Review: High Sierra Shower Head
article & images by Nick Salazar
Jan 14, 2013
It will come as no surprise to TriRig readers that I am a voracious consumer of gadgets and gizmos across every facet of my life. That is, my gear mongering is not limited to the world of triathlon. And I'm a bit obsessed with my shower at the moment, not only for the reasons described on the previous page, but because we recently remodeled ours. One of the changes we made was to replace our traditional large-tank water heater with a new-fangled tankless model. The tankless doesn't store any water at all, but instead has a very high-power element that heats the water flowing through it, instantly. Any time you ask for hot water, it turns on. Otherwise it's off. It's nice because it saves energy versus constantly heating and re-heating a huge volume of water, and because with the tankless, you never run out of hot water. To me, that last bit was the big selling point: I'd be able to take hot showers as long as I wanted, and never run out of steamy hot water.
But, because of the specifics of the unit we bought, we knew we'd have to be conscious of our total water draw. That is, our tankless water heater can only pump out about three gallons per minute of hot water, at maximum. The typical shower head draws 2.5 gallons per minute, and although some of that is cold water, it's approaching the maximum bandwidth of our heater. So we knew we had to look at lower flow shower heads to make it all work.
Now, I've used high-efficiency heads in the past, and was always let down. They were either too misty, too stingy, affected the temperature, had unusably small spray diameters, or all of the above. But the High Sierra shower head claimed to have got all those problems licked. It claims to use a novel, patented spray method that would deliver "a pleasing, stimulating shower while saving water, energy, and money."
Those were some bold claims. But the radical design was intriguing, and I always love to see whether a smartly-built, minimal design can deliver on its promises. So, with some healthy skepticism, I decided to try out the High Sierra.
At first glance, there's very little going on with this shower head. And honestly, that was the first thing I loved about it. I'm rather fed up with shower heads that boast a huge variety of modes, nearly all of which are completely useless. For every shower head I've ever owned, there has been exactly ONE mode that worked well, and a bunch of gimmicky modes and extraneous orifices that would have been better left out of the product. These superfluous features are a real drawback in a plumbing fixture, because they only introduce the chance of leaks and drips. By contast, the High Sierra shower head has just one opening from which water comes out (more on that later), and it has just one mode: on. There's nothing to set, tweak, or alternate. The High Sierra website has a nice explanation of how the shower head works. The only adjustment is a circular angle, set by a ball-and-socket joint. The action on that joint is easy and smooth, and feels quite reliable.
On that note, the overall build quality of the shower head is excellent. Everything feels solid and well-constructed. Nearly everything on the unit is metal, except for the rubber seals, and the translucent outer sleeve, which is made of thick ABS plastic. The unit is heavy, and feels like it's made for years and years of service. This isn't the flimsy, chintzy plastic you'll find in most department-store shower heads. This thing is built to last. Perhaps the best testament to its longevity is the fact that these shower heads are sold to prisons and other public use facilities, where durability and anti-vandalism are crucial to the success of the product. It's strange to think about it in those terms, but I have no doubt that this product will hold up in those environments, and will certainly stand up to any abuse the home user can dish out.
Installation is a breeze, especially because of how small the product is. You literally just screw it onto your shower plug by hand, optionally tighten if necessary (I did need to tighten about an eighth of a turn with a wrench). I also put teflon tape on the plug threads, which is optional but not necessary according to High Sierra.
The outer translucent outer sleeve isn't just an aesthetic feature; that sleeve directs the spray of the water and dictates the angle of the spray. But it does offer some aesthetics to the device; you can order the shower head with a variety of different-colored sleeves. I imagine most people will just want the clear version. But I wouldn't mind seeing one in snazzy TriRig orange! (Update: we DID get a custom orange showerhead; see the image in the gallery below.)
The only complaint we could come up with came from my wife; Mrs. TriRig noted that it might be nice to have a handheld version with a hose attachment. Well, the High Sierra guys have already got that sorted out. The handheld version exists, and it looks great. At present, it only includes the handle; you have to supply the mounting bracket and the hose itself. But High Sierra plans to stock those parts in the near future.
The core element of the High Sierra showerhead is in the way it disperses its spray. Virtually every other showerhead on the market uses an array of pinhole openings to spray water at you. Take a look at your current shower head; chances are it has a dozen or more tiny jets all over its face. The High Sierra, by contrast, has just ONE opening from which the water sprays out. And that single opening is all the head uses to produce its entire spray. The way it works, according to inventor David Malcolm, is relatively simple, and described in the patent he holds on the design. Basically, the relatively turbulence-free water coming out of your faucet is disturbed by an internal pin just behind the opening of the nozzle, forcing the stream to split in two. It then comes back together at the tiny cone-shaped opening, and when the two parts collide, they create the spray. The key to the size, shape, and quality of the spray are partly determined by the shaping and positioning of its elements, but also by the water pressure coming out of the nozzle. The High Sierra uses a pressure regulator to keep the quality of the spray almost perfectly consistent, regardless of what the input pressure is like. Anything from 30 psi to 80 psi of input pressure will result in almost identical output.
And although it's a small wonder that the tiny opening of the High Sierra results in such a large-diameter spray, it's important to note that the opening is significantly larger than the tiny pinhole jets of your typical shower head. This means that the chance of a clog on the High Sierra is reduced virtually to zero. On the other hand, Malcolm says, the typical pinhole jets always end up clogging due to small undissolved solids that get stuck in the small openings. And as the manufacturers of these models attempt to compete in the low-flow market, their design solution to reduce flow is almost invariably just to reduce the diameter of those holes further, which in turn exacerbates their tendency to clog.
Now, that all sounds great in theory, but how does this guy work in practice? Hit the jump for more of the nitty gritty with the High Sierra shower head, and my conclusions about the unit.