The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s big policy win: Stronger showers, faster dishwashers. It’s something almost no one asked for.

One change he talked about frequently won’t happen: A reversal of water limits on toilet flushes

A reflection of the White House on a raindrop on the grounds of the Presidential home in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump was on a roll, standing before an adoring crowd in Carson City, Nev., just a couple of weeks before the 2020 election, and letting loose with a favorite campaign-trail complaint: Dishwashers don’t work like they used to. Shower heads dribble. Toilets are slow.

It was hard to tell how seriously to take Trump. The topic was light. It wasn’t tax cuts or covid-19. The crowd cheered and laughed as he talked. Trump teased that he really shouldn’t even be talking about “the fact that people have to flush their toilet 15 times.” But showers were the worst, he said.

“No water comes out. And me, I want that hair to be so beautiful,” he said.

A few days later, the Trump administration rolled back long-standing rules for dishwashers to allow them to consume unlimited amounts of water and energy. Then in late December, the Department of Energy announced it had changed the rules for shower heads and washing machines to allow the water to really pour out.

Trump won’t get his southern border wall finished before he leaves office. Obamacare has not been repealed. “Infrastructure week” never came. And while he has notched some notable policy wins, such as immigration limits, it is Trump’s push to deregulate common household appliances that remains a puzzling policy success.

Last summer, Trump described his push as aimed at “bringing back consumer choice in home appliances.” He was echoed by Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette this month when he said in a release that the administration’s rule changes “affirmed its commitment to reducing regulatory burdens and safeguarding consumer choice.”

But almost no one was asking for these choices.

Consumers were not clamoring. Manufacturers of shower heads and dishwashers found themselves in the unusual spot of mostly opposing the proposed changes, saying there was no need. Consumer and environmental advocacy groups objected, arguing the changes were costly and wasteful. Product testing firms cast doubt on the purported benefits of the proposals.

“It was a regulatory solution in search of a problem — a problem that doesn’t really exist,” said Kerry Stackpole, executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International, a leading trade group.

Speaking to reporters at a business roundtable at the White House on Dec. 6, President Trump railed against poor water pressure in different parts of the countr (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s drive to make toilets, dishwashers great again collides with companies, product testing

One of the few cheerleaders for the new rules was the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Between the dishwasher rule and the two other ones that came out, we think it’s nice that Washington is finally doing things that will stop consumers from being soaked,” said Sam Kazman, the conservative-leaning advocacy group’s general counsel.

Trump was targeting water and energy regulations that had been on the books for decades in some cases, since Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. President Barack Obama’s administration made changes to some of the regulations. But the rules were a rare area where conservationists and manufacturers shared broad agreement on the goal of saving water and energy.

At first, when most of the new regulations were introduced in the 1990s, companies struggled to create efficient products that performed well. It wasn’t easy to slash water use in shower heads by 30 percent or toilets by more than half without creating problems. Then the engineers and designers went to work.

Today, product testing groups say, these appliances by and large work better than ever.

But then Trump began criticizing them.

“Anybody have a new dishwasher?” Trump asked the crowd at a campaign rally in Milwaukee last January. “I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for that. It's worthless. They give you so little water.”

“So, shower heads,” Trump said at the White House in July. “You take a shower, the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. So what do you do? You just stand there longer or you take a shower longer? Because my hair — I don’t know about you, but it has to be perfect. Perfect.”

Trump seemed to have found a topic with broad appeal.

“It became a regular riff in the last 12 months,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a consumer and environmental advocacy group. “It sent off a fervor at the agencies.”

The Energy 202: Trump wants to make dishwashers great again. The Energy Department has a new rule for that.

DeLaski said he could imagine agency staff wondering, “Now what do we do?”

This was different from another product Trump targeted for abuse: lightbulbs.

Trump complained energy-efficient lightbulbs made him look orange. In late 2019, his administration blocked an energy-efficiency rule that would have banned the sale of most halogen and incandescent bulbs on Jan. 1, 2020.

But the new rules also had faced opposition from the lighting industry. And consumers, too, had concerns about the disappearance of incandescent bulbs.

Trump’s problems with shower heads and dishwashers seemed to be shared by a much narrower audience.

“The marketplace was not asking for this,” Stackpole said.

Trump’s administration also couldn’t just create new efficiency standards. The rules were contained in laws passed by Congress. So his administration was forced to nibble around the edges.

Policy surrounding dishwashers was the long-running effort. The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a petition in 2018 asking the government to allow for a new, faster class of dishwashers. The stated goal was a cycle time under one hour. And that could be achieved by lifting caps on water use, according to the petition.

Dishwasher makers objected, arguing customers weren’t asking for this. They also pointed out that the one-hour option could be found on almost all dishwashers shipped since 2017.

But the Department of Energy passed a rule allowing for this new class of dishwashers in October.

A similar rule was passed for laundry washers and dryers in December.

Trump blamed energy-saving bulbs for making him look orange. Experts say probably not.

The Trump administration’s new shower head rule didn’t simply permit unlimited amounts of water. Shower heads were still capped at 2.5 gallons per minute. Instead, the agency offered a new interpretation of existing rules, stating that water flow should be measured by each shower head, not the total for a shower stall. So multiple shower heads could be used together to put out more water.

A shower with an overhead rainfall head and a separate shower sprayer could put out 5 gallons per minute, for example.

One popular item is what the industry calls an octopus shower head, with at least three heads tied together — even eight heads. The old rules limited that kind of shower head’s entire output to 2.5 gallons per minute. The new rules allow for 7.5 gallons per minute with three heads.

That would empty a residential water heater pretty fast, said Stackpole.

“And you’ll feel like you’re drowning,” he said.

With the term winding down, the Trump administration has shown no signs of rolling back rules for water faucets or toilets, advocacy groups said.

Trump’s talk of toilets was the part of his appliance complaints where his audience laughed, and the president liked to accuse the media of paying too much attention. Federal rules limit toilets to 1.6 gallons per flush, down from 3.5 or even 5 gallons per flush. Some states have set even stricter limits to conserve water.

But a new federal toilet rule appears likely to be left unfinished when Trump leaves office.