In 1992, federal regulations restricted showerheads to a maximum output of 2.5 gallons per minute in an effort reduce consumers' water consumption. This was a vast reduction in output for most showerheads; older products often used twice as much water. This legal adjustment in water conservation also sparked the production of more eco-friendly showerheads. Early low-flow units received criticism from consumers, who said they struggled to rinse their hair under the anemic flow of water, but today's technology has significantly improved these products. The result: Low-flow showerheads don't have to mean an unsatisfying shower. These water-saving units don't usually cost any more than standard showerheads; they can range from $10 to $200 and some even have a "pause" button to shut water off until users are ready to rinse.
Some manufacturers now make showerheads that use surprisingly small amounts of water. Typical showerheads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute while most water-saving models use between 1.5 and 2 gpm; we discuss all of these units in our best-showerheads section, but some models use even less water. The AquaHelix Shower Nozzle (*Est. $30) and the Bricor B100 UltraMax (*Est. $75) each use about one-half gallon of water per minute. Both are no-frills showerheads with a single-spray setting and adjustable pressure, but owner reviews seem to indicate that the more expensive Bricor version is a bit sturdier and more reliable.
But while an ultra-low-flow showerhead may seem like a great way to cut down on water and water-heating bills while benefiting the environment, miserly showerheads may not be as good a value as they seem. Owners of these showerheads report a number of inconveniences. One user posting a review of the AquaHelix Shower Nozzle to the GardenWeb.com forums describes the showerhead as spraying "wildly in all directions" like an "unmanned firehose." He also notes that the AquaHelix, which is designed for use at 30 to 60 psi (pounds per square inch, the standard measure of water pressure), sputters at higher pressures. Note that most home showers deliver water at a rate of about 80 psi. Yet the manufacturer's website states the showerhead "may perform erratically" at less than 50 psi, so there's a very narrow window of water pressure for this showerhead to work well. Another consideration is that an extremely low-flow showerhead will take much longer to clear cold water from the pipes, so if you buy one, be prepared to wait several minutes for the shower to heat up.
Ironically, while GreenGear.info's review of the 0.5-gpm (gallons per minute) Bricor B100 UltraMax is very positive overall, the site owner reports that he had to turn up the thermostat on his hot water heater. According to "Mr. Green Gear", the showerhead uses so little water that the spray doesn't feel warm. While he doesn't say how much he had to turn up his water heater, it's hard to imagine that reduced water use would offset the increase in electricity or gas required to heat the water to a higher temperature. Instead, we read better reviews for moderately water-saving showerheads like the 1.5-gpm Oxygenics SkinCare 60120 (*Est. $20) and the 1.5- to 2.0-gpm American Standard FloWise 1660.717 (*Est. $45).