Shower Valves
There are a bewildering array of shower faucets on the market today. Brands you have heard of your whole life, and brands that may be totally unfamiliar to you. We'll run down a list of the most popular and explain the differences.

Basic Shower Valves: All valves in showers and tub/showers are required by code to be "Anti-Scald" This means that if you are taking a shower and have the temperature adjusted the way you want it, the temperature shouldn't change much if someone flushes a toilet or turns on the dishwasher or uses water anywhere in the house. This was a common problem in older houses. "Shut off that water!" was the refrain heard from the shower for many years across the US.

There are two types of valves that will correct this problem. A pressure balanced valve and a thermostatic valve.

A pressure balncing valve uses chambers, inlets and outlets and a diaphragm in some brands, a spool in others, to separate the hot from the cold water. These spools and diaphrams move with a change of pressure. So when the valve senses a drop off in say the cold water pressure, the spool or piston moves and cuts down the hot water pressure to match. If you are in the shower, you would notice a drop off in volume, but not much in the temperature. There are several of these types of valves and all are contained in cartridges which can be changed fairly easily by taking off the valve handle, various escutchions if the internal workings ever go bad. The piston or spool style was invented first and the diaphragm style is more recent. (see pictures below)

 

The second type of "antiscald valve" is the thermostatically controlled. A cartridge filled with parrifin which melts at a particular temperature operates a piston which opens and closes a bypass thereby controlling the water temperature. The high limit needs to be set on these types of valves because they are somewhat slower acting than the pressure balancing type. They do have the added advantage of keeping the temperature the same even if you are starting to run out of hot water. The pressure balanced valve can't do this. This mechanism is contained in a cartridge and can be changed if it ever goes bad.

The last part of the valve, which has nothing to do with "anti-scald" is the mechanism that opens and closes to let the water flow out of the valve and to the showerhead. The latest and best of these mechanisms is the ceramic disk. Two highly honed, super hard ceramic disks which have holes cut into them rotate against each other. When the holes are aligned, water passes and when rotated by the valve handle so the holes are not aligned, water does not pass. These ceramic disks, while very reliable, are very brittle and do not like debris in the water. If they are going to break, they usually break when the water is first turned on because of construction debris etc. in the pipes. They are extremely reliable and last for many years and are the best of the water shut off mechanisms.

Valves using ceramic disks like the ones at left, are the best.
The second best water shut off method is the "Delta Style". In this method, two neoprene seats are pressed against a stainless steel plate. As the handle rotates the plate, holes in the plate are aligned ove the holes in the neoprene seats allowing water to pass. This is a very inexpensive shut off to manufacture so it has been copied by many faucet companies. If you have hard or a lot of minerals in your water, this is not the valve for you.
An older syle shut off mechanism is the "Moen Style" which has neoprene gaskets which are rotated against holes in the valve body. There were some companies that copied this style, but I think Moen is the only manufacturer which still makes it.

The oldest style shut off mechanism is the "rising stem". Turn the handle and the stem lifts the washers off the seats, allowing the water to flow through. As you turn the handle back, the stem's neoprene washers press against seats to shut off the water. Only one manufacturer, Symmons, still uses this obsolete technology.

Remember watching your father take apart faucets and replace the rubber washers on the bottom of the stem? That's what this mechanism has.

How do the manufacturers rate? Depends on what you want to do!
Basic Shower Valve - Top Rated - Hansgrohe

Hansgrohe makes a thermostatically controlled, ceramic disk valve that has an on off handle and a separate temperature handle. The advantage of this is obvious once you use one. You reach into your shower and rotate the large handle to turn the water on. The smaller temperature handle rotates with the large and the water comes on to precisely the same temperature as the last time you used it. You can turn the water on, off, on, off and the temperature always remains the same!

Of course you can change the temperature by rotating the smaller lever, if you want to.

All the other valves on the market (with the exception of Delta's 1700 series) only control temperature. Their handles rotate through cold to hot and each time you turn theirs on, you have to find the precise spot that gives the right temperature.

We can't say enough about the quality of Hansgrohe's valves and they are made in Germany or the US (they have a large plant outside of Atlanta) another plus in my book.

Basic Shower Valve - Second Place - Delta 1700 Series

We like this shower valve because it has separate on-off and temperature controls like the Hansgrohe. Reach into your shower and turn the large handle and the temperature warms up to the exactly the right temperature. Turn it on, off, on, off and the temperature stays the same. If you want to change the temperature, you would move the smaller lever. Remember, only the 1700 series has this feature, not the 1400 series.

Unlike the Hansgrohe, it has a pressure balancing mechanism rather than being thermostically balanced, and it does not have ceramic disks. It has the neoprene seats and springs pressed against a stainless steel plate that almost all Delta faucets use.

Because of this, we do not recommend it nearly as highly as the Hansgrohe.

Basic Shower Valves - Third Place - All The Rest

None of the rest of the manufacturers really stand out. They are all pretty generic. Decent enough valves but nothing to brag about and some still use technology which is way outdated.

