Do you need a handheld shower head? Handheld shower heads are more versatile than fixed models. They can function just like a fixed shower head when sitting in the bracket, but they can also be removed to focus spray on a particular body part. Many users say they find a handheld model with a long hose handy for cleaning the shower enclosure or for washing pets in the tub. However, fixed shower heads generally fare better in reviews, so it probably isn't worth choosing a handheld unless you really need it.
What spray pattern do you prefer? Some users like a firm, invigorating spray, while others prefer the gentle trickle of a rain shower. Some like a traditional wide spray that provides a lot of coverage, while others prefer a pulsing massage jet. Whatever shower style you like best, look for a shower head that does a good job on that spray setting. If you're the only one who will use the shower, then you probably don't have to worry about additional settings; most tend to pick a single spray pattern they like and stick with it. However, if you share a bathroom with someone else who prefers a different spray pattern, then look for a shower head that suits both of you.
How tall are you? Some shower heads can pose problems for users who are either very tall or very short. A very large shower head, for instance, may hang down too far for tall users to stand under it. Other shower heads are fine for tall users, but they're so high up that short users can't reach them to change the settings. If you're particularly tall or short, measure your shower enclosure before you buy and figure out what the height and angle of the shower head will be once it's installed.
How strong is the water pressure in your home? Today's shower heads, which have a maximum flow rate of 2.5 gpm, can still deliver a strong enough stream to satisfy most users. However, people with low water pressure in their homes often find that standard shower heads produce only a feeble trickle that isn't strong enough to rinse away soap and shampoo. Many manufacturers are responding to this issue with technologies that help force the water our more strongly, or at least make it feel as if the pressure is higher.
Do you need an extension arm? If you find a shower head you like but it seems as if it's too far away to be fully effective once it's installed -- or if you have high ceilings -- a shower arm pipe extension can be purchased in the plumbing department. It will add to the cost and is an extra installation step, albeit a simple one. Most manufacturers also have an extension that's recommended for that specific shower head, and you can often purchase them at the same time to ensure they're a good fit. Things can get a little more complicated if you need to completely replace the existing shower head arm, but that's not that that hard a job either in most cases. More information can be found in this article.
As water becomes an increasingly scarce resource and many areas struggle with years-long droughts, local and state governments are responding with ever more rigorous water use regulations for plumbing fixtures, including shower heads and toilets, which we cover in a separate report.
In the case of shower heads, some areas in New York already limit flow levels for new shower heads, and you may be required to provide your zip code at some retail sites that sell shower heads before your order can be approved for shipment. Homeowners in these areas are limited to installing shower heads with flow levels no higher than 2.0 gpm. California is preparing to do the same, and eventually go even further. As of July 1, 2016, Californians will also be limited to purchasing new shower heads with a maximum flow rate of 2.0 gpm; then, in July 2018, that will drop to 1.8 gpm.
We also can't ignore, but we definitely don't condone, the many comments on retail sites from those who get around these low-flow issues by removing the flow regulators on their shower heads. While the argument is often made that everyone should be "free" to use as much water as they want to use, the fact is that water conservation is becoming a dire necessity and there's a good reason those regulations are in place.
A better idea is to find a shower head that works well with your shower and your existing water pressure. Manufacturers are making this much easier with technologies that help increase the power behind the expelled water even in low flow heads. Even if you have to pay a bit more, the water savings will more than make up for that upfront cost over time.