by Erik North on July 13, 2012

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No matter how television strives to shape things, it’s the rare moment that completely freezes public perception, carbonite-style. The low flow showerhead episode of Seinfeld was one example. In it, the showerheads in the apartment building were replaced with ‘efficient’ ones but in fact just sucked. This drove Jerry and co into the showerhead black market.

A bit like concerns about mercury in CFLs, the concept that low flow meant basically unusable defines the whole concept. It’s an endemic challenge in the energy efficiency field. Say efficient housing, people think swelters and 58 degrees F thermostats, say efficient cars and people think 0 to 60 in 1.5 presidential terms and say ‘low flow shower’ and people envision barely adequate dribbles of water.

However, like a friend once said, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’ Modern efficient showerheads reduce water flow without losing pressure. They can produce the needle like sting we expect without consuming water like a 50’s gas guzzler. They’re both efficient and effective…like it should to be.

Low Flow Showerheads

Standard showerheads, the ones we’ve been using since the dawn of modern plumbing, gobble up a lot of water. It wasn’t a big deal 75 years ago, but as population has exploded, so has residential and commercial water use. However, water supplies remain as always a function of rain and climate. Besides, if it produces a good shower, who wouldn’t want to save money?

Showerheads are rated by flow rate, typically in gallons per minute (gpm). The little hidden bit in that line is that it is gpm at 80 pounds (psi) of pressure. The amount of water flowing through the showerhead is a function of the water pressure. More pressure means more water and vice versa. Any one whose been in a shower when the dishwasher came on understands this idea.

Older showerhead often used more than 5 gpm of water, whereas the low flow models use 2.5 gallons or less. Since this is all a function of water pressure, you can see how a high flow/low pressure set up could limp along (it’s still dumping a lot of water on you), whereas a low flow/low pressure situation wouldn’t work.

This is why finding a low flow showerhead which works well across a spectrum of water pressures is key. Some low flow showerheads have manually adjustable flow restrictors while some more advanced models have automatically adjustable ones. That means no matter the water pressure, it will maintain a nice (but low and efficient) water flow.

The main benefit are pretty obvious: less water flow means less heating and more saved money. Showers are the biggest user of water, and hot water in most homes (barring heated pools, enormous lawns and the like). If you live in a municipality which pays for city water, you can save significantly on water and hot water.

A less obvious energy loss is the heating distribution, assuming a forced hot water system. In a modern Colonial, hot water could run 70 or 80 feet before reaching the shower. Reducing the hot water flowing through the pipes reduces radiant heat loss through the pipes.

The available showerheads more or less mimic standard showerhead options. There are nozzle style showerheads vs. hand held wand-style with a hose attachment. Some simple showerheads have a stationary spray while others offer adjustable settings, varying spray width, switching from spray to pulse etc.

In the modern building era, just about every aspect of your home has improved in ways visible and invisible. Showerheads have similarly come a long way. Thanks to the application of a few decades of clever engineering, there’s no reason to not enjoy a comfortable shower, use much less water and save money.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Squeezer @Personal Finance Success July 13, 2012 at 7:22 pm

I do not like low-flow shower heads because they simply do not have enough volume. They take to long for me to wash my hair, and it feels like I cannot wash my head thoroughly with them. About all you can buy anymore are low-flow units as well. Luckily (atleast the cheap ones) restrict the flow of water by making the internal diameter of the water pipe smaller (smaller tube = smaller flow) through the use of a rubber o-ring inside the tube of the low-flow shower head. I just pop it out with a screwdriver and I’m back to having enough water volume to wash my hair thoroughly.


Erik North July 14, 2012 at 12:20 am

Thanks for the comment. I experimented with a number of different efficient showerheads until I found one that worked well. No problems with enough water pressure to wash out the shampoo here.


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