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An off switch is not an energy-saving ‘eco mode’

Saving energy is becoming more important for many of us. One way to do this is by buying more energy efficient products. But are the eco claims made by a growing number of products really helping us achieve this?

Cleaning up the energy market is one of our top priorities here at Which?. We’re already tackling energy providers on tariffs and we’ve introduced an energy saver logo to highlight star performers among traditionally energy-hungry appliances.

We’ve also looked into ‘greenwashing’ on cleaning products in the past. More recently we’ve noticed an increase in energy-saving claims on small appliances like irons, coffee machines and blenders. The question is, are these claims all they’re cracked up to be?

So why does it matter?

It seems like making claims to be eco-friendly is an easy win when marketing new products – it’s another box ticked to try and persuade you to buy one product over another.

However, we’ve found that some of these claims simply amount to either:

  • Re-labelling an existing feature.
  • Championing a feature that’s standard on most competing models.
  • Or highlighting something that would only make a tiny difference in energy consumption compared to competitors.

We featured a couple of examples in our January issue of the magazine. For example, our reviewers couldn’t find any evidence of the ‘Eco Mode’ advertised for a new Magimix blender they were trying out.

We had to ask Magimix where this so-called ‘eco mode’ was, and it turns out there is no special setting. Magimix used the claim due to the blender using 0 watts when it is… off. EU regulations stipulate that any other blender would have to use less than 1 watt when off, so you’d probably be disappointed if you expected noticeable savings.

We’ve also seen several espresso machines claiming to save you energy, and some even hijacking the rating system developed for large appliances to make claims about their efficiency. Since larger appliances use much more energy, it’s completely meaningless for small appliances to boast about meeting ratings that weren’t developed for them.

How does it affect you?

We welcome efforts by all manufacturers to do their bit and design products that are more energy efficient, but we think claims like this are unhelpful. If a product won’t save much more energy than equivalents, why should we be fooled into buying them?

Have you bought a product because of its energy-saving credentials? Do these claims influence your decision to buy them or do you take them with a pinch of salt?

Longley Shopper says:
16 December 2011

There’s two ways that you can be CERTAIN to save energy:

1) unplug appliances which are not in use. This includes DVD players / recorders (unless set to record a timed programme of course), Freeview and Sky boxes (don’t whinge about having to wait between 5 and 15 seconds for it to start up again – if you really want to save energy you’ll be happy to wait), ‘phone chargers, and most of all, all those appliances, usually found in the kitchen, which don’t actually switch off when you press the switch on the appliance, they just go into a very low power mode, which sometimes isn’t all that low. All too often the plugs for these are inaccessible (which my electrician tells me is a fire hazard and against the regulations to start with) and so we are lazy and leave the plug in. You’d be amazed how much power your A++ rated dishwasher uses when it is switched off, the lights are all out and you think it’s totally disconnected so why bother pulling the plug out? It’s still in a standby mode.

It’s a lifestyle change that is needed, nothing else: if it’s not in use, pull the plug out.

2) don’t pay the slightest attention to ANY of the energy rating labels, schemes or claims: almost all are utter bull5h1t, as Which? is pointing out again here and did over the 10 eco devices you don’t need a few months ago. Many readers have also pointed this out over items ranging form A+++ rated washers that use more power than models so old they did not have a rating to low-energy light bulbs that seem to be so dim that you need twice as many, hence eating up power like old fashioned ones.

If you are buying new first of all find someone with a current model appliance and ask them what the REAL energy use is, then make your mind up. Better still, keep your old things until they are no longer mendable – you’ll save energy and purchase costs to boot.

My gran’s generation knew how to do it: they had to in the war. Most of us didn’t live then and conveniently don’t like to think about it.

I agree with most of this, Longley Shopper, but you are totally wrong about CFL energy saving lamps. The manufacturers often quote that they use a fifth of the power of an incandescent bulb, though a quarter the power might be more realistic for some CFLs.

Ignore the labels and measure the power consumption of appliances with a meter, which can be bought cheaply.

I’m not sure my 29 year old washing machine uses any less electricity than a modern machine, but it does rinse clothes a lot better and I live in an area where there is no water shortage.

Interesting to see people’s take on this: I absolutely agree with both Longley Shopper and Wavechange (though I’m maybe slightly less convinced than wavechange on CFL,s but I’m still more or less in agreement).

However, my first though when reading the intro (especially the information about the Magimix) was “How pathetic we, Joe Public, are for the manufacturers and advertisers to even TRY to get away with making these claims”.

