As someone who must admit to being still something of a beginner when it comes to buying (and using) vacuum cleaners, the glee with which the Daily Mail and some other papers have rounded on Brussels for banning machines rated above 1,600 watts has been shocking. Stories about the ban have prompted a “stampede to buy powerful vacuum cleaners”, with online sales up by as much as 400%, and reports of customers “stockpiling two or more high-power models”. Can Mail readers’ houses really be so dusty that they need a turbo-charged, Jeremy Clarkson-approved machine to clean their floors? Can a vacuum cleaner be a good reason to leave Europe? Do people really have enough money to stockpile vacuum cleaners?
The reality is that this is a tabloid-induced summer storm that has little to do with cleaners and everything to do with political vacuums – and the right of the right to be as thick as it likes. The idea behind the – albeit Orwellian-sounding – Ecodesign for Energy-Using Products and Energy Labelling directives is to make the world’s designers come up with machines that need less power, make less noise and cost less to run. Which sound pretty reasonable ambitions as long as the new machines continue to do their jobs efficiently. All vacuum-cleaner makers, including Sir James Dyson, as well as most fridge, washing machine and telly makers, have known about this directive for years and have quite easily adapted their models. Just a few Brits, it seems, demand the right to ignore labels showing how much money they can save and to carry on using obsolete, super-powered machines.
But, as Ute Collier, a former green energy campaigner who now works with the UK parliament’s climate change committee, says, wattage does not equate with cleaning performance; design is of key importance. She notes that the German equivalent of Which?, Stiftung Warentest, has found that of the 20 top-rated products on the German vacuum cleaning market, only one would be banned by the new rules. Which?, on the other hand, says that of seven cleaners awarded “best buy” status since January 2013, five have motors of more than 1,600w. “Personally, I’ve had a Which? best buy ‘eco’ vacuum cleaner for some time which, with a 1,200W motor, provides the same performance as a 2,000W cleaner,” says this true European.
The wider reason behind the horrible-sounding directive, of course, is to reduce Europe’s overall energy consumption to save money, import less fuel from unreliable countries such as Russia and reduce climate-change emissions. The new regulations are expected to save 19 terrawatt hours (TWh) of electricity by 2020. That’s not much in overall terms, but it is more electricity than all 178 million people in Nigeria used in 2012, or more than what was generated by several British power stations and all our windfarms last year.
In fact, the designers and bureaucrats hoping to reduce electricity use and consumer costs cannot keep up with the massive growth in the sheer numbers of computers, tablets, mobile phones, “smart” TVs, game consoles and other electronic gadgets and machines that are now in use worldwide. Last year, electronic gadgets alone were estimated to use around 600TWh of electricity – equivalent to the output of 200 medium-size coal-fired power plants. This might have been excusable if manufacturers had made them with the best available technology, but the UN’s International Energy Agency (IEA) reckoned they used three times more electricity than necessary.