Nell Butler

What a shower!

Why do we put up with pathetic trickles when foreigners have power showers? Because we are mean and timid, says Nell Butler

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I'm in a Swiss mountain village. I've spent the day glacier skiing, and now I'm showering in my steamy hotel bathroom. The water is crashing off my ample curves, my muscles are aching pleasantly and I'm looking forward to a convivial evening. But, damn, it's difficult to get out of this shower – it's just too good. Every jet of water has zest and purpose, the shower head is big and shiny, and the water has a creamy quality. There's no crusty limescale, the temperature is precisely 42 degrees, and it's thrillingly powerful. It's perfect. And, as I stand, gasping, under this cascade of hot, bubbly, foreign water it sets me wondering: why are British showers so utterly pathetic when compared with the uninhibited spurt of our Continental cousins?

Let us begin with the conspiracy theory. Some say the privatised water companies have reduced mains pressure in order to decrease the quantity of water lost through leakage (they get hefty fines for bad leaks). British pipework is old and slightly fragile, and more likely to burst if you're pumping water through it at high pressure. The firemen complained a few years ago that the water pressure wasn't high enough to tackle big blazes. They claimed water companies were dropping mains pressure in order to hit leakage targets. Of course the water companies deny it; but even if it is true, it is not the whole story.

The real reason why our internal water pressure is so feeble is that we Brits have a completely absurd system. We transfer all our water from the mains supply into storage tanks, whence gravity returns it to the rest of the house. Archie, a top plumber with a delicious Scottish accent, explains that until recently we were legally obliged, for hygiene reasons, to keep a cold-water storage tank. If the water was cut off, or there was a shortage, we had to be able to flush our loos. So we have a cold-water storage tank, and also a hot-water tank that stores water heated by a separate gas boiler. We position these tanks as high as possible, and then rely on gravity. But gravity can never match mains pressure.

Why do we put up with it? Membership of the EU has brought us in line with Continental plumbing standards. We no longer have to keep a reserve water supply in a tank in the attic. So why don't we install internal pumps and boosters, like our friends overseas? In California everyone has their water pumped. It's completely normal – they all have mega-power 'massage' showers, and, consequently, they all glow with health. In Australia they take their water straight off the mains. Hot and cold water powers all round the house at mains pressure. I rang Uncle Richard in Melbourne to get a better understanding of their system. 'It's very simple,' he told me kindly. 'Our system's better because we're Aussies and you're loser Poms.' (He followed this up with a succinct email that claimed 22.2-litres-per-minute flow in the shower from hot water alone ...Grrrrr.)

The only answer I can come up with is old-fashioned British inertia. We don't like change. For reasons of thrift, regulations and a stubborn attachment to tradition, we Brits have resisted the tide of plumbing history. Add to conservatism our inherent puritanism. We're suspicious of power showers because they smack of luxury. The same is true of our attitude to mixer taps. Americans are driven mad by the fact that we have separate hot and cold water taps in our bathrooms. Decades ago, they embraced the 'single-spigot mixer tap', one tap that delivers hot and cold water ready mixed for hand-washing. We, by contrast, stick with separate taps and wash our hands in water that's either freezing cold or piping hot.

The Savoy Hotel in London (where I spent my wedding night in an alcoholic coma) is one place where Americans can be guaranteed a satisfactory shower. The showers, affectionately known as 'Monsoons', deliver a gallon of water in four seconds (my shower takes nearly a minute to deliver the same amount). A series of pumps keeps the pressure at 5.4Bar and the impressive maintenance manager I spoke to claimed that they have the capacity to raise this to 10Bar. (He talked about his system with the same reverence a Formula One driver might talk about car engines.) On one visit to the Savoy, Elton John put the plug in, started his shower running, then took a call from the States. Half an hour later he had flooded Raquel Welch in the suite below, and Barbra Streisand in the suite below that. Richard Harris was so taken with the showers that, in a fit of machismo, he decided that he wanted double the pressure. The obliging maintenance team took the 12-inch shower head and used a drill to enlarge every single little hole (350 in total) to double the size (from 1mm to 2mm). Richard Harris enjoyed a gallon of water cascading over his head every two seconds. Very sobering.

Of course, power showers aren't environmentally friendly. Water is a scarce resource (depending on the weather) and there are costs involved in cleaning and delivering it. Californians regularly get through 59 gallons of water during a good shower, making showers more water-costly than big 40 gallon baths. If you're metered, you pay for the water you use, so installing a power shower might directly affect your bills. On the other hand, using an efficient boiler is fantastically energy-saving, an argument that squares the environmental circle.

We may never achieve Californian levels of excess, but if you want to improve your shower experience you have three options. Option one: install a pump. It will cost you about £400 to £600 and takes a plumber a couple of hours to install. It'll give you a Californian glow, and a sense of superiority over your neighbours. (One word of warning – my mother-in-law installed a pump that was so powerful it blasted her feeble British grouting clean away, leading to endless expensive leaks.)

Option two: get yourself a closed-vent system and take all your water straight from the mains. I love this idea. My neighbour Philip, who has a PhD in know-how, reminds me that the conversion to mains pressure will show up duff original plumbing – more leaks all over the place – but he's taken the plunge and raves about the results. He's even invited me round to watch his bath fill at speed. I was hoping the conversion would free up some storage space (I fantasise about a linen cupboard) but Philip tells me that you still have a tank with this system – a fancy high-pressure one rather than the shiny copper one with the woolly jacket – and you keep your existing boiler.

The third, and final, option was suggested to me by a savvy plumber called Steve. The cheapest way to get a more powerful shower, he tells me, is simply to reduce the size of your shower head. You use exactly the same amount of water, but it comes out faster. It's all to do with the relationship between pressure and flow – and, if you think abo