Personally I reckon that a major factor in us wasting huge amounts of energy is that most of the general public are stupid enough to firstly not realise how much power is used by things and secondly to go on to believe tripe like the claim about the eco mode of the mixer being switch off.

I think Longley Shopper has given super advice not just to save energy but also to reduce fire risk: pull the plug out!

Manufacturers’ advertising and claims and advertising often rely on deceit and misrepresentation, so I cannot say that I am surprised that Which? is making us aware of greenwashing.

It look as if legislation is helping to cut down the amount of power used by new appliances when ‘switched off’ and in standby mode. Here is a leaflet explaining what is happening.

If manufacturers would really like to help consumers, why not fit a power switch that turns off the power completely? That will help those who cannot unplug appliances because the socket is behind furniture. There should be different symbols that make it clear whether a power switch switches off the power or puts the appliance in a standby or low power consumption mode.

Absolutely Wavechange: it should be illegal to call the switch by any name that includes the word “off” or the word “power” unless it is a double-pole switch fitted directly to the appliance mains inlet before any other component at all, including suppressors.

And before anyone even thinks of saying that there would be a cost implication lets remember that the cost of even a high quality mains rated double pole switch even in single units from quite expensive suppliers like RS is always well under £2 which is absolutely nothing compared to the cost of making up circuits to switch between standby and on modes, and suppliers would get such switches for pennies only due to quantity break discounts and the fact they woudl not be paying retail prices like we would.

Whilst ever the government is trotting out the bull… that is in the leaflet you posted a link to, rather than a simple, clear, instruction to provide a switch such as I have described manufacturers will continue to charge us through the nose for facilities we don’t need (and probably don’t want) which con many into using power they don’t even know they are using.

Simplicity is best!

You must have your electrician’s hat on again Dave, suggesting double-pole switches before suppressors. 🙂

I don’t think I own any mains appliances with a double-pole switches, though I have encountered them on laboratory equipment and have fitted them on items I have built myself. I understand the advantage but would settle for a high quality single-pole switch that will last the life of the appliance.

I am not convinced that PVRs, DVD recorders, etc. need to consume mains power in standby mode, since sufficient power can be stored in rechargeable cells or capacitors to activate them when needed. That’s 20th century technology and nothing new.

Well done Detective Wavechange!

However, humour apart, my 1999 Cambridge Audio amplifier and CD player have DP switches, my 1990 Hitachi TV used to have (not so the 2010 Panasonic flat screen), my 2000 Pioneer Mini Disc has a DP switch, my 2007 Miele Dishwasher has a DP switch – mysteriously it comes AFTER the suppressor though – and my positively ancient 1980’s washing machine disconnects both poles when the programmer knob reaches the end of the cycle or is pushed in for stop – but again oddly this comes after the suppressor and my virtually antique 1957 HMV Radio has a DP switch.

Sadly my Hitachi VCR (quite old – bought in 1998), my Panasonic DVD recorder / player, my Denon tuner, my Panasonic telly, my brand new Pure digital radio and all my IT related equipment don’t even have switches in the mains line at all: just very silly and totally unused “soft switching”.

Most other appliances I own have SP mains switches, but by most people’s standards I actually own very few electrical appliances at all.

This would seem to suggest that manufacturers placed far greater emphasis on safety and, albeit inadvertently, on energy efficiency between 60 and 10 years ago than they have done since, and it seems to be getting worse.

The LG washer I briefly owned in 2008/9 was so awful that despite being A+++ rated and EST / Which? recommended, and irrespective of all it’s many faults and uselessness, the so-called power switch clearly disconnected neither live nor neutral by any means at all: if you switched off the wall switch as soon as it stopped, which I regularly did to stop it from playing idiotic tunes to me to say it was done, the back-EMF from the slowing drum after the spin lit up every single light on the control panel AND the neon indicator on the wall socket. God knows what it might have done to anyone who had pulled the plug and accidentally touched the prongs.

Anyway, enough detail and anecdote form me. It’s a simple case: we need manufacturers to be forced to fit real on/off switches that disconnect at least the live pole of the supply to every appliance in order to improve safety and energy efficiency. We are not likely to get this.

After thought from last post (above): the issue is not just related to on / off switches and portable (i.e. connected by plug and socket) appliances though: I recently read a Which? review of a Main brand gas boiler and noted that it missed out on being a Best Buy because it used too much electricity when not actually operating. This is a further example of pointless modern technology which is counter-productive.