They all operate by rotating the on/off handle from cold to hot, with no separate contols over temperature and volume. There are a few exceptions to this. Moen offers a push/pull, left/right type valve, but the technology is practically ancient. In fact , as the valve ages, they become harder to push and pull until people break the handle off. A few other manufacturers offer an up/down, left /right type operation which is OK for kitchen or lav faucets but not particularly easy to control water flow in the shower.

Shower Valves w/separate handheld showers
A very popular add on in a shower is a separate hand held shower. Most brands use a separate transfer valve (see picture) to transfer the water back and forth from the shower head to the handheld. All manufacturers offer handhelds.
Shower Valves w/separate handheld showers - First Place - Hansgrohe

Once again Hansgrohe dominates the competition. With its integral diverter (thermobalance II) you turn the handle to the left, and the water comes out the shower head and warms up to your preferred temperature (remember the separate temperature control we mentioned in the basic shower valve section?). Move the handle to the right and the hand held comes on the same temperature. No matter which way you turn the handle, the temperature remains the same. Quite an acheivement.

If you want them to both come on at the same time, get the Thermobance III which has a third position and allows both to come on at the same time.

Shower Valves w/separate handheld showers - Second Place - Delta 1700
Even though Delta uses the standard transfer valve like the rest of the industry, we prefer their system over others because of the operation of the main 1700 series valve with its separate control over temperature.
Shower Valves w/separate handheld showers - Third Place - Everyone Else
Shower valves with body sprays - High Volume

The picture at left shows a typical body spray set up. Most of these systems use a high volume main valve which is thermostatically controlled. The main valve is used to control temperature only and is always "on". Since it is always on, it needs separate shut offs for each device in the shower. In this case, one shut off for the shower head, one for the body sprays, and one for the handheld.

The body sprays require a balancing loop to insure each body spray receives the same amount of water flow as the others

The main valve is capable of passing anywhere from 12 to 18 gallons per minute, so if you are planning a shower like this, you'd better size your hot water system accordingly or you might be very disappointed. Your showering experience may be excellent, but only for a few minutes!

Also, for those of you who are on a well, your pump may not be able to keep up with the flow required to operate all of the devices at once.

These are excellent systems and all the major manufacturers offer them. We prefer Grohe and Hansgrohe Axor because they are the companies who invented thermostaic valves and are still the best.

Shower valves with body sprays - Low volume
If you want to save water and still have a nice showering experience, we highly recommend buying a Hansgrohe Thermobalance III and three of their low volume body sprays. With their integral diverter and thermobalanced valve, you can move the handle to one of three positions - shower head only, bodysprays only, or both at the same time. All at the same temperature!
Or add a hand shower to the Hansgrohe Thermobalance III and shift back and forth between all three. One of the outlets will only come on by itself (most people choose the handspray). The other two outlets will come on separately or together.
Shower Heads

Shower heads come in all sizes and shapes. Some have different setting from regular spray to aerated, and massage. But all are restriced to 2.5 gallons by our federal government. In this day of high energy prices, it's probably a good idea. The best shower heads use an air injection system which breaks the individual streams of water into large droplets. So the 2.5 gallons per minute feels like you are getting 3.5 or 4 gallons per minute. This technology was invented by Hansgrohe and they have licensed it to other companies like Delta. Read the literature, not all of Hansgrohe's or Delta's heads come with this technology.

Another feature you should look for are the little rubber protrusions on the face of the shower head. If scale or other particals plug these nozzles, you can rub your fingers over them to break out these particals. This system was also invented by Hansgrohe.

Tub and Shower Valves
All of the manufacturers make a tub spout diverter or a push button diverter (like those shown below). The operation of the valve is the same. Rotate the lever counter clockwise to turn the water on and set the temperature and the water comes out the spout. Pull up on the spout diverter (down on some Delta models) or push the button to get the water diverted to the shower. If you shut the water off and realize you have forgotton to wash your hair, you need to go through the same process (turn valve on to set temperature and pull/push to get the water to the shower head). The Delta 1700 series has the advantage in this category because the temperature always remains the same when you turn it on unless you have changed the small temperature lever
Tub and Shower Valves - First Place Hansgrohe

Hansgrohe wins again. The Thermobalanced II, allows you to turn the large on/off and volume lever one way for the tub and the other way for the shower. Because it has a separate temperature control, the water temperature always remains the same, no matter which way you turn the large lever. Of course you can change the temperature by rotating the smaller temperature lever.

This valve, with its ceramic disks, thermostic cartridge and integral diverter has revolutionized the plumbing industry and none of the other manufacturers have a product on the market that comes close.

What's inside the shower valves?

We took apart a few of the most popular shower valves to show what's inside. They are listed in no particular order.

If you have read any of our ratings above, you may have guessed that Hansgrohe is our favorite shower and tub/shower valve. With its large ceramic disks, thermostaic cartridge and integral diverter, it is in a class by itself. None of the other manufacturers even comes close.

 

 

Delta Faucet's 1400 series valves are pretty generic, but the 1700 series is our second choice after Hansgrohe. It has Hansgrohe's "set it and forget it" temperature control, but lacks Hansgrohe's ceramic disks and integral diverter.

