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Shower Head Buying Guide

By: Kelly Burgess on September 18, 2017

What the best shower head does

  • Delivers a strong stream of water. Professional reviews generally find that testers are most satisfied with shower heads that produce a powerful stream and plenty of coverage.
  • Reduces water use. Even a standard 2.5-gpm shower head will save water compared to an old 5-gpm dinosaur, but some shower heads use as little as 1.5 gpm while still providing good water pressure.
  • Keeps hot water hot. Aerating shower heads use air pressure to help increase the sensation of stronger water pressure. However, this can cool the water significantly between the time it leaves the shower head and the time it reaches your skin. Many manufacturers have newer, proprietary technologies that increase the pressure without overly cooling the water.
  • Installs easily. Most models are fairly simple to install yourself with just an adjustable wrench and some plumber's tape, but a good set of instructions -- and a customer help line, just in case -- can make the process a lot easier.
  • Is simple to adjust. Some shower heads have only a single flow pattern, but those that have many should be easy to switch from one to another.
  • Holds up well over time. The shower head itself should not break or leak, and the finish should not wear off easily.

Know before you go

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.

What's to come

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, California, Colorado and some areas in New York already limit flow levels for new shower heads. Homeowners in these areas are limited to installing shower heads with flow levels no higher than 2.0 gpm. And it will get stricter in California in July 2018 when they move to a maximum flow rate of 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.

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