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10 Questions: David Malcolm, Showerhead Innovator

As creator of High Sierra Showerheads, David Malcolm offers a shower that might make you forget about the drought – but which still uses only 1.5 gallons of water per minute.

Written by Michelle Matus Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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David Malcolm is bringing golf course technology to your daily bathroom routine.

As creator of High Sierra Showerheads, Malcolm is saving water with every shower. His patented low-flow technology uses 1.5 gallons of water per minute (GPM), but offers a shower experience that rivals the traditional 2.5 GPM flow that drought-conscious homeowners had given up.

Malcolm and his staff hand-assemble each showerhead at High Sierra Showerheads, a California-certified small business, located in Coarsegold, in Madera County near Yosemite National Park. The state of California recently ordered 5,000 units to outfit its prisons.

Water Deeply spoke with Malcolm about following in his father’s footsteps to create a technology that saves water and energy.

Water Deeply: How did you get started in the industry?

David Malcolm: My dad is the one that got started in the water business. He was a design engineer at Rain Bird in Southern California. He wanted to strike out on his own and started a sprinkler manufacturing company called Weathertec. While he was manufacturing his own sprinklers, he also developed a technique for manufacturing nozzles.

The nozzle in a sprinkler is very important; that’s the last thing water sees when it leaves the sprinkler. My dad had come up with a technique for manufacturing nozzles that made it really easy to cut these shapes into nozzles to improve the distribution of the sprinklers. He had leukemia and passed away in 1992. I was working with him and he left a lot of unfinished work. So, I went on with his ideas.

Water Deeply: How does your product fit into the framework of a more drought-conscious California?

David Malcolm: I think people are still afraid to change their showerheads to low-flow. They don’t like the sound of it; it conjures up images of not being able to rinse out the conditioner in your hair and having to stay in the shower longer. What’s the point of going to low-flow if you have to stay in there for five extra minutes to rinse your hair? But, we’ve got to save water. It’s not a game anymore.

All water companies and cities are giving away cheap, low-flow showerheads that they get from China and cost $2. We got an order about two months ago from a guy down near San Diego for an apartment complex in Cal State San Marcos. The guy said they had put in the showerheads that the city had given them and the girls in the complex revolted. They went online and bought three or four of mine to try and all the girls approved, and then we had an order for 300 showerheads. Ours are different.

I started with the 1.8 GPM showerhead. We got the WaterSense certification for that, which is an EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] certification. I submitted the 1.5 for testing and I was just told earlier that we passed the test, so now we are going to have all of our showerheads WaterSense and plumbing code certified within the next couple weeks.

Water Deeply: How did the idea for the showerhead come about?

David Malcolm: I took my dad’s nozzle technology and developed it further for golf courses, and specifically golf course sprinklers.

Back in the 1990s, the sprinklers used in golf courses were distributing water in a very un-uniform pattern. So you would get big dry spots and big wet spots out on the fairways. The solution at the time was to over-irrigate so much that the dry places got wet enough that everything stayed green, but you waste a lot of water doing that. I started retrofitting golf courses. I’ve retrofitted a few thousand golf courses by now.

Water Deeply: What was the ‘Aha!’ moment when you realized this nozzle would work as a showerhead?

David Malcolm: As I would travel to golf courses with my sprinkler nozzles, the superintendents would encourage me to develop a nozzle that would go on the end of a hose for watering golf greens by hand. I started tinkering and used the same technique that my father developed to make nozzles. It was actually so unique that I was encouraged to file for a patent. I did, and I got it.

But before I’d filed for the patent I had been thinking it would make a great showerhead. I was not thinking of its application for saving water – just for a better shower.

In 2008, I started working on a showerhead. I decided that I was going to go in with a 1.5 gallon-per-minute showerhead because no one was making one at the time. It was perfect timing, because federal prisons around the country were being pressured by the White House to use less water and energy.

My showerhead is very small and made mostly of metal. There isn’t anything that could go wrong with it. As soon as I got samples into the hands of plumbers in prisons, it just started taking off. In 2010, we retrofitted our first federal prison in California.

Water Deeply: What makes the High Sierra showerhead different from other low-flow or traditional showerheads?

David Malcolm: If you look at the trend in showerheads manufactured by the big companies, they are pretty similar. The trend in showerhead design today is a plate with maybe 100 holes perforated. Now they actually put rubber nozzles in to dislodge sand or other particles that get lodged inside the nozzles. When you have a high-flowing showerhead, you have bigger holes and they aren’t as susceptible to clogging. They’ve all trended toward the same design, just made the nozzles smaller so they are flowing less water.

A traditional showerhead is about 2.5 gallons per minute; it’s been 2.5 gallons a minute since 1993 when the Department of Energy introduced new laws that regulate how much water can come out of a showerhead in the United States. They got good at making 2.5 GPM showerheads, and that is what most people have.

Then, over the years, the trend was to go even lower, down to 1.5 GPM, and that’s where a lot of people are unhappy with the performance of the new ultra-low-flow showerheads. They clog up very easily and they still have what most people consider to be fairly weak sprays.

Water Deeply: How does your technology work?

David Malcolm: This nozzle breaks up this low-pressure stream into a spray. There is a pin that crosses the hole that the water is traveling through, like a tube. On one end of the showerhead, the incoming pressure is reduced, so no matter what the pressure is coming in from your home, it will always be 10–15 pounds of pressure inside the nozzle. The showerhead is self-adjusting to the pressure.

This low-pressure stream goes across this pin and is split into two streams. The stainless steel concave orifice plate, which has an opening like an eye, cups those two streams back toward each other and they collide and come out of the orifice. That collision is what is breaking it into the stream. It’s doing it without swirl plates or anything that is moving, that collision of two streams around a pin.

Water Deeply: Can you tell me a bit about your manufacturing process? What goes into making the showerhead? Where is it made?

David Malcolm: The machine parts of the showerheads are made locally, about an hour’s drive from here, in Merced. We have them plated in Fresno, whether it’s chrome or brushed nickel. We’ve had to start adding some plastic parts to the outside of the showerhead. The body and parts are all still metal, but to improve its performance for homeowners and to improve its looks, we’ve added some plastic parts. The only parts that come from out of California would be the washers.

We bring the parts into my shop in Coarsegold, where we can assemble them using compressed air. That orifice that my dad invented is made here out of the same equipment that he used. We do all the assembly and shipping here. We sell showerheads all over the country. It’s a rarity to find showerheads made in the U.S.

Water Deeply: Can anyone install it?

David Malcolm: Yup. You just take the old one off and then you can screw our showerhead on by hand and tighten it with a wrench.

Water Deeply: Is it available in stores?

David Malcolm: We haven’t gotten to the point where we sell it in stores yet. I can see us doing it someday, but we aren’t quite there yet. I think we need to build up our brand first so that at least people will recognize it when they see it in the store. Most people gravitate to products that they are familiar with and brand names. For now, you can buy it on our website or Amazon.

Water Deeply: How much does it cost?

David Malcolm: We start at $35 each and then go from there. It depends on the model. We have different colors and finishes. We have a basic model, the classic, which we sell mainly to dorms, Air Force barracks, that sort of thing. Most people are happy with that model, but it is small. Some people want a more ornamental showerhead in their bathrooms, so I came out with the Tenaya, which is like the classic, but more decorative.

Photo courtesy of David Malcolm

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