Q. During a recent hotel visit, I was washing my hands in the sink and noticed the hot water adjusted to scalding hot. I checked the roll-in shower (with my hands) and sure enough, it would adjust to a scalding hot level as well. I feel like I dodged a bullet — the hot shower could have easily burned my legs and I wouldn’t have felt it. Isn’t there some type of regulation about maximum hot water temperature?
A. The answer is yes. Since the mid ‘90s, virtually all building and plumbing codes state that maximum hot water temperature from a sink, shower or bathtub fixture should be 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, section 607.6 of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design says, “Bathtub shower spray units shall deliver water that is 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) maximum.”
However this is an area where it is not safe to rely on building codes or the ADA. A 2004 article on contractormag.com describes a survey conducted in more that 100 rooms at major hotel chains across the United States. The survey found more than 78 percent of hot water temperatures in showers were in excess of 120 F, the average shower temp was 126.4 F, and the highest shower temp was 171.5 F!
To put these temperatures into put this into perspective, the human pain threshold for hot water is 110 F, and you would pull away (assuming you have sensation) from water that hot. A Harvard Medical School study of water temperature on adult skin shows that water of 120 F will cause a 2nd degree burn in eight minutes; raise the temp to 124 F, and it will cause a 2nd degree burn in two minutes; at 140 F it will cause a 3rd degree burn in five seconds — and instantly at 160 F!
At a recent hotel stay in Florida I dodged a hot water bullet of my own. Sitting on the accessible shower bench I adjusted the water temperature up a bit, checked it with my hands to make sure it wasn’t too hot and let it run against my legs while I soaped my upper body (I’m a T10 complete para). When I moved the shower stream back to my body, it had become way too hot. I looked down at my legs and the skin was bright red and hot to the touch. I immediately adjusted the water to the coldest setting and turned it on my legs for a full five minutes. I was lucky: The redness went away, and normal skin color returned. The quick application of cold water prevented what might have been severe burn.
I reported this to the hotel manager and explained this is a serious ADA and safety violation, as well as exposure for a lawsuit.
Tips to avoid hotel hot water dangers:
• Check and adjust the temperature by feel — or have an attendant check and adjust — before getting into the shower.
• Always keep part of shower stream on an area that has sensation, or move the shower stream completely away from your body.
• When taking a bath, fill the tub and check water temperature before getting in.
• To check for ADA compliance, a small meat thermometer held under a shower stream on hot will show if the temperature is in excess of 120 F. This should be reported to the hotel manager as an ADA violation that could burn a future guest with limited sensation.
Rental Car Dangers
Rental cars may pose another burn hazard to be wary of, specifically if the car you are renting is equipped with electric heated car seats, a commonplace option these days. The idea sounds great: Hop in your car on a cold day, hit the seat heater switch, and luxurious heat warms and soothes you as you drive. But heated seats have been known to malfunction and become dangerously hot. For people with paralysis or sensory deficit, this is a recipe for serious, possibly life-threatening burns.
When I wrote about this in “Escaping The Hot Seat” (April 2008), more than 60 people in the U.S. had suffered serious burns from malfunctioning car seat heaters.
Seat heaters are supposed to cut off at a maximum of around 100 F. Sitting on a heated seat with a temperature of 111 F is hot enough to cause a burn. Malfunctioning seats have been measured as high as 150 F.
The problem becomes more complex as we try and figure out the switches and buttons in an unfamiliar rental car — especially in the excitement of starting a vacation: Does this button control the mirror, the rear window defroster or the car seat heater?
Rental car seats aren’t just a danger in cold weather. On my Florida vacation, I was upgraded to a bigger car, one with heated seats. While trying to adjust the seat back, I accidentally hit the seat heater button. I didn’t notice it until we arrived at our hotel, 45 minutes later, and a chill went up my spine. Fortunately a mirror-skin-check confirmed my skin was fine.
To avoid getting burned by heated car seats, ask the people at the check-out counter if the car comes with seat heaters. If it does, ask to have somebody show you how to operate them to make sure you don’t accidentally turn them on. And as always, it is a good idea to put your wheelchair cushion on a car seat for pressure relief — which adds a layer of protection against heat.
Despite the close calls with the heated car seat and hot water in the shower, my daughter Sarah and I had an amazing vacation! We swam with manatees in Crystal River, saw Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail and star of Dolphin Tale, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and spent an amazing day with the other muggles at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando — all very accessible!
• Clearwater Marine Aquarium: www.seewinter.com
• Crystal Lodge Dive Center: www.manatee-central.com
• Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park: www.floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings/
• Wizarding World of Harry Potter: www.universalorlando.com/harrypotter