Both my own plumber and Which? have stated that modern boilers are less reliable than many much older ones and I know I’ve read somewhere – I think it was in a Which? article – that most modern boiler faults are down to the electronics failing.

Older boilers (such as my 1979 Glow worm) have a solenoid gas valve, operating form a 240v – 24v step-down isolating transformer and a simple thermostat. When the boiler is off there is no electricity consumed at all as the supply to the transformer is mechanically disconnected by the room thermostat and / or programmer. This works very well and in 32 years (to the month in fact) the boiler has never gone wrong at all so it’s not only less power-hungry than fancy new ones, it’s also more reliable. The same is true of other fixed appliances using electronic switching just as it is of portable ones.

I doubt that most people know whether their appliances have proper power switches, never mind whether they are single or double pole. I am impressed by your knowledge, Dave.

Your mention of Denon reminds me of the weird design of my Denon cassette tape recorder which dates from the mid-80s. When switched on, the drive motor runs continuously, even in stop mode. This is not mentioned in the instructions so I wrote to Denon and was told that running the motor continuously allowed them to claim a lower figure for wow and flutter in the specifications!! Not wishing to wear out the motor prematurely, I soon became good at remembering to unplugging my hi-fi after use. All components of my system (six makes) are still working fine after at least 25 years.

My knowledge only comes from the fact that when I buy something new the first thing I do is take the covers off and look inside to see what I’ve got. Not recommended for Joe Public for very obvious reasons, but isn’t that exactly how and why the manufacturers (and for that matter regulators and government) get away with things like the craze “eco mode when switched off” rubbish? If Joe Public was better informed they would not get away with it, which brings me back to my regular complaint that Which? (and other organisations supposedly there to protect consumers) doesn’t really look out for and stand up for Joe Public.

My Pioneer cassette deck (1981 and still going strong but rarely used nowadays) runs the motor continuously and yes, I remember reading in What Hi Fi? before buying it (or more correctly persuading my dad to buy it for me) that this mode of operation makes for more accurate speed control and thus reduced wow and flutter. (It also has a DP mains switch onto which the incoming conductors of the mains lead are soldered directly.)

We’d better not turn this into a personal conversation about old Hi-Fi – Which? staff will tell us off!!!!

Unless something gets warm (which is a sure indicator of significant power consumption) then it is difficult to know how much power is being used, either when in use or when in standby mode.

Which? recommends several meters to measure power consumption. If you want something simpler which will measure the power consumed by plug-in appliances, these are available from various online suppliers and Maplin shops and are very easy to use.

Earlier this year I tested my bedside TV and discovered it was using 10 watts when not in use. That’s enough to light a small room continuously with an energy saving bulb.

With electricity prices rising it helps to know the power consumption of anything that is on (or even switched off but plugged in) for any length of time.

Jess asked us whether we had bought products because of energy-saving credentials. I have bought LED Christmas lights, but the main reason is I’m fed-up with my previous set which has thick and heavy wires between the lamps, bought on recommendation from Which? some years ago. 🙁

I have various battery operated LED torches and portable lights, which are very economical compared with anything using conventional bulbs.

I intended to buy an efficient replacement fridge but unfortunately I could only find one model that would fit the space available for it. I don’t think the information provided in the shop was very useful, so I would have struggled to choose if I had a choice.

In future I will look for appliances with proper power switches, though that might be a challenge – like finding small cameras with a viewfinder.

I’ve only just realised that in all the banter I have engaged in on here with Wavechange, I’ve never actually answered the question posed by Jess.

“NO!” is the quick answer.

I never buy appliances based on their energy saving credentials.

Firstly the only time I did this (an LG washer) I was horrified to find out how energy hungry it was.
Secondly, when I took up my concern over that item with EST they wrote to me explaining how they award EST recommendation to appliances and that made me realise that it’s an absolute work of smoke and mirrors which means absolutely nothing at all in real terms.
Thirdly I buy only appliances which will do the job I want them to do and do it well, and if that happens to be one that saves energy too, brilliant but if it happens to be one that is energy hungry, tough.
Lastly, I want appliances that will last and last, which means that most of my existing appliances never even had “eco credentials’ as they are too old and any new ones I buy need to be the most reliable there are. Like whether they do the job I want and do it well, if they are reliable and happen to be energy saving too, brilliant, but if they are reliable and energy hungry, so be it.