Hoovering up some trouble

There was much talk this last week or so about new legislation from the EU to limit the power rating of vacuum cleaners. Inevitably, this got the wholly eared anti-EU brigade worked up into a right old frenzy . The EU wants to ban beloved Henry the vacuum cleaner the Daily Mail claims….actually we have a Henry at work and unlike the tabloids I actually checked its power rating and at 1,200 Watts it’s not effected by present limits, although it might fall foul of the reg’s in a few years time.

Figure 1: Is the EU really trying to ban Henry?

Figure 1: Is the EU really trying to ban Henry?

Indeed the swivel eye’d UKIP types failed to notice that the bulk of the vacuum cleaners that would be affected tended to be cheaper ones, often coming from Asia, while the more expensive and often more energy efficient ones, such as Britain’s Dyson for example, will scarcely be affected by these rules (although Dyson is worried about the future direction of this legislation). You’d have been forgiven for a moment into thinking UKIP were lobbying on behalf of Chinese manufacturers and against British jobs.

It is important to put this legislation in the proper context. In effect what the EU is doing, a measure approved by heads of government in 2010 and 2013 (including Cameron I might add), is building on efforts to limit the emissions from cars and road vehicles. Since the 90’s increasingly stringent measures being gradually applied to all new road vehicles, not only in the EU but also Japan and the US. This has seen dramatic reductions in emissions from vehicles, with the benefits of improved fuel economy and reduced air pollution.

Figure 2 - Falling vehicle emissions within the EU [Credit: SMMT.co.uk, 2012 http://www.smmt.co.uk/co2report/#new-car-co2-emissions ]

Figure 2 – Falling vehicle emissions within the EU [Credit: SMMT.co.uk, 2012]

Then as now, the naysayers argued that this legislation was impossible to implement, it won’t work, people want cars with big engines, they won’t buy ones with smaller engines, the car industry would collapse and Europe would become one giant Cuba where people would hang onto the old gas guzzler well past its use by date rather than swap it for some Trabant type EU approved cars. Needless to say the opposite proved to be true.

Most people (other than Jeremy Clarkson) don’t care what size engine their car has, so long as it delivers the level of performance they are looking for. So if by for example using better engine management, or fitting a turbocharger, a car manufacturer can get a 1L engine to do the same job as previously you’d have needed a 1.4L (a tactic called “engine downsizing”), most car buyers don’t really care. Indeed many will take the 1L option with its lower road tax, better fuel economy and lower running costs. As I described in a previous post, once forced to change by legislation, car makers quickly discovered all sorts of tricks they could pull to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy of cars.

My car (a Clio) for example gets about 48 mpg, while the latest version of the Clio (a hybrid) is about to be launched in France boasts a fuel economy of 141 mpg. While it will probably deliver closer to 70-80 mpg (by my reckoning) on non-BEV and comparable drive cycle to the older version, we’re still talking of a near halving of fuel consumption.

Figure 3: EU proposals on electrical goods builds on the success of legislation introduced to clean up cars, the XLR for example boasts a fuel economy of over 300 mpg! [Credit: CNET.au, 2010]

Figure 3: EU proposals on electrical goods builds on the success of legislation introduced to clean up cars, the XLR for example boasts a fuel economy of over 300 mpg! [Credit: CNET.au, 2010]

And sales of cars, in particular the more fuel efficient ones has soared while it is the gas guzzlers that are heading more and more for the scrap heap. Indeed while European and Japanese car makers have increased market share since this process started, US car makers (who managed to lobby Congress under G. W. Bush to scrap efficiency measures) went bankrupt as customers voted with their feet and choose more fuel efficient European and Japanese cars instead.

So in essence the plan is to do the same to electrical goods, not just vacuum cleaners but hair driers, fridges, toasters, washing machines, etc. And this is based on reports from within the scientific literature which detail how such reductions are possible, through better design of such products. And as Britain’s Dyson have long demonstrated, a more powerful motor doesn’t guarantee you a cleaner with good suction, no more than a car with a large engine guarantee’s anything other than a higher fuel bill

But does this legislation go too far? Well yes and no I’d say, the devil is in the detail. For example Dyson, while broadly in favour of this directive is attempting to have a judicial review of how the system rates different vacuum cleaners. Given that it tests them empty this puts his bag-less units at a disadvantage over its rivals.

It is also worth remembering that the point of legislation against vehicles wasn’t just about carbon emissions and energy efficiency, but about all the other nasties coming out of a vehicle’s tail pipe (NOx, SO2, COx, etc.). These emissions represent a major health hazard, which is hardly fair on the many people (particularly those with chronic lung conditions) who choose not to drive but still have to inhale the fumes every time they go outside. Similar smoking bans were justifiable given that not everyone chooses to smoke and the rest of us would rather not have come home smelling like an ashtray.

Of course, equally it’s important to remember where the electricity to run a hoover comes from i.e. likely a fossil fuel plant, including in the UK still some coal fired stations, with a massive level of emissions (and again its not just carbon dioxide we’re worried about). But that said, there is a bit of a difference between the indirect emissions from a hoover and the direct emissions from a car.

Also the success of previous legislation covering vehicle emissions, improved building standards or the phase out of the old incandescent bulbs, was a good rapport with the industry itself. Indeed incandescent bulbs were never actually banned, the manufacturers voluntarily withdrew them from sale (admittedly under the threat of an outright ban). This doesn’t seem be the situation in the case of vacuum cleaners.

It is also important to assure the public that the products on sale will be able to do the same job as previously; otherwise you’re going to get the sort of hysteria with people hoarding light bulbs due to the mistaken belief that they are cheaper (which is only true if the electricity was free!) or because they don’t produce the “correct” lighting (the consumer group Which? have a buyer’s guide that addresses a number of these issues).

Figure 4: Comparison chart of different light bulbs [Source: Which? 2010]

Figure 4: Comparison chart of different light bulbs [Source: Which?]

To me this highlights the need for a carbon tax in place of VAT. It would work like this, the VAT rate for any product would be calculated according to the product’s lifetime carbon footprint. Thus products with a relatively low carbon footprint and high efficiency will come with a very low rate of VAT (or possibly even zero), cheaper made but less efficient products would pay a higher rate of tax, probably to the point where it made no economic sense to buy them.

Furthermore this tax would apply to the full life cycle of the product. Therefore when the time came to get rid of the car/vacuum cleaner/fridge some of the tax (say 50% of it) would be repaid if it was disposed of sensibly (e.g. recycled), noting that an up-front surcharge would have already been applied at purchase for its disposal (a number of EU states already have this policy, where you pay for a product’s end of life disposal the day you buy it). This would of course solve a whole host of problems, notably fly tipping.

While one can accuse the EU commission of being a little heavy handed and somewhat undiplomatic, the fact is that the only limitations of consumer choice they are implementing is removing the option to choose to be screwed over by a manufacturer selling stuff which seems to be cheaper, but actually works out as having much higher running costs (and thus an higher overall cost of ownership).

But this legislation is no excuse for the Tabloids and their allies UKIP (who seem to have done very little over the last few years to stop this bill’s passage through the EU) to stir up panic buying just to suit their agenda by creating a false controversy. Indeed I might also note that the Daily Mail seemed to be trying to profit from this by offering to sell its deluded readers some cheap knock off stock. Either way it shouldn’t distract from the need to improve energy efficiency as a key part of our future energy strategy.


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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2 Responses to Hoovering up some trouble

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