If You’re Thinking About Building A Custom Shower System, Read This First!

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.

Even a simple shower system can put out a whole lot of water at once (by Geneva Cabinet Gallery)
Even a simple shower system can put out a whole lot of water at once (by Geneva Cabinet Gallery)

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While most average showers use about two gallons of water per minute, custom showers use a whole lot more. This 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, 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 set can output between 10 and 12.5 gallons a minute.

Not only do your pipes need to be big enough to output enough water, but you might need to run them into some odd places for optimal shower head placement (by CTA Architects Engineers)
Not only do your pipes need to be big enough to output enough water, but you might need to run them into some odd places for optimal shower head placement (by CTA Architects Engineers)

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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. Even the most basic setup you can get still requires MUCH more water that even a standard full-flow shower head. Replacing your pipes is difficult but doable (and depending on where you’re putting your shower heads is something you might have to do anyway), but it’s 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.

The last thing you want is to build your dream shower only to have water come dribbling out of your shower heads! (by Christopher Scott Homes)
The last thing you want is to build your dream shower only to have water come dribbling out of your shower heads! (by Christopher Scott Homes)

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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.

Running multiple shower heads at once can add up quickly - and can depelete your water heater faster than you might think (by On Time Baths)
Running multiple shower heads at once can add up quickly – and can deplete your water heater faster than you might think (by On Time Baths)

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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, 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, 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.

Larger drains are a must-have for keeping a big custom shower from flooding - but you can get a little creative with how you do it (by Hand Werk)
Larger drains are a must-have for keeping a big custom shower from flooding – but you can get a little creative with how you do it (by Hand Werk)

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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 or linear drain 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 big custom shower will put out, especially if you use it for any length of time or with any frequency.

Shower panels are an affordable, easy-to-install, and water-saving alternative to a custom shower, but they'll never provide quite the same immersive shower experience (by Group 41 Architects)
Shower panels are an affordable, easy-to-install, and water-saving alternative to a custom shower, but they’ll never provide quite the same immersive shower experience (by Group 41 Architects)

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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. Beyond adjusting the height of the shower heads or 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.