Can This Water-Recycling Shower Save $1,000 in Bills?
A Swedish industrial designer hopes his unique filtration system is the answer for rising water costs
Ireland is one of those rare places where it seems like clean water flows with abundance. But that’s all about to change as the government has recently begun installing underground water meters in preparation to become the last European country to charge for water usage, as reserves from rivers and lakes dwindle as a result of rising demand, leakage issues and the effects of climate change.
The milestone of sorts underscores the sobering reality of fresh water being a limited resource that’s quickly becoming scarcer in virtually every populated region of the world. While it’s most heavily felt in developing regions, such as Africa and South America, where 780 million people don’t have access to clean pipeable water, a study in the Journal Nature forecasts that large swaths of East Asia and Europe will be hit hard as water supplies diminish. So, does that mean that we’re all destined to inhabit a world so constrained by evaporating reservoirs that everyone will be forced to make due with flushing and showering less frequently?
It’s this framework of environmental conservation by austerity, wherein people assume they have to scale back from a certain standard of living to help save the planet, that entrepreneurs like Mehrdad Mahdjoubi find to be wrongheaded. For one, fresh water is a renewable resource that already gets replenished partially through the naturally-occurring water cycle. The real problem, the Swedish industrial designer points out, is that about 95 percent of the water delivered to households goes down the drain. A 10-minute shower, for instance, can waste as much as 40 gallons of water.
That’s where Mahdjoubi’s invention, the OrbSys Shower, can really make a splash. For a 10-minte shower, the closed-loop system utilizes an advanced real-time water filtration system to continuously heat, sanitize and pump a set amount of water measuring as little as 1.5 gallons as it flows from the shower head, down to the drain and then re-circulates back again. Mahdjoubi‘s company, Orbital Systems, claims that it has conducted internal studies that suggest his water recycling technology cuts water usage on average by 90 percent and energy by 80 percent compared to standard showers. In economic terms, he estimates that having a unit installed can translate to a combined water and energy savings of at least €1,000 ($1,351) annually for each person.
“We developed this system based on the values of the future consumer,” says Mahdjoubi. “They’ll eventually be looking at how smart or how efficient a product is while also not having to sacrifice the comforts that people are used to.”
The most common knock on existing shower water recirculating systems is that it requires a noticeable reduction in water pressure. In contrast, Mahdjoubi says the Orbsys system actually improves upon the overall shower experience. Performance enhancements include a dedicated heating unit to maintain a steady, uninterrupted water temperature and beefed-up pressurization that maxes out at a little over six gallons per minute, a notable boost in contrast to the four gallons per minute rate offered by regular household systems. The filtration process was designed to remove 99.9 percent of contaminants, including viruses, to ensure that the water quality is at a level where it’s even safe to drink.
Inspiration for a water-filtering shower came while Mahdjoubi was a student at the University of Lund in Sweden and assigned to work on an undisclosed project at NASA’s Johnson Space Center aimed at helping astronauts survive lengthy space missions. The fact that the International Space Station is equipped with a toilet that recycles urine back into drinking water should give you an idea of how limited basic resources are aboard the satellite. After securing commercial funding, he consulted experts from several fields, including medical engineers who specialized in blood recycling dialysis systems, to assemble and test viable prototypes.
Though the Swedish industrial designer remains tight-lipped about how the technology works, a patent application available online reveals a dual filtering process in which a pre-filter device catches large debris such as hair and dirt while a primary absorbs finer contaminants like bacteria and viruses. The only maintenance required on the part of the user is to replace the filter about once a month, a quick-swapping procedure Mahdjoubi himself demonstrated on CNN’s Blueprint.
However, the technology blog Extreme Tech has disputed Orbital Systems’ 1,000 euro annual savings figure as wildly exaggerated. In an analysis, writer Sebastian Anthony argues that the number should be closer to $200 a year if you take into account that realistically homeowners would be charged a rate of about 15 cents per kWh. He’s naturally also dismissive of the company’s claim that it would take only two years for the shower system to pay for itself since they wouldn’t disclose a total cost for the system and suspects the number was derived from the same “crazy” estimate. When asked, Mahdjoubi declined to declare a hard number for how long it would take for ownership to be cost-effective, reasoning that calculating such an exact point in time would vary depending on the user and region of the world.
“It would depend on the actual behavior,” he explains. “If you don’t use it very often then it’ll take you longer to recoup that money.”
The first two commercial shower units have been installed and put in use at Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, a coastal bathing house in Malmo, Sweden where more 1,000 guests visit during the summer to bathe, swim and before showering off. With the booths constantly occupied throughout the day, Mahdjoubi says the owners have already saved over 100,000 liters (26,417 gallons) and have placed an order for more showers units. Other customers awaiting being to have units installed include a nursing home and sports arena, both of which are located in Sweden.
While the heavy-duty systems are currently only available for businesses within Scandinavia, Mahdjoubi hopes to expand to other parts of Europe within two years. Also in the works is a scaled-down home edition that’s designed to be more affordable, hopefully.