What’s a Showerhead?

PMI speaks out on the DOE's recent proposal to redefine "showerhead"
By Barbara C. Higgens
October 04, 2010

The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency (DOE/EERE) has issued a proposed new interpretation of the term “showerhead.” If adopted, this will dramatically impact kitchen and bath designers and the high-end spa market. Multiple showerhead systems have been manufactured since the 1980s, long before the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct 1992) was enacted to limit their flow rate to 2.5 gpm. Frequently found in health clubs, hospitals, Veterans Affairs clinics, nursing homes, wellness centers, correctional facilities and schools, these products have also been embraced by homeowners seeking a spa-like experience in their homes. In addition to serving an important therapeutic role for many, these high-end products provide a relaxing escape from the pressures of the day.

For 18 years, the DOE recognized each showerhead simply as a fixture for directing the spray of water in a shower. Before, during and after EPAct 1992 became law, the industry and homeowners understood the plain meaning of the law’s key term, “showerheads,” to mean outlets for water. It certainly has not been understood to mean the sum of potential outlets downstream of a shower valve.


On May 19, a notice in the Federal Register indicated the DOE was soliciting comments on the agency’s draft interpretative rule to significantly change the definition of “showerhead” with a view toward banning a variety of important—and too often necessary— shower configurations.

With only a 30-day comment period and without much considered deliberation, the DOE’s proposed “interpretative” rule would negate the accepted and standard definition of a showerhead and have a number of unintended consequences.

The proposed rule states: “The Department concludes that a showerhead may incorporate one or more sprays, nozzles or openings. All components that are supplied standard together and function from one inlet (i.e., after the mixing valve) form a single showerhead for purposes of the maximum water use standards.” It continues to say that showerheads will be deemed noncompliant “if the showerhead’s standard components, operating in their maximum design flow configuration, taken together use in excess of 2.5 gpm when flowing at 80 psi, even if each component individually does not exceed 2.5 gpm.”

The effect of such a reclassification will eliminate shower systems with multiple outlets with a combined flow exceeding 2.5 gpm. Per the new language, manufacturers will be required to restrict water flow to one outlet at a time and add valves for multiple outlet operation. As a result, the DOE’s showerhead interpretive rule will impose significant additional costs and burdens on consumers and manufacturers, without a clear enforcement strategy.

The Plumbing Manufacturers Institute (PMI) and its members estimate manufacturers will incur more than $400 million in expenses for redesigning and reconfiguring products; packaging and information; retraining personnel; and restocking and replacing products that cannot be sold. The DOE’s proposed rule would force the discontinuation of entire product lines that are otherwise compliant with EPAct 1992’s maximum flowrate-per-showerhead restrictions, including handheld showers, body sprays and shower systems.

As outlined in its mission statement, PMI promotes both the efficient use of water and consumer choice in a fair and open marketplace. While the focus of the DOE action, showers should not be the first place targeted for maximizing water savings, as they represent less than 17 percent of the total residential indoor water use.


PMI and its members have been active participants in the WaterSense program since its establishment by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). WaterSense focuses on water efficiency, not merely conservation, and includes a consumer satisfaction component. It’s not just about cutting back on water usage; it is about products that get the same job done more efficiently with less water. Consumers trust WaterSense-labeled products to improve their homes’ water and energy efficiency and to manage or reduce their utility bills. Water-efficient faucets and showerheads are widely available on the market. Showerheads also can earn the WaterSense label.

A WaterSense-labeled showerhead such as these from Delta (top) and Moen (above) is a great way to reduce water usage, but the proposed redefinition of “showerhead,” if passed, may leave little room for much else in a bathroom.

In contrast to the EPA’s process and specifications for its WaterSense programs, the DOE wording in the proposed redefinition disregards the longstanding distinction between a showerhead and a shower valve. Furthermore, placing limits on flow upstream of the points of discharge can have a direct impact on safety and present an increased risk for scalding. To minimize the risk of scalding and thermal shock, plumbing manufacturers and professionals have been among the stakeholders helping to craft the guidelines that ensure acceptable methods of controlling hot water temperatures are used when installing showerheads with less than 2.5 gpm. Without this dialogue and verification, end-users may be exposed to unnecessary risk.

In a tub/shower installation, the diverter between the tub and shower is found after the mixing valve. Currently, tub spouts do not have maximum flow standards; they have minimum flow standards. If the DOE’s new definition is adopted, tub spouts and showers units would have to have a 2.5-gpm combined maximum flow rate at 80 psi. This also contradicts current plumbing codes, which specify a minimum for a tub filler to be 2.4 gpm at 20 psi.

Obviously, the tub spout should not be included in this definition from the DOE, but it is a clear example of how a government agency’s redefinition to suit a new regulatory intent can create unintended adverse consequences. Assuming one tub spout and one showerhead, each designed to have equal flow (1.25 gpm each), the DOE’s new definition would result in nearly an hour wait to fill a 70-gallon tub. In reality, the tub’s water would cool before the person was able to bathe, resulting in increased water and energy consumption to avoid a tepid bath. Clearly, this is not the intention of the DOE, but it could be the result of the adoption of a completely artificial definition of “showerhead.”


Reaction to the proposal has been swift and passionate. There has been overwhelming support of consumer choice, as well as opposition to the “government in our bathrooms.” Comments opposing the proposed change and the method by which the change is being made have been submitted to the DOE website. The topic has been passionately discussed in blogs and YouTube videos, as well as reported on the ABC Network, Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal, among others. Attempts to change existing law of this magnitude should not be embarked upon without meeting the full notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act and its corresponding due process procedural safeguards to protect the public from arbitrary and unsupported government action. PMI has united a coalition of diverse stakeholders, which include:

• American Association of People with Disabilities
• American Supply Association
• Buying Group Services, Inc.
Canadian Institute of Plumbing and Heating
Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association
• Elite Brand Sales and Marketing
Forte Buying Group
International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials
National Association of Home Builders
National Council of the Housing Industry
Kitchen and Bath Buying Group, Inc.
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association
• The Home Depot

While the outcome of the DOE’s proposal remains unclear, it is clear the debate has just begun. To learn more about the coalition’s continued advocacy and educational efforts, please contact PMI at 847-481-5500.

—Barbara C. Higgens is executive director of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute (PMI), an association representing manufacturers of most plumbing fixtures and fittings used in North America. She is responsible for the association’s codes/standards activities, as well as many other leadership roles. Higgens is also a member of the board of directors for the Council of Manufacturing Associations (CMA), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Procurement Committee for World Vision Storehouse and the U.S. Department of Commerce Industry Trade Advisory (ITAC) committee. She can be reached via email at bhiggeens@pmihome.org.
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