Good News for the Rich: Their Fancy Showers Can Waste More Water

The president is easing the rules for water-saving shower heads. But who gets to benefit?

Lots of Rain-style shower heads
Lots of Rain-style shower heads.

Getty Images

It is a constant refrain from the United States president that he hates the rules about water-saving appliances and fixtures. He says the toilets need to be flushed "10 times, 15 times" and he's "heard from women" that dishwashers don't clean, and the showers! They go "drip, drip, drip." He complained recently while touring a Whirlpool factory:

So showerhead, you take a shower, the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. So what do you do? You just stand there longer or you take a shower longer? Because my hair, I don’t know about you, but it has to be perfect. Perfect."

But he is a man of action and instructed the EPA and the Department of Energy to change the rules. An energy department spokesperson says "If adopted, this rule would undo the action of the previous Administration and return to Congressional intent, allowing Americans – not Washington bureaucrats – to choose what kind of showerheads they have in their homes."

But which Americans? What rules did they actually change? Most articles about the issue point to legislation passed during the G.W. Bush administration to limit water flow in shower heads to 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM).

Multi-headed shower
Multi-headed shower.  Department of Energy

But in fact, after that legislation passed a lot of people who liked more powerful showers bought expensive multi-head systems that pumped out 8 to 12 gallons per minute, but were legal because each head was 2.5 GPM. To get enough water, they often invested in fatter pipes and bigger water heaters. It's not just the showerhead; it costs serious money to put in a really good multiple-head shower system. In 2011 the Department of Energy finally came down with a ruling claiming that these were specifically designed to breach the rules, and banned them, to the chagrin of a lot of rich people planning fancy bathrooms.

We cannot reconcile the view that a showerhead with multiple nozzles is actually multiple showerheads with EPCA’s language or intent. Indeed, it 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 EPCA’s water conservation standard. 

The Department of Energy has not changed the original law; they can't, "backsliding" is not allowed under the legislation. Instead, as Andrew deLaski of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project explains, they are going around it:

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? 
Shower setup in showroom
1 Rain shower + 4 wall heads+ 1 Hand Shower. Lloyd Alter, seen in Lisbon showroom 

This is all going to be challenged as a gimmick to get around the anti-backsliding rule, which it is. And people who want to get more than 2.5 GPM are going to have to buy a big fancy new showerhead, and hope that they have enough pressure and hot water to make it worth using.

What's the Problem?

When the original legislation on water usage was passed, it was all about water shortages and droughts; that is why toilets were regulated too. But now the bigger issue is CO2 emissions, from heating the water (about 20% of a household's energy consumption) back through the systems for pumping and cleaning the water, which can be a huge part of a municipality's energy consumption. The water-saving regulations have saved trillions of gallons of water, and billions of tons of CO2, all of which could go down the drain now.

These kinds of regulations have driven some libertarian types crazy for years – "First they came for our toilets, then our light bulbs, now our showers." But these regulations have all made a big difference, and the toilets flush, the lightbulbs are pretty good, and the showers aren't so bad. Really, just go with the flow.