America’s energy transition: what the Trump administration is doing to energy efficiency standards

The US President has waged a war against energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs, washing machines, boilers, cars – and now even showerheads, writes Andrew Warren, a former special advisor to the UK House of Commons environment select committee, first published on the Business Green website.


On Seinfeld, shower heads, and Trump’s war on efficiency standards

US President Donald Trump has spent much of his first four years in office seeking to reduce established energy efficiency standards for many familiar items, from lightbulbs, clothes washers and dryers, to boilers, cars, vans and trucks.

America is currently recording the highest numbers of Covid-19 victims in the world. Even so, in the midst of this pandemic, the US government is following up on Trump’s campaign pledge to get “rid of the restrictors” on showerheads. This is just part of his repeated false complaint that toilets, taps, and other household fixtures have all been ruined by energy efficiency standards.

The new rules will permit the reintroduction of showerheads that waste enormous amounts of water and energy, increasing utility bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Climate change induced megadrought’

This profligate showerhead proposal coincides with a new detailed study, published in the journal Science, which found that a “vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought”.

Currently three-quarters of the showerhead models for sale use at least 20 per cent less water than the maximum allowed nationally. This is mainly due to six states, comprising about 25 per cent of the US population, having their own tighter minimum showerhead standards. These measures have strong support in Congress, where any relaxing of legal standards would certainly be rejected – whatever Trump thinks.

So Trump is trying to get around a law that originally came into force way back in 1994. Basically, it became mandatory for shower manufacturers not to exceed a standard 2.5 gallon-per-minute maximum flow rate per showerhead. It was uncontroversial back then, and it has been pretty uncontroversial ever since. Until now.

The federal law, like others concerning appliance and equipment standards, does not permit the President to weaken the standard, or ‘backslide’. So how is he claiming it can do that today?

What is a showerhead?

The trick Trump is trying here is to attempt to dodge the law by reinterpreting what the word ‘showerhead’ means.

Put simply, he is encouraging equipment manufacturers to make giant showerheads with several nozzles within them. Official test procedures will be altered to characterise each of those separate nozzles as an entirely separate showerhead – and thus in theory complying with the original law.

Those seeking an explanation for Trump’s involvement suspect it can be traced back to a re-run on afternoon TV of a 1996 episode of the famous sitcom show Seinfeld. The episode contained humorous complaints about these newly inadequate showerheads.

Could it be that it was shortly after the comedy was broadcast again that Trump – a notorious daytime TV addict – issued instructions on Twitter for the ‘restrictors’ on showerheads to be scrapped?

Either way, the new plan is “a gimmick in search of a problem”, as some conservationists put it. For many years, there has been a solution for poorly performing models, one that requires no action by the Trump administration.

“Tired of a shower that produces more of a weak sprinkle than an invigorating stream?” Consumer Reports – the US equivalent of Which? – asked readers in 2009. “Change your showerhead.” In the wake of years of innovation, including the improved use of aeration, the magazine found that “the top water-saving and rain-shower models we tested provide a strong flow”. And these are what most Americans are now using.

Consumers choose energy efficient showers 

Today, about three-quarters of the showerhead models for sale use at least 20 per cent less water than the maximum allowed. And while there are always going to be some sub-par models, the top-rated model on the product review website Wirecutter uses only 70 per cent of the water permitted by federal rules, while testers said it delivers a “powerful, dense soak that envelops your entire body”.

The latest multi-nozzle showerheads would not only needlessly waste water, exacerbating shortages caused by drought. They would also increase carbon pollution from the electricity and gas used to power the shower.

No one benefits from this gimmick. Except perhaps the various TV stations intending to run further 24-year-old episodes of Seinfeld just in the hope that the President of the USA may be watching.


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