The Nebia is taking silicon valley by storm, but it’s just a tiny step on the way to real conservation.
Image courtesy of Nebia
The world is currently going crazy over a showerhead. A sleek circular fixture known as the Nebia (a play on the Italian word for mist), the device uses an atomized water dispersion system adapted from agricultural and industrial technology to release a thick mist that manages to get you as clean as a traditional stream of hot water. Testers describe using the Nebia as akin to stepping into a cloud, a revolutionary experience compared to traditional showers.
But it’s not the showering experience that has people obsessed with the Nebia. Nor is it the compelling tale of the trendy device’s five-year developmental journey, starting in Mexico City and ending in Silicon Valley, or even the inventors’ approach to winning backers by asking them to take a test shower. Instead, the fascination comes from the showerhead’s purported water-saving potential, a feature of the product that has investors and beta testers flocking to its aid. As events like the California drought prove just how vital water conservation technology will become to everyday consumers in the coming years, everyone seems eager to jump on board with this possibly earth-shaking, potentially very lucrative innovation.
According to the fixture’s inventors, the Nebia’s dispersion system manages to cover ten times the surface area of a traditional showerhead, but uses just .75 gallons of water per minute on its normal setting (and only slightly more on its high-pressure setting). Compared to the Environmental Protection Agency standard of 2.5 gallons per minute, the Nebia could reduce water use by 60 to 70 percent per shower. Considering that in 2013, the EPA estimated Americans use 1.2 trillion gallons of water a year for showers, if everyone in the nation installed a Nebia that would potentially yield a savings of 720 to 840 billion gallons of water per year—not too shabby for a showerhead. It’s this promise, to help America address water security in the future while providing a fascinating and enjoyable shower experience, that has captivated investors like Apple’s Tim Cook, testers like Equinox Gyms, and 7,151 backers on Kickstarter. As of this morning, the company’s crowdfunders alone have pitched in $2,587,485 with 14 days to go on the campaign (well above the company’s $100,000 goal), pitching in to help the system ship to a mass market by May 2016.
Yet while those numbers sound promising, and the Nebia is a cool innovation that I for one would love to try, there are a lot of exciting water conservation technologies on the market that are even more promising than this showerhead. Not all of these inventions are as sexy as the Nebia. But many of them are better positioned to help conserve a far greater amount of water than a simple 70 percent savings in home showers ever could.
To start with, there’s actually a more effective water-conserving showerhead technology already out there. Based on astronaut water recycling systems and launched in 2013 by a Swedish inventor, the OrbSys Shower uses a patented water recycling system to keep a small amount of water in a closed, self-purifying loop that ultimately uses 90 percent less water than traditional American showers. The OrbSys also allows for less intuitive but more sophisticated personalized adjustments than the Nebia (although it’s a classic stream shower) using a tablet control panel. As the shower’s purification system cleans out 99.9 percent of contaminants, leaving behind water that’s cleaner than what comes out of most American taps, some hope that this technology could be used for water supply systems beyond showers in water-poor parts of the world. It’s already been piloted to some acclaim at a bathhouse in Sweden, and just earlier this year the team behind the (literally) space age device announced that they want to start a wider launch of the product within the year, although details on that distribution are still pending.
Granted, the Nebia is easier to install than this floor-to-ceiling rig, and much cheaper. The OrbSys currently has no official price tag, but experts estimate it will retail for $2,000 or more. The OrbSys designers claim it will pay for itself within two years via water and energy bill savings (they say the shower uses 80 percent less energy for heating water than traditional setups as well), though observers think that they’re vastly inflating annual savings, which for most people would be something like $200 per year. Meanwhile the Nebia retails for $400 (now that early-bird deals for as low as $250 have run out on Kickstarter). But that’s still way above the $7 you can pay for a simple attachment that will save 40 percent of your shower’s water usage.
The OrbSys shower. Image courtesy of Orbital Systems.
But more importantly, neither of these shower systems can really put a big dent in the world’s water shortages. Personal water usage accounts for only a sliver of total water usage; agriculture alone accounts for 70 percent of all the freshwater pumped around the globe. And in the United States, showers only account for 17 percent of personal water usage, behind toilets and washing machines. In 2013 alone, piping and storage systems in the developing world lost about 4.3 trillion gallons of water a year thanks to leaks and ruptures. The water saved through installing Nebia or OrbSys showers would be negligible compared to this. The Nebia’s own inventors have stated that if everyone installed their product in California, it would only decrease statewide water usage by 1.5 percent at best. And it won’t be available or affordable in the most direly thirsty and geopolitically water-sensitive regions of the world, like India or the Middle East.
There have been some cool developments in no-water toilets over the years (which GOOD has covered incessantly) that would likely conserve far more water than the Nebia or OrbSys and be easier to export to and install in the developing countries where those water savings are needed most. But the most exciting, yet unsexy, water conservation developments are currently occurring in distribution system monitoring and release technologies. These systems use wireless signals to detect leaks in pipes and allow rapid repair, or automatically redirect or shut off distribution systems as soon as needs have been met. This kind of system is one of the few technological advances with a shot at tackling the world’s biggest water losses, and one that wouldn’t be hard to implement around the globe. But really, you could accomplish a lot, as it turns out, just by making sure that everyone in the world has access to established conservation technologies for agriculture and horticulture, like drip irrigation—widely available since the 1970s and highly efficient, compared to still widely used and wasteful flood irrigation systems.
Layout of a drip irrigation system
Granted, a lot more focus seems to be placed these days on water recycling, desalination, and other means of pumping more water into our consumption systems, rather than reducing usage. So we could use more conservation innovation than we have. But rather than getting caught up in the sleek design and relatively modest water savings of personal devices like the Nebia, we need to look at the bigger picture, focusing on unsexy pipe and reservoir monitoring and repair systems, large-scale agricultural fixes, and the widespread dissemination of the effective water-saving technologies we already have.
Every little drop in the bucket helps. But we have to recognize that drop for what it is in larger scheme of things, even in a wealthy nation where some people can actually afford an opulent device like the Nebia. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that by doing our little part, we’ve done all that’s needed for water conservation. But adopting and promoting fixes like the Nebia is not anywhere near enough. Devices like this are just the first, smallest step, and admittedly, a good way to generate the excitement and conversation around the idea of water conservation. And maybe, if we can use that excitement to make innovations like pipe and reservoir monitoring and repair technology seem a little sexier, we can finally take a real bite out of our water issues.