Delta Faucet uses neoprene seats and springs on all its shower faucets (two sets in the 1700 series). An old plumber I used to work with told me he loved Delta faucets because he could find parts readily at any hardware store. Why is that? Think about it!

The 1700 gives you easy control over on-off and temperature separately. The operative word here is easy. One lever turns the faucet on and another lever controls temperature. The only other company that does that is Hansgrohe.

If you have really poor water with a lot of minerals in it, then Delta is not for you.

Delta has always used the rotating stainless steel ball (invented in 1954) with neoprene washers pressed against it on all their kitchen and lavatory single handle faucets and older tub shower valves. We have never liked this system because it usually starts to drip in a few years which means a call to Delta's customer service to get another free set or neoprene seats or a trip to the local hardware store to get another set (not so free, but quicker). If you are handy, you can replace them in ten or fifteen minutes. If not, then you will have to call a plumber.

Delta has recently come out with a new ceramic "diamond seal" cartridge which is a vast improvement. Only their latest kitchen and bath styles have the new cartridge, so read the literature before you buy.

 
 

Kohler's basic pressure balanced shower valve is OK. Nothing new here. It was somewhat surprising to see the Delta style springs and neoprene seats inside their stem cartridge. We had to saw the cartridge in half to get at them. If the faucet ever leaks, you have to find the entire cartridge. At least with a Delta, you can buy the springs and seats separately and in a few minutes replace the old ones.

Trying to find a replacement cartridge could be a problem. If you have the original paper work with the model numbers on it, Kohler's customer service is pretty good at sending a new one free of charge. If you have to go through a plumber, good luck! The plumber first has to identify the model and then call his local supply house. If the supply house doesn't have the correct part, they have to order it from Kohler. This whole process can take a while, especially as busy as most plumbers are.

If you have hard water or a lot of minerals, this is not the faucet for you.

Kohler's lav and kitchen faucets have used ceramic disks for a long time and we recommend them.

Kohler's valve body, and cartridges.
Kohler's diaphragm style pressure balancing cartridge.
We had to saw the Kohler cartridge in two to see the Delta style neoprene seats inside.

American Standard's basic shower valve has two cartridges. A diaphragm style pressure balancing mechanism and a ceramic disk cartridge to turn the water on and off.

The operation of the valve is the same as most of the other valves: rotate the lever through cold to hot with no control over volume. If you have a tub/shower valve, pull up on the spout diverter to get the water up to the shower head.

At least these valves have a ceramic disk shut off. We would recommend this valve much higher if American Standard had a better customer service department and the "fit and finish" of their products were better.

Moen is another company which elected to keep their old style technology. Their valves continue to use a plastic cartridge with a series of "O" rings on it or neoprene gaskets and holes drilled in it to shut off the water. Variations of this cartridge is used on all their single handle kitchen and lav faucets. This cartridge has proven fairly reliable, so Moen has elected to keep it rather than spend millions on redesigning all their valve bodies to accept ceramic disks.

I remember the first time I was called to replace a cartridge on an old leaky Moen kitchen faucet. In spite of using all my strength ( I was younger then and had a fair amount) I couldn't pull it out. After a quick call to a more experienced plumber, I found that I needed a "stem puller" specific to Moen faucets. After a trip to my local plumbing wholesaler to find this stem puller, the cartridge came out.

I used to get quite a few customers hunting for the plastic handles for their Moentrol shower faucets, because as their valve aged, they had to pull and push harder and harder on the handle until it broke off. This valve is still in use today.

Moen has come out with an "Exact Temp" thermostatically contolled shower valve and it may be equipped with ceramic disks, but I haven't seen a cartridge yet.

Price Pfister's shower and tub/shower valves are pretty generic. They all use the Delta neoprene and spring system as does Kohler, Delta and many other brands including most of the Chinese valves. Plumbers (including this one) have always rated Price Pfister very poorly. Just ask one. I think Price Pfister has made improvements over the years and are not as bad as they used to be.

At least their single handle lav and kitchen faucets use a ceramic disk cartridge

Symmons is a company which still uses the "rising stem" type of mechanism in their shower valves. Remember watching your father take apart faucets and put new rubber washers on them? In fact, their valves uses two seats and two washers, a hot and a cold. In spite of this, their valves remain popular, especially with plumbers and hotel chains because the basic models are so inexpensive. When a plumber bids a house, he will normally bid the cheapest fixtures he can get his hands on and the Symmons is certainly that. It is not the plumbers fault: he is bidding against other plumbers and must keep his price down or he won't get any work. The handle and large round escutcheon are both plastic and if you have an old valve that needs repaired, a handle puller is a must. Otherwise you will be adding a handle to your parts list.

This valve was invented back in the 1940's or 50's and was quite revolutionary. But technology has past Symmons by. It is not one of our favorites because the piston which does the pressure balancing sometimes sticks, especially in summer homes or in spare bathrooms where they are not used every day, or in houses which have water with a lot of minerals. When this happens, you will probably need to call a plumber to replace the valve stem cartridge unless you are handy and can locate a cartridge. If the brass seats are bad, you would need a special tool to change them.