July 24, 2014

Gadgets Help Save Water, Energy

Low-flow showerheads and other low-cost devices use less water and heat.

Q:Both my energy and water bills are increasing, so I plan to install low-flow showerheads. I tried them before, but my family didn’t like them. Are they any better now, and how do I pick a good one?

A:Bathing uses a lot of water for most families, and hot water drives the monthly cost up. Low-flow showerheads can help cut down on both.

For years, all showerheads sold in the United States have been limited to a maximum water flow rate of 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) at a water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (psi), as mandated by federal energy efficiency standards. Some older showerheads may use as much as 5 gpm without even providing an adequate, forceful water flow.

Many of the new low-flow showerheads provide good water flow using even less than 2.5 gpm. There are also significant differences in showerhead sprays for ones with identical flow rates. The most efficient units are as low as 1.5 gpm, and the savings in water and energy use can pay back their cost in just a few months.

There are a number of factors determining how much water and energy will be saved. Water savings is affected directly by the gpm rating for the showerhead, while energy savings is determined by both the gpm rating and how much hot water has to be mixed with cold for a comfortable shower.

The type of spray pattern chosen has an affect on how warm the water feels on your skin. Showerheads with larger water droplets feel warmer because the droplets have a lower percentage of surface area, so they cool down less before reaching your body.

Some needle-type, low-flow showerheads create tiny water droplets. These may lose more heat as they move through the air. If this happens, people tend to set the faucet handle to a greater percentage of hot water and may actually end up using more hot water—and more electricity—than before. Some showerheads also add air to the spray for more force, but this might also cool the water spray.

It’s easy to distinguish a narrow needle-spray design because they are usually small. For a fuller spray, look for ones with many holes across a larger face. Some may appear to have a large face with many spray holes. If they have adjustable patterns, not all the holes are used simultaneously so they may actually create a needle spray if you desire that at times.

A handheld adjustable showerhead is very effective. Some models have four spray settings selected by rotating the head, and water flow can be directed where you want it, which saves water.

There are also two inexpensive add-on devices that can help reduce water use on any showerhead. One is a tiny push/pull trickle valve (also called a lathering valve) that’s mounted between the shower arm and showerhead. When you don’t need water, push the button to slow the water to a trickle without having to readjust the temperature at the faucet each time.

Another water-saver is a Lady Bug valve by ShowerStart (also called Evolve). People often turn on the hot water and walk away while they’re waiting for the water to heat, which can waste gallons of water before getting into the shower. With the Lady Bug, when the water temperature reaches 95 degrees, the flow is automatically slowed to a trickle so very little goes down the drain. When you’re ready to get in, pull the string on the handle to return the full flow.

James Dulley is a nationally recognized mechanical engineer writing about home energy issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperaive Association. Send inquiries to James Dulley, Michigan Country Lines, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit dulley.com.