THE NEBIA TEAM has a very hard job. The young company is trying to reengineer the shower, a home appliance most of us use every day. Its goals are lofty: to not only build a business and create a brand that will sustain for years, but also to dramatically impact the environment through home water conservation.
But none of that stuff is the hard part. The hard part is asking people—lots and lots of people—to strip down and give their shower a test run.
“It’s no small feat,” cofounder and CEO Philip Winter says. “It’s not like, ‘Hey try my app and let me know what you think!’ But that’s also been the best part.”
I believe him, because after some gentle prodding, I disrobed in Nebia’s bathroom and took a shower, with a handful of witnesses watching my reaction and listening for feedback. (And just FYI, I wore what is basically a wetsuit.)
Before diving into the very inventive technical aspects of Nebia and its decidedly non-Silicon Valley origins, you need to know what it feels like.
One second you’re totally dry, and the next you’re completely soaked. There isn’t any “getting into” the stream—you turn it on, and it’s like you’re standing inside a thick, soaking patch of mist. The pressure is light, almost skin-prickling, so you don’t so much feel it as just get enveloped by it. But the real test: Can it wash out shampoo? I’m happy to say yes it can; I didn’t have to return to the office with a head full of dried soap.
“It’s very immersive,” Winter says. “You walk in and immediately you’re wet—you don’t have to step into the stream and move your body around this wide surface area, but you’re still immediately wet.” Even more poetic yet: “People says it’s like stepping into a warm cloud.”
It’s an apt description: Unlike a traditional shower head, Nebia sort of surrounds you with a thick mist of tiny water droplets. There’s no stream of water projecting toward you. The tiny droplets spread out inside the shower space and consume you. It’s like a steam room, but one that, well, actually gets you clean. There are two settings: a lighter, mistier option, and a more traditional high-pressure option if you aren’t on board with the airiness of Nebia.
This isn’t just a fancy shower for the sake of fancy showers, though. The company claims its device will yield massive water savings if you swap your old shower head for this new one (up to 70 percent). It’s a device that slots in perfectly with the groundswell of conservation-minded design thinking in drought-stricken Silicon Valley. Oddly, the concept of Nebia came together far outside that storied hub of innovation—south of the border in Mexico City.
Same Problems, Different Places
Five years ago, Winter was living in Mexico City, working at an NGO fellowship when he was looking for a side project. The NGO’s chairman, Carlos Gomez Andonaegui, had formerly run a chain of gyms where his major pain point was the cost and the environmental impact of the water usage in the facilities. He and his father (the former country manager of IBM) had been experimenting with shower head designs that conserved water, and he invited Winter to join them.
Winter had previously worked at a startup that made composting toilets for developing countries without access to water—and began to help develop prototypes. As the device’s design matured, the team decided they could make a greater environmental impact if they sold the water-saving shower head as a beautifully designed consumer home appliance.
So to Silicon Valley they went. Things moved quickly. Soon, Nebia had brought on a third co-founder, Gabriel Parisi-Amon, a former Apple iPhone engineer who took a shower with the Nebia at Winter’s apartment and was intrigued.
“So I’m standing under it, and one of the things I realize is that it’s really hard to explain,” says Parisi-Amon. “You tell people it’s fundamentally different and they’re like, ‘Whatever, it’s a shower.’ You’re using something that provides an incredible experience but the technology is typically used for other things.” Parisi-Amon, who had studied thermofluids and saw places the design could be improved, soon quit Apple to work with the startup full time.
Originally, the idea was to do a humble Kickstarter, but a stint at the seed fund Y Combinator convinced the team otherwise. Nebia is still hosting a Kickstarter to fund production, but the product is in its final stage and will ship in May 2016 for an MSRP of $400. Nebia has also picked up investors from Equinox Gym, and showed off the prototype at Google and Apple—which helped the team land another notable investor, Tim Cook. Other big-name investors include Michael Birch and the Schmidt Family Foundation.
The science behind Nebia is more closely related to how farmers water their fields than how you and I clean ourselves every day. The main objective is to conserve water—a lot of water. The company claims that its main setting uses 70 percent less water than a normal shower, the “amped up” harder pressure setting saves a claimed 60-65 percent.
The water coming out of the shower head is atomized—each drop is split up into much tinier droplets, allowing them to form a mist that fills up more of the air around you and coats your skin more thoroughly.
This differs greatly from the method we’re currently using—which is just a faucet that allows gravity to do all the work. So naturally, this means Nebia looks different. The team repurposed nozzles that are typically used for agriculture, rocket engines, combinations engines, and other industrial means. The challenge in using these parts was that they weren’t designed to create an environment of human comfort. Heat escapes smaller droplets more quickly than larger ones, causing the mist to grow cold. Nobody likes a cold spritz.
When Parisi-Amon joined the team, he dug out his old college textbooks and went “down a rabbit hole of scientific papers about spray atomization” before realizing the complexity of the challenge of keeping the mist warm. He looked to outside industry experts, whose reactions varied.
“Some people definitely thought we were insane, but some people got it,” says Parisi-Amon. “One professor from the University of Toronto really got what we were doing. He introduced us to this code used for rockets.”
The team began using modeling software usually used by the aerospace and automotive industries that carries license fees of $50,000 a year. After bringing software reps in to talk (no, they didn’t shower), the company gave Nebia a three month free trial. (The team is already a third of the way through this period.) Finally, though, the nut was cracked; the mist stays warm.
New Nebia, New look
The original prototype had something of a steampunk look: all square shapes, bolts, and gleaming metal. While the spacing and setup of the nozzles was essential to Nebia’s function, in order to gain the attention of the luxe home furnishings market, it needed a new look.
Just two weeks ago, the team got its hands on the final design of its shower head. The sleek metal fixture—dreamed up by the San Francisco design firm Box Clever—is far, far removed from the early PVC pipe mock-ups they showed me. It’s hard to explain how this is the most beautiful shower head I’ve ever seen, because I don’t have a real benchmark for that. Actually, I suppose I do now, because this is the most beautiful shower head I’ve ever seen. The head itself is a circular orb through which six “sprays” shoot. A smaller, handheld wand mimics this design. The height of Nebia is important—you want the head about 18 inches over you—so the design includes a slider for moving the shower head up and down. (Being short, the aggravation of constantly lowering a shower head makes this feel like a personal win).
Nebia is an easy install. The team didn’t want to make a product that would require you to hire somebody to hook it up. If you expect consumers to change everything about their shower, you better make it easy to set up.
Admittedly, Nebia is a bit of a leap for people. The shower is in an intimate space steeped in routine, for one, and it’s difficult to convince happy citizens to upgrade. Also, let us not be shy about that price: $400 is far more expensive than a normal shower head, and pricier than even some of the fancier models. Early bird discounts that bring the price down to less than $300 are available, but that’s still steep.
The Nebia does have some undeniable benefits. Foremost, it’s beautiful. It puts your elaborate rain nozzle to shame. Second, we need it, or at least what it does. With the world’s population continuing to grow while potable water becomes increasingly scarce, water-saving devices must make their way into the mainstream. We should applaud those who lead the way.
Oh, and it feels really, really good. But that’s just a bonus.
The Fusion Home has been in touch with Nebia and we are going to get one of the first showers off the production line!
Read more about what products are going in here.