How to Choose a Shower Head

A closer look at available shower head features to help you purchase the best-fit model for your needs and budget

It's a strange thing, what showers have become. A simple act of hygiene turned ornate ritual, the shower serves an almost sacred role: how often are those few minutes under a spray of water viewed as a time to disconnect from the maddening buzz of the external, to reconnect with oneself? Whether this is an organic cultural development or effective marketing, there's no getting around the fact that showers are hallowed ground.

Fortunately, there are many paths up the mountain, and some of us just want a pleasant, effective shower. While it may be difficult to give advice on the right LED light system to coordinate with a tropical shower garden, those with less extravagant tastes are well-served having an idea of what's out there, and what to consider.

We have a handy guide exploring the most popular types of showerheads we offer: massaging, filtered, rainfall/downpour, and heads for low-pressure. Always going the extra mile, some of our staff bravely tested a selection of heads so that you could have a better idea of what you're getting into. In this article, we'll address some other things to keep in mind during your search.

Multi-spray shower head

Before choosing a shower head, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which will fit my budget? Economical or designer model?
  • Who will be using the shower?
  • What are the benefits or possible drawbacks of choosing a low-flow shower head?
  • Which will suit my needs better, a traditional head, a handheld shower, or a combo?
  • What kind of valves, shower arm, etc. do I currently have in my shower?
  • What kind of finish will complement my existing fixtures?
  • Should I choose a unit with a filter or add the filter separately?

Choosing the Right Shower Head for Your Water Pressure

Showering has historically been a high-volume affair, with older showerheads putting out 8 or more gallons a minute. Multiply this by the length of a typical shower, the number of showers per week, and the number of people in the home, and it makes sense why the EPA limited showerheads to 2.5 gallons per minute. Now, the voluntary WaterSense program certifies heads using 2.0 gpm or less. Though this might sound weak, for the most part, manufacturers have developed effective, efficient technologies capable of delivering a more-than-satisfying experience using a fraction of the water (and the energy used to heat it). So if you have an old head you're reluctant to give up, you can probably let go at this point. It'll be okay.

Low-flow showerheads reduce water use by introducing air into the exiting streams (aeration), or rapidly pulsing those streams, creating the illusion of greater flow by increasing pressure. Others utilize a laminar flow, which shoots out many small streams. These often have a more substantial feel than aerated flows, but with high water pressure, can make for a stinging shower. Aerated heads can produce an effective and refreshing shower, but with low pressure, hair-rinsing can become a prolonged, aggravating task. Some even report taking twice as long in the shower due to the weak flow! To avoid this, try to find a head with a pressure-compensating flow regulator, which allows the flow to be tailored to the actual pressure in your home.

Low flow shower head

Scalding, Shower Shock, and Other Temperature Troubles

Aerated heads have another issue to take into consideration: heat loss. Adding the relatively cool air of the bathroom to the water flow, and then having it travel a few feet to your body, can reduce the temperature as it hits your skin by several degrees. It will depend on you and your household whether this is even noticeable, let alone uncomfortable. Though slight, there's also the wasted energy used to heat the water to take into account.

Do you have a pressure-balanced or thermostatic shower valve? If you don't know, you need to find out. While low-flow showerheads are great, they present a serious risk of thermal shock when installed in conjunction with an older valve lacking automatic temperature compensation (ATC). If you've ever had someone flush the toilet or run the dishwasher while you're showering, you know all about thermal shock. A blast of scalding or icy water can cause anyone to freak out, with children and seniors being especially vulnerable to severe injury.

Most homes built after the mid-90s have ATC valves. If your shower has hot and cold handles, it may not. The problem with low flow heads stems from the fact that a relatively small volume of water is moved through the showerhead, so sudden temperature changes in the line can be felt immediately and more severely. If you don't know how to access your valve or identify an ATC valve, have a professional take a look: while a home might already have an ATC valve, older ones may be designed for a higher flow rate than a low flow head, and will not eliminate risk. Neither will turning down the water heater: that thermostat measures only the water at the bottom of the heater, and temperatures up top can be up to 15 degrees warmer, so there's no guarantee someone still won't be burned. The only way to guarantee the outgoing temperature on a water heater is to install a thermostatic mixing valve on the outlet.

NOTE: If you have a tankless water heater, be sure that its minimum flow rate is less than that of the showerhead you want to purchase – older heaters may have a higher flow rate and will not be activated by the shower alone. Be aware that showerhead flow rates are based on an above average 80 psi water pressure, and will likely be less than stated in your home.

Spray Settings, Shower Styles, Filters, and Unique Features

Rain shower head

Obviously, the size of the household is going to be an important factor when choosing your shower head. If it's just you, why not indulge your particular fancy (maybe the gentle cascade of a 12" square rainshower)? With housemates or family, it's probably best to go with something offering multiple spray options to make everyone happy. Likewise, having both a head and an arm with a wide range of movement makes it easier for the shorter and taller among us to shower in comfort.

One of the easiest ways to ensure ease and adaptability is with a handheld shower head. Great for bathing children and pets, today's handshowers are just as powerful and feature-laden as their fixed counterparts. We offer kits that include brackets or adjustable wall bars for mounting, as well as several ADA-compliant options. Or you can design your own unique set-up. As an added bonus, the aerator heat loss mentioned above is not much of a factor with handshowers: because they're closer to your body, less distance is traveled, giving the water little opportunity to cool down.

Whether you're looking at a fixed unit or a handheld one, if it's a multi-spray model, you'll want controls that are clear and easy to use in the midst of a shower – some designs can be difficult to get to or manipulate with soapy hands.

Does your shower ritual involve waiting for hot water? There are ways to deal with this, but in lieu of a major investment, you might consider adding a ShowerStart Hot Water Saver. This handy device won't save the cooled water vacating your pipes when you first turn on the shower (if you're concerned about that, try capturing it with a bucket), but once water reaches 95°F, the valve automatically closes, allowing only a trickle through to relieve pressure. All of the hot water that would normally go down the drain, along with the energy to heat it, is saved.

Another thing to think about? Chlorine. And everything else that's in our municipal water supplies. Shower filters have become increasingly popular, as more research links water treatment chemistry to potential health risks. Most don't need a study to want these chemicals out of their water – they feel the effects on hair and skin, and especially sensitive individuals may even experience respiratory distress. We offer a wide selection of filters that will drastically reduce chlorine and other unwanted chemicals in your shower water.

The right showerhead can consecrate your bathroom, but finding it can be difficult. The vast array of designs, options, and specifications can be overwhelming, and a good commercial can make a lackluster product look amazing. In the end, all that matters is how the shower feels to you (and the technical stuff, like having the proper valve). Anything past that really isn't worth your time. So go forth and forge that personal oasis!

Ready to shop for your new shower head?

Browse our complete listing of shower heads

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