So you like the idea of a custom shower: water massaging you from all angles, giving you a spa or swanky hotel experience every time you want to get clean, right in your very own home. For big time shower fans, it’s basically a dream come true: having a world class shower in your own master bath. But before you start laying your schematics, there are a few important details you should consider to make sure your dream is a viable one, and to get a sense of just how large the scale of your bathroom renovation will need to be.
While the showers of people who only use them to get clean use about two gallons of water per minute, custom showers use a lot, lot more, which presents a whole host of problems that you’ll need to take into account ahead of time. First, do a rough markup of how many shower heads and body sprays you want where. Typically, a custom shower will have a rain showerhead mounted to the ceiling, a regular massage head and a hand shower across from the door, and a series of body sprays on either side, and sometimes additional sprayers on the ceiling. For every shower head, consider an output of 2.5 gallons per minute. Even a pretty basic setup like this Kohler Bancroft shower set pumps out between 10 and 12.5 gallons a minute.
Now what does that mean? First, it means that your pipes have to be able to supply that water. If you don’t already know, you want to check whether you have 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch pipes supplying your shower. This is the very first hurdle, because half inch pipes are often simply unable to supply enough water fast enough to keep multiple shower heads running. This LaToscana Novello is about the most basic setup you can get, but it still requires MUCH more water that even a standard full-flow shower head. Replacing your pipes can be difficult, but is doable – but is definitely NOT something you want to realize you should have done when you’re half way through the project, or worse, when you’re turning your shower on for the first time.
Relatedly, you want to make sure you have high enough water pressure to keep all those shower heads running at full blast. Have a plumber check the pressure in your system. 50 pounds per square inch (PSI) is recommended, and if yours is lower than 45 psi, you’ll need to install a secondary water booster pump. Be aware, as well, that if you get your water from a well, the pressure might fluctuate with seasonal water levels, especially with a shower that heavily taxes the supply, so be sure to take this into consideration as well.
Assuming, then, that you have the water and can get it to your shower space, the second hurdle: Heat. This is one that’s all too easy to forget to consider. When you’re luxuriating in the shower, probably the last thing on your mind is how much water exactly is being sprayed on you, but the problem here is simple. For a shower with three body sprays on each side, a regular shower head or handheld one, plus an overhead rainfall shower head (something like this Cifial M3 Series Set) you’ll be using about 20 gallons of water per minute, which will deplete your average 50 gallon water heater in less than three minutes… which could put a serious cramp in your relaxing shower. So to be able to take a shower of any length, you’ll need at least a 75-100 gallon tank (preferably with an anti scald valve so you can keep the temp high and stretch the water a little farther), or better yet a tankless electric water heater, which takes up much less space and can provide a near-infinite source of hot water. Just make sure the one you pick can handle the volume, and be aware that it might run a little colder in the winter months, when the incoming supply is cooler.
Third hurdle? Once your shower’s got all the water it needs flowing to it at a comfortable temperature, it’s going to need a place to go. Now, relatively speaking, this is pretty minor – you need two standard two-inch shower drains instead of one, or a 3 inch one to keep your shower from flooding, but as long as you know to do it, it’s a pretty simple alteration. That said, when it comes to drainage, if your home uses a septic tank, it will not be able to handle the volume of water a shower will put out, especially if you use it for any length of time or with any frequency.
Finally, you want to think about installation. A true custom shower has to be built essentially from the ground up, with plumbing running through five of the six sides of an enclosure, excluding only the door. That means that you’re looking at a fairly invasive and probably lengthy construction period… though you probably already had an inkling of that! If you opt for a shower panel rather than a custom or pre-made shower system, installation will be a little easier, but you still have to get as far as the framework to install one. It can be a significantly smaller project to be sure, but because the spray is limited to a single wall, it’s limited both in number, reach, and customizeability. You can adjust the height on this one from Rohl, but beyond that, or maybe the angle of the body sprays, shower panels are largely static. To be able to tailor design the shower to the height and needs of the people that will be using it, though, you’ll have to buy the parts individually and lay the plumbing to exactly where you want them.
All that said maybe the first thing you really want to consider is what a 30-odd gallon per minute shower is going to do to your water bill! But, I suspect, if you’ve read this far, you’re like me and I had you at custom shower. It certainly won’t be a water saver, but now that you know the pitfalls of getting one up and running, you’re that much closer to making your custom shower dream a reality.