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New energy efficiency labels too confusing

Coloured arrows from energy efficiency label

If you look at a ratings system and assume that an A grade is best, you might soon have to change your outlook – especially when buying ‘wet’ appliances like washing machines. Get ready for A+++.

Think back to the last time you bought a fridge, freezer, dishwasher or washing machine. Question one – did you take notice of the A-G efficiency ratings? Question two – did you fully understand what these ratings meant?

I’m guessing that for most of you the answer is ‘yes’ to both – after all, understanding that A is best and G is worst is generally accepted to be the normal way of things.

Plans for ‘beyond A’ grades

So it’s taken me a while to work out why the EU is proposing to re-grade energy labels for these appliances by introducing three new ‘beyond A’ grades: A+, A++ and A+++.

I can see the logic in theory. They want to raise the bar for top grades since 90% of many appliances now sold in the UK are currently A-rated. It’s great that they’re trying to make it easier to identify the most energy efficient appliances, as this can help you save money on your energy bill. But since the majority tend to be A-rated already, many of the B classes and below are just going to be empty.

In my mind it would make far more sense to keep the current A-G labels and reset the bar for each grade, rather than plonking a load of A+ categories on the top. Our research shows that this is what consumers understand best, and it’s something we’ve lobbied for, but sadly this option was rejected some time ago.

Can you better the ‘best’?

What is it with our obsession for bettering the best? This all feels like the GCSE and A-level trend for A*s – they make A grades feel like second best, when surely the whole point of an A is that it’s the top grade?

Essentially, the principle is the same here: too many ‘best’ marks mean you have to change the meaning of what ‘best’ is. With this system, manufacturers will be able to label products that aren’t the most energy efficient as A-rated – but will consumers understand that these are no longer best?

The government has apparently pledged to help communicate the change so customers can get their heads round it, but it’s unclear how they expect to do this in practice. On top of this, if these proposals become law, the new and old labels can both be used for a while, potentially causing even more confusion.

So, let’s try and make a simple rule. The next time you go to buy a ‘wet’ or ‘cold’ appliance, try to remember – the alphabet may no longer apply.

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I think it may be worse – because according to one poster here on an a related subject – I honestly expected an A grade to also mean it was cheaper to rum – according to his research it isn’t. It may use say less water but still be more expensive to run than a grade B – rather defeating the purpose to ming mind.

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I think the great thing about energy labels was the fact that when you were in a shop you could see – at a glance, and without having to think too much about it – which appliance models were generally more energy efficient than others. Simple.

You’d be hard pressed to find a washing machine that’s rated less than a B these days, so some sort of recalibration is needed – but all this seems like an unnecessarily complicated way to update it. To me adding pluses or triple pluses into the mix only serves to make it that little bit more difficult and time-consuming to interpret.

And even worse, the A+, A++ and A+++ ratings won’t be applied across the board – so we’ll have a situation where other items like tumble dryers will still adhere to the A-G scale. Plus there’s likely to be an awkward transitional phase as manufacturers shift to the new labels at different speeds…

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I think that I may be the poster that Richard refers to and I’ll repeat, in brief, here my bitter experience of how misleading these ratings are.

I had a 26 year old hot and cold fill washing machine which in 2008 finally became irreparable. I spend around 6 months researching new machines, including Which? test reports but also many other ways to choose. I ended up buying an Energy Saving Trust recommended model which was rated as A++ for energy efficiency, and A+ for washing and spinning performance. which? reported that the model I chose was “poor” at rinsing, however with the impressive ratings and the recommendation from EST, plus the fact that it claimed to use hot water (I have solar panels so this was an important factor for me) and the Which? report that brand reliability was good (they offered a 10 year parts warranty as standard too), I spent £800 on my machine.
From day 1 it was a dead loss: washes that took about 50 minutes in the old machine took well over 2 hours (often almost 3) in the new machine; hot water was NOT drawn in on ANY cycle, despite the manufacturer’s claims, the rinsing was o poor that I had to run at least 2 extra rinses on every single cycle, so water consumption was greater than on the old machine, the load was quoted as 7Kg (my old machine had been 4.5 kg) but the engineer who called the first time it broke down advised me that filling it more than half full was “not advised” and would lead to more breakdowns, the machine was unreliable, breaking down in spectacular style 3 times in the first 21 months of it’s life but worst of all, cycles that had consumed around 1.5 Kw of electricity in the old washer were using almost 4Kw in the new “Efficient” machine.
I argued with the EST and have the e-mail from them in which they admitted that they knew that all new machines would use more power than older models, but their get-out was that they “only rank new machines against each other, not against older models”.
I argued withe manufacturers but they refused to accept that the machine was doing anything other than it was designed to do.
I had to get Trading Standards involve when the first warranty repair was still not carried out after 9 weeks of the machine being totally “dead” and unusable and, when it broke down for the 3rd time in 21 months, I sent it to the scrap man and bought a reconditioned second hand 20+ year old machine instead.
My “new” 20+ year old washer now uses hot water, washes and rinses in a timely and efficient fashion and, like my old faithful, uses well under 1.5Kw of power to run a hot (boil) cycle and much less on cool cycles, so I am saving a fortune in electricity.
Put simply, I just don’t know how on earth the manufacturer’s can get away with the claims of A, A+, A++ and so on when the machines not inly use so much electricity (and water for that matter) but also contribute so much to land fill too! On the first two repairs that the modern machine had the engineer threw into the bin a total of 6 BIG circuit boards and a number of smaller electronic parts, plus huge amounts of plastic casings and fittings and utterly abhorrent amounts of bubble and shrink wrap in which the new parts had come. That’s before you look at the environmental cost of importing the damned things from Korea in the first place and the environmental impact of the scrappage of the machine less than 2 years old.
I think there is an overwhelming case for Which? to lobby long and hard for Energy ratings to be expressed in terms of actual amount of energy used (not a comparison or ranking against other machines) and to also factor in the likely environmental impact of scrappage of parts / the whole thing when things go wrong. The negative impact of the scrappage part can be factored up for unreliable brans and down for reliable ones. The rating should also reflect how much of the machine is made of metal and other materials (glass for example) which can be fully and easily recycled and how much of it is made from plastics and other less easily recycled or non recyclable parts. Finally the score should factor in the environmental impact of import so that machines made in the UK, or in nearby parts of the world have a better rating than those which come from the opposite side of the globe.
Sorry – I said I’d make this brief and it’s a flippin’ essay!!!!

Green Machine says:
16 October 2010

This is always going to be a problem with a one stop shop approach to ratings, whenever you have a single rating scale, there will always be manufacturers that ensure that they meet the requirements to meet the best scale, without consideration for other aspects of the designs. Take the analogy of a product that is clearly labeled as “DOLPHIN Friendly” which sure a very ecologicallly sound a clear message from the supplier, but when seen on a product that is actually not fish based, say a beefburger, the claim is 100% accurate, but would at the same time be 100% useless, We need to adopt a multi traffic light system for utiliy based products at least, if not for all. In example a product, like a diswasher should have a red amber or green indicator for each on the main consumable areas, ie electrical efficiencey, water usage, environmental impact, recyling efficiency and even a CO2 generater indicator. The user could then base their purchase on the impacts that they see as important to them, rather than a skewed distribution that current band ratings imply.

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A fantastic idea Green Machine – I like this approach very much.