The House We Live In: Gettin’ Clean
by Amy Knight

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A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


This week I researched plumbing fixtures. Of all thrilling things. I was trying to get a sense of the range of water and energy usage that different items have, and where the cutoffs are for different standards. What’s the average water flow in a shower head? What’s the maximum for it to be low-flow? Ultra low-flow? Are they primarily made by traditional manufacturers, or are the best ones made by specialty companies that focus on conservation? How low can you get before you start to get a real noticeable sacrifice in quality or experience? How much of a sacrifice am I willing to make? Which tradeoffs save enough water or energy to be worth the sacrifice?

Much of the online discussion, I’ve observed, is put in terms of cost. Some upgrades are cost-effective, others are considered not to be. Consumer Reports, for instance, suggests that dual-flush toilets (you can flush them “soft” or “hard” depending on need) actually don’t save all that much water over a single-flush toilet that’s efficient. Showerheads, on the other hand, can net a huge savings, and some cost no more than standard fixtures. Much of the discussion is geared toward upgrading and retrofitting, and the calculus is different for new construction.

I’ve also come up against the question of where it makes sense to buy some kind of fancy efficient equipment and where it makes more sense to be vigilant about behavior. Do you need an ultra-efficient kitchen faucet if you’re extra careful not to leave it running when it isn’t needed, and you have an efficient water heater so you don’t have to run it to heat it up? It reminds me of what I’ve sometimes heard said about amateur athletes: you can spend thousands on a fractionally lighter carbon frame bicycle or you can lose a few pounds yourself and get the same savings, be healthier, and spend less.

My head is now full of gallons per minute, gallons per flush, and PSIs. So far I’ve wound up here: I will almost certainly be getting a specialty efficient showerhead, and the best regarded ones I’ve come across seem to be made by specialists (Niagara or Bricor, rather than Moen or Delta). I haven’t delved into how they work but they seem to have technology that keeps the pressure up while using less water, and some of them are quite attractive.

Maybe this is my not-very-well-hidden inner nerd, but I actually think this is really interesting, especially the way it involves the intersection of regulation, economic choices, and conscience. Before 1994, showerheads used about 5.5 gallons per minute. (Imagine a 10-minute shower. 55 gallons of water. Ever seen a 55 gallon drum?) Now, the Department of Energy limits showerheads to 2.5 gallons per minute, and the EPA’s WaterSense program  requires less than 2 gallons per minute. And you can go even lower. Some of the showerheads on the market go as low as 1 gallon per minute.

So that gave me a sense of what would qualify as “good.” I’m not a person who needs to be pelted by water to have a satisfying shower, but I suspect going down to a single gallon per minute would be too low. I imagine I’ll be choosing in the 1.5-2 range. And of course, showerheads are easy enough to swap out. But I’m intrigued to start learning about the actual number of what uses how much water, as I’m sure as I start my quest to use only as much water as I can collect from the sky, it will matter in a much more real way than it feels now, when not only does the water come from the city, but the water bill is included in my rent so I don’t even see my usage (which is shared with neighbors in the next unit anyway). But reading about all these numbers, I’ll surely be paying closer attention going forward.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at or leave a comment here.

Photo credit: Showerhead =) via photopin (license) is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.