Dear Umbra,

The biggest waster of energy in our house right now is our 15-year-old daughter, whose never-ending daily showers must surely be responsible for warming the planet another half-degree. No matter how loudly we bang on the bathroom door and scream for her to stop, she showers on — 20, 30 minutes at a time. And yes, we have a low-flow showerhead and our water heater is set to 120 degrees. Is there any kind of device — one that isn’t too dear and doesn’t require a plumber — that can curb the wasteful shower habits of a teenage girl? I’m partial to the pay showers you use at the state parks, the type that shuts off after 3 minutes, but that looks expensive and would probably require a plumber. A decent waterproof timer, even, would be useful for everyone in the household to remind them to keep it short.

Katherine Z.
Seattle, Wash.

Dearest Katherine,

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Your first million awaits you. There is a crying need for a home shower auto-shutoff valve that even the plumbing novice can install. Design this device and parents of teens around the showering nations will deluge you with cash and praise. I can’t find one. The closest I can come are devices that annoy the showerer into stopping. Most of my usual half-baked Umbra-O-Matic ideas are also annoyance-based, though we will address reason and logic at the end.

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“Mooooom, I’m in the shower!”

Photo: iStockphoto

Before engaging the Umbra-O-Matic, let us reflect on the urgency of the issue. The Department of Energy estimates that heating water accounts for 14 to 25 percent of household energy consumption. Although water use is a concern, it is this energy consumption that we wish to reduce. Exactly how much energy goes toward heating water in your own household depends on the efficiency of the heater, as well as how much it is used (long showers included), the temperature setting on the heater, whether hot water pipes and heater are insulated, and other factors. Given the amount of household energy in play, shower length is certainly something we should evaluate and curtail in our homes.

I did find one timer that stops the shower after a certain time and energy use has passed, but I believe it may only work with on-demand hot water systems. I found another that runs for a period of water flow and then emits an annoying noise until the shower is turned off — maybe your best bet, timer-wise. There are also various waterproof shower timers on the market, just regular timers with a waterproof cover, which you will find on the internet under “waterproof timer.” Please shop carefully and try to avoid vinyl.

With a little extra effort on your part, you can personally be more annoying than any buzzer. Trouble is, the showers just may continue to annoy you as well as your daughter. My most drastic ideas involve ending the shower yourself. Have you tried marching into the bathroom and turning the shower off for her? I understand the bathroom door might have a lock, but it can be removed without hiring a plumber. In order for this tactic to be remotely fair, you would need to have a clock in the shower, so that she can pace herself through the allotted showering time before you summarily shut off the faucet. Or, if you don’t want to invade the bathroom, set a time limit on her showers, let her know what it is, and get a kitchen timer to carry in your pocket. When she starts the shower, start the timer. When the timer goes off, turn off the hot water pipe at the water heater. Voila, her water will be cold only, shower will end.

I have another drastic idea, but it does involve plumbing: get rid of your current showerhead. Attach a hand-held shower nozzle instead, but no mount for the nozzle. Everyone will have to hold the nozzle with one hand while they desperately try to suds themselves with the other. No one’s shower will last long and houseguests will be baffled.

Since none of these techniques is ideal, I wonder if you might back up a step to the negotiation phase. I understand that these long showers are annoying and persistent and do use quite a bit of hot water. Without fair negotiation, though, I’m not sure you will effect any lasting change (lasting here meaning two weeks or longer).

Did you already try to calmly sit down with your daughter at a non-shower time, and go over why shorter showers are important to you? In this conversation, did you lay out the consequences of longer showers on your household budget and her future planet? You also might try to challenge her to find a larger waste of energy in the household. If she can, then you need to reduce that energy consumption in fairness to her shower efforts. If her showers are truly the largest waste, lay out a series of consequences for her related to the environmental consequences: docking her allowance based on her share of the water heating bill, for example.

Finally, although I know this will not make me sound properly environmental: you only have a few more years with her in the house. These years are either precious or already full of conflict or both. My final solution: Try to limit her hot-water use, and then (is she reading this?) give up. She may eventually grow out of the endless shower.