DOE showers industry with confusion

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Energy probably didn’t know what it was getting itself into when it announced an interpretive rule in early June that would effectively ban multi-head shower systems.

Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association has called on its members to strongly protest a DOE proposal that would ban multiple head showers. DOE proposes to interpret the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, as amended, to mean that a showerhead is anything past the mixing valve. That would mean that all fittings could not spray more than 2.5 GPM combined.

“Without advance notice to stakeholders, the United States Department of Energy has issued an interpretive rule defining showerheads which will have an impact on the installation of higher-end bathrooms such as spas and showers that have both a showerhead and hand shower or shower towers,” PHCC-NA said in its alert.

DOE interprets that a showerhead is all components that are supplied standard together and function from one inlet (i.e., after the mixing valve) forming a single showerhead for purposes of the maximum water use standards.

Using this rule, DOE will find a showerhead to be noncompliant with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act’s maximum water use standard if the showerhead’s standard components, operating in their maximum design flow configuration, taken together use in excess of 2.5 GPM when flowing at 80-psi, even if each component individually does not exceed 2.5 GPM.

The proposal also drew a strongly worded response from the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute.

“After careful review, we believe that the DOE proposal would impact the use of various types of showering systems in homes across America, including hand-held showers, body sprays, and shower systems,” PMI Executive Director Barbara Higgens wrote to Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu. “Many of these products are also used in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other therapeutic and medical facilities. Additionally, restrictions on these types of shower systems would have a significant impact on plumbing manufacturers, contractors, installers and retailers across the country. Especially hard hit would be consumers, particularly seniors and members of the disabled community who rely on these types of shower systems as a functional necessity.

“We are most concerned about the process the agency is relying upon to implement this proposal,” PMI’s comments continued. “We believe that a change of this magnitude should NOT be exempt from the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act as DOE has asserted. With only a 30-day comment period, DOE’s proposed “interpretative” rule would negate the standard definition of a showerhead that has existed for decades.

Lastly, it will eliminate the opportunity for consumers to have a choice in determining what type of showering system best suits their individual needs. These showering systems have been available to consumers for more than 40 years.

PHCC-NA was lobbying side-by-side with PMI and the American Supply Association, said Kevin Schwalb, PHCC director of government relations.

“If there’s an understood set of standards, why change them?” Schwalb said, echoing Higgens comments to DOE that the industry for 18 years has relied on the notion that a single fitting is a showerhead, not everything connected to the shower riser in total. Higgens told DOE that everyone in the industry — manufacturers, the American Society of Sanitary Engineering, American Society of Plumbing Engineers, both model code groups, and other industry parties — have relied on that definition.

“This will have impact on the manufacturers who will lose that market segment,” Schwalb said. “It will have an impact on contractors because those are higher profit margin installations and that allows them to employ more people and offer more basic fixtures at lower prices to the benefit of all consumers.”

Schwalb also noted that the tub spout comes after the mixing valve, so DOE’s definition could possibly limit tub filling to 2.5 GPM.

On the other hand, a knowledgeable plumbing engineer told CONTRACTOR that all those arguments are red herrings.

“The industry is trying to put off its day of reckoning when it will have to justify why big shower flows are a God-given right,” said the engineer, who requested anonymity.

DOE’s proposal plugs a gaping loophole in the interpretation of the Energy Policy Act, the engineer said. Limiting showerheads to 2.5 GPM didn’t mean that it’s OK to have 10 showerheads in a compartment. Furthermore, if multi-head showers are really as insignificant a portion of the market as the manufacturers say it is, then what’s the big deal, the engineer noted. If multi-head showers are more common that the manufacturers have let on, then they are using a lot more water than was thought.

The engineer said the proposal needs tweaking and clarification to state that it’s aimed at residential installations and that it does not apply to tub spouts or to gang showers or ADA applications.

He agrees with the opponents that DOE has issued the proposal, legally speaking, in the wrong way. The Administrative Procedures Act would require DOE to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking followed by public hearings and a comment period. DOE would issue a revised rule followed by more comments and hearings before it issues a final rule.

“DOE probably didn’t understand the impact of the proposal,” the engineer said. “But that doesn’t mean they are wrong.”