This morning, I hit a button on the U by Moen app on my phone and turned on my shower. I hadn't even entered the bathroom yet, but I wasn't worried about wasting water. While I brushed my teeth and got ready, the U by Moen Smart Shower flushed the cold water from the pipes until it had reached my perfect temp. Then, it paused the water flow and sent a notification to my phone letting me know my shower was ready.
We have the U by Moen Smart Shower set up in a freshly renovated bathroom in the CNET Smart Home -- complete with one large main showerhead, a handheld showerhead, and four body sprays built into the wall. The temperature control is accurate and the app is intuitive and surprisingly useful. Especially for a guy accustomed to a simple setup in a bachelor pad, it's -- in a word -- luxurious.
The U by Moen Smart Shower fits that word well, actually. It's a luxury purchase through and through. The four outlet version we have at the smart home costs $2,200. The two outlet version (so for a shower head and a single other nozzle) costs $1,160. Neither price includes the shower heads themselves or the cost of installation -- just the control panel and a fancy valve. You can find plenty of nice shower heads with a faucet for $100 to $200. So if you're just interested in the smarts, wait for cheaper and easier-to-install alternatives. If you're in the market for a luxury remodel, the U by Moen makes sense -- it adds useful connected capabilities for around the price you'd pay for a non-connected control panel setup.
The two pieces you get when you purchase the smart shower -- the digital controller and the valve -- will theoretically work even on your existing showerhead. Moen's site calls the installation easy, but this is definitely not a snap-in-place smart gadget. It might technically be DIY, in the sense that building a house could be called DIY if you have the right know how, but most of us will want a plumber to do the work.
You can buy the U by Moen Smart Shower on Home Depot's website, build.com, efaucets.com and in wholesale bath and kitchen showrooms. You can preorder it now, and it ships starting March 1. Whether you preorder or wait, the price is the same: The four outlet version costs $2,200 and the two-outlet model costs $1,160. The Smart Shower is only available in the US and Canada for now.
Smart but not magic
Despite being admittedly much nicer than any shower I can remember using, a few things prevented my experience with the Moen Smart Shower from being perfect. I got into the U by Moen Smart Shower, hit a button to unpause it, then waited a few seconds. In the couple of minutes of downtime between when the shower paused and when I hopped in, the temp of the water in the pipes had lost 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit of heat.
That problem is accentuated if you switch to the body sprays -- watch out for an initial blast of cold water while Moen works the hot stuff to the front of those pipes as well. It's hard to feel like you're at a spa when you get a surprise blast of cold water in your face when you first turn on the handheld shower nozzle.
These hardware issues aren't Moen's fault -- it's designed to precisely control the water output temp, not heat your pipes -- but it's worth keeping in mind that the system isn't magic. If your house has low water pressure or a small hot water tank, this expensive smart shower system isn't going to fix those problems.
Behind the wall: The thermostatic valve
The valve -- called a digital thermostatic valve -- is the complicated and expensive piece. It mixes the hot and cold water precisely so you can set the water temp to a specific degree.
If you have plumbing experience and are thinking of doing this yourself, know that you'll need a sizable access panel by the thermostatic valve for maintenance, though you don't have to install it directly behind the shower. The included cord that runs to the control panel is long enough that you can install the panel up to 30 feet away.
The plumber who worked on the setup in the CNET Smart Home told me the process is much more complicated than simply installing an ordinary faucet, as you'd expect. Non-digital thermostatic valves are becoming more common in high-end houses -- not only do they allow precise temperature control, but they regulate the pressure. When I flushed the toilet right next to the shower, the temp didn't budge.
Digital thermostatic valves are still pretty rare -- you'll only find one or two at stores like Home Depot. Given the prices are comparably high for similar models from Kohler, Moen isn't charging a huge premium for its app connectivity. It's the digital thermostatic valve that makes this purchase a lofty one.
Essentially, you're buying professional quality lab equipment for your home -- the multi-thousand dollar intellifaucets we use for testing laundry machines and dishwashers calibrate the temp 60 times a second. Moen's valve impressively keeps up by calibrating 50 times a second. That's much more precision than you'd ever be able to feel while showering, but it's nice to know Moen didn't skimp on the quality of its equipment.
Once you do get everything installed, the control panel is simple to use -- complete with buttons to control the temp, activate presets, and turn the various nozzles on or off. I had no idea what my ideal shower temp was before using this smart shower, so the in-shower temp controls came in handy. I found my sweet spot at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which then allowed me to build a detailed preset in the app.
With each preset, you can customize the temp, a greeting that will show up on the control panel, which nozzles you'd like active, and what happens when the shower is ready. With mine, I have the shower pause the water and send me a push notification. You can also set a timer for each preset. Once the timer runs out, you can have the shower alert you or even turn off completely.
These functions have implications beyond simply luxury. By warming up and pausing your shower, Moen helps you conserve water in the meantime. By shutting off the water after you've decided your teenage children have had enough time to get clean, you can help encourage them to take shorter showers. That said, there's nothing to stop your teen from just turning the water right back on once the timer expires.
The app allows you to customize two presets that you activate with the buttons on the shower's control panel. You can also build up to 10 other presets that you can activate from the app.
Weirdly, the app stumbles over the process if you don't close it out entirely between your showers. Repeatedly during testing, I'd hit the button to start my preset. The shower would turn on for a moment, then pause and tell me that my shower was ready, even though it had been hours since I'd used it and Moen hadn't cycled out the cold water.
Even when the preset works as intended, the shower only stays paused for five minutes. If you start your shower and forget about it, it won't try to keep the water warm by running briefly every now and then, it'll just cancel your shower. I appreciated that feature, as it might stop the shower from wasting lots of water if you forget about it for a day, but a keep-warm option might be nice if you're pulled away for 15 or 20 minutes.
Besides the presets, you can also control all of the basic shower functions via the app, so you're free to mess with your spouse by turning on body spray nozzles from afar while he or she tries to shower in peace.
In the future, Moen hopes to make the system even smarter, and a rep mentioned both Amazon's Alexa and Apple's HomeKit as possible integrations -- though she wouldn't confirm that the shower has the MFi chip HomeKit requires. I'd certainly like to be able to turn on my shower with a voice command to my Amazon Echo. She noted that nothing is official right now. She assured me, though, that Moen will send any updates over the air to existing smart showers. That's possible for Alexa, but not for HomeKit if it doesn't have that MFi chip. Moen will do its best to make sure your fancy purchase doesn't quickly become obsolete, but tread carefully if you're a HomeKit user.
The U by Moen Smart Shower charmed me without quite winning me over. Moen's app walks the line between tech and simplicity well. It adds genuinely useful connectivity to a device that we all know works fine without bells and whistles, but Moen kept the additions simple, intuitive and effective. If I could easily and cheaply add just its smarts to my existing shower setup, I'd do it without hesitation and recommend this system broadly.
Unfortunately, for those of us that just want connected convenience, the barrier to entry for this setup is too steep. This isn't a connected DIY gadget, it's an investment in a luxury shower setup. In that light, at $2,200 for the four-outlet version we tested, and $1,160 for a two-outlet smart shower, the U by Moen is actually reasonably priced. If you're remodeling and want a control panel in your new, fancy shower, the U by Moen provides convenient extras with its app for not much more than you'd pay for an ordinary control panel and precision valve. The app isn't perfect and the system isn't magic, but it adds enough innovation to the basics to be worth your consideration as a high-end upgrade.