|Before installing super-low-flow showerheads contractors should make sure that the shower valve can accommodate the lower flow rates.|
Low-flow showerheads are a tempting proposition for building designers, contractors, and owners looking to boost the efficiency and sustainability of their properties. Install a showerhead with a flow rate of 1.5-2.0 gallons per minute, rather than the conventional low-flow 2.5 gpm, and presto!—you have cut water consumption by 20-40% at that outlet.
But making the move to enhanced low-flow showerheads is not as cut-and-dried as simply replacing a 2.5-gpm showerhead for a more efficient model. Without careful consideration of proper design, the installation of super-low-flow fixtures can lead to performance and safety issues, including scalding and thermal shock.
Life, health, and safety factors
The great majority of building codes currently require automatic temperature compensating (ATC) shower valves, which keep water temperatures at a safe and comfortable level regardless of changes in system pressure or temperature. The term encompasses three types: pressure balance, thermostatic, and a combination of the two. The prevailing standard is ASSE 1016, which establishes the testing protocol that these valves must meet for certification.
To be fully certified, an ATC shower valve must not allow the water temperature to fluctuate up or down by more than 3.6 F at the nominal pressure of 45 psi. For example, if someone flushes a toilet, thus diverting cold water from a 105 F shower, the water temperature may spike uncomfortably high, but only briefly. Within the first five seconds, the outlet temperature must settle between a safe and comfortable 101.4 F and 108.6 F.
The problem with regard to low-flow showerheads, however, is that ASSE 1016 was written for showers with a flow rate of 2.5 gpm; it does not require testing at other flow rates. A shower valve that works just fine with a 2.5-gpm showerhead may not work well with one rated at 1.5 gpm. This, in turn, can lead to thermal shock—a sudden significant change in temperature that may cause the bather to slip and fall—or even cause scald burns.
Still, many current shower valves are able to accommodate showerhead flow rates lower than 2.5 gpm. Which makes and models? No one knows for sure. If you look at a shower valve, you won't likely find reassuring language that “this valve provides temperature compensation protection down to a flow rate of 1.5 gpm.” Absent such confirmation, you don't know how low the gpm can go for a given showerhead and still keep the outlet temperature within the ± 3.6 F threshold.
The simplest route to safety is to buy the shower valve and the showerhead in a package from the same manufacturer. That way you know the combination complies with ASSE 1016. Several main line shower valve manufacturers are producing low-flow showerheads, so your chances of getting a pair that work together are improving.
If you decide to mix valve and showerhead products from different sources, and the valve manufacturer's instructions do not explicitly say that the product will work with certain low-flow rates, call the factory for a clear-cut decision. If that manufacturer cannot accommodate, look for one who can.
When in doubt, change the spec upward and settle for more modest water-savings. Your chances that a given valve and showerhead will work effectively together are much greater at 2.0 gpm than at 1.5 gpm.
What about retrofit work?
Going low-flow in an existing bath presents a far more daunting challenge than with new construction. Most of the time, installers have no idea what type of valve is in the wall behind the shower and they have no way of finding out. If the valve is old, it won't likely function properly with a modern low-flow showerhead.
Some retrofit applications don't even have ATC valves because they use two-handle faucets, which cannot protect against changes in temperature and pressure. Now, you may think: Why not go low-flow any way? In either case, you can't protect against dramatic fluctuations in temperature, but by substituting a low-flow head you'll at least be using less water.
Bad idea. Low-flow means less water is coming out of the, so the system has less thermal mass associated with the water for a given period. Consequently, the system's reaction to a given temperature and pressure change will be more extreme—that is, greater and faster. The likelihood of a bather getting scalded rises, and the thermal shock potential is more serious, too.
The only appropriate way to retrofit a shower with a two-handle faucet is to eliminate the outdated faucet and install a new valve and showerhead.
Low-flow showerheads inevitably impact the size and layout of the showering environment, as well as the positioning of the fixtures and fittings within it. By definition, a low-flow showerhead delivers less heat, in the form of hot water, to the body if the shower water temperature remains the same. Droplet size and aeration also impact heat retention within the shower enclosure. As a result, it is not unusual for users of low-flow showerheads to complain of being cold.
A major factor is the distance the water must travel from the head to the body: the longer the distance, the bigger the drop in water temperature. Someone who is four feet tall will experience a decidedly different temperature than someone who is six feet. To overcome this heat-loss problem:
If the bather cannot get closer to the showerhead, the only comfort option is to turn up the hot water temperature, thus using more energy. That's not a tradeoff any green-minded designer, contractor, or owner wants to make.
Careful attention should also be paid to the design of the showering compartment. As flow rates drop, air currents within the compartment and from the surrounding environment exert a proportionately larger effect on user comfort. A low-flow showerhead will provide less warmth in a large or open shower area than in a small or fully enclosed compartment.
Low-flow showering technology promises to have a major impact on water consumption in the U.S. during the next decade—certainly a welcome development. But safety and comfort are equally as important as water conservation when it comes to installing super-low-flow fixtures. Proper design and installation will ensure that all three needs will be met.