When I attended Future Water 2012 last week there was a Waterproof Shower Timer in the delegate bag from one of the event’s sponsors, Wessex Water.

After getting it to stick to the tiles without falling off I’ve given it a few tries. At the moment I’ve got our mains hot water off, and am using just solar hot water. Without much sun I’ve resolved to make do with lukewarm showers for the sake of (a) deluding myself into thinking summer is happening, in spite of weather signals to the contrary; (b) saving some energy; and (c) saving money (though probably not as much as last year given the continued rainy/overcast outlook). Basically that’s a long way of saying I have little incentive to spend a long time under a 40-45C shower at the moment (noticeably colder than the mains 60-65C) but still four minutes turns out to be a very short shower indeed!

This got me thinking; how did this four-minute ‘standard’ come about? I know the Government and water companies have been advocating four-minute showers for some months now to attempt to offset this summer’s drought conditions… but why?

I started looking around. First I came across this piece in the Telegraph linking shower times and droughts, and saying cutting one’s shower length by a minute saves nine litres of hot water (24 or 40 glasses of water, depending on how you calculate it). Then I found Welsh Water’s challenge to shower in four minutes – and, hey, Kriss Akabusi (below) does it in three, didn’t you know? – telling me I’d save a day-and-a-half of time in a year by cutting 10 minute showers down to four (another source, from 2011, put average shower times at eight minutes, apparently ‘much longer than previous studies suggested, using almost as much water and energy as the average bath’).

Source: Welsh Water

None of this explained why four minutes though. At the same time, there’s plenty of reaction to the ‘standard’. An interesting ‘netmums’ post shows some people against it because of (a) high water bills; (b) water companies’ double-standards on water leakage; and (c) ‘nanny state’-type feelings of intrusiveness… among other things. It’s also not hard to find tips on how to shower in four – or even three – minutes (turn off the water while lathering, basically). There’s also data on four-minute water use by older showers (53-76 litres), early water-saving ones (33-38l), and the very latest shower heads (23l)… but still nothing on why ‘four’ minutes was set.

Well, against this rather unclear backdrop, my best guesses are that it was:

  • To reduce the water (and energy) usage of a shower to the same as or less than a bath, e.g. given showers turned out not necessarily to be more environmentally-friendly than baths (especially power showers);
  • To reduce the ‘average’ shower time by a desired amount, e.g. halving it (eight minutes to four);
  • To reduce water usage to meet per capita targets, e.g. saving an extra 20 litres per person per day.

But does anyone else out there have the proper answer on this? Do let us know…

Nevertheless I will persevere with my four-minute showers for now. Sadly my eco-friendly, aerated, temperature-capped, low-flow shower system doesn’t actually tell me how many litres it uses per minute – or for one complete shower. I’ll be none the wiser about the effect on my water use – and water bill – of taking four-minute showers (the same will be true for gas bill savings from shorter showers… when I’m using the mains).

In contrast my electricity monitor shows me the real-time impact of switching devices on and off – and extrapolates to show daily and monthly bill changes. My relation to my water bill – and water company for that matter – is very distant by comparison. Someone occasionally comes with a ‘wand’ to read our meter remotely, and a dull bill comes through the door once a year, with my updated direct debit plan based on my latest average annual usage…

It’s hardly the kind of active engagement with customers to help them save water I heard about from Australia’s example back at Future Water 2012 now, is it?

Duncan Thomas

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