Energy Labels Explained
We try to remove some of the mystery about energy labels and expose some stuff
The European ECO labels seem simple enough and, used correctly, we suppose that they are in some ways but they are, or can also be, very confusing for people as well as they are misunderstood.
The EU energy labelling system was the EU's attempt at making all appliances' performance, in terms of energy efficiency, more transparent to the buyers of them, which means you, the general public. But when speaking with customers it seems to have caused more confusion than anything else despite being drastically simplified for general consumption, probably over simplified in our opinion.
It becomes apparent, when you speak to people about this, that it is generally considered that these labels indicate how well an appliance performs and, quite simply it doesn't!
It also becomes clear that many people think that these labels somehow indicate the quality of the appliance and again, in no way whatsoever do they do so.
What it does tell you is how well it performs in terms of energy efficiency (to a degree) but not how well the machine will clean, cook or vacuum the carpet. When most of us buy a machine to do a job, be it a washing machine, a car or a television we buy that product on the expectation that it will perform, but unlike most other products you seldom get the opportunity to test large whitegoods or to see how well they actually perform the task that you buy them for. That is until you get it home and try it for yourself that is. And it's often too late by that time.
This notion is being further perpetuated by the likes of DEFRA (Department of fhe Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) who, in their own literature state the following On the subject of the EU Energy Labels;
"How well does the product perform?
The "A-G" indicators here are similar to the main energy efficiency ratings and are based on European standards (the test cycle used is on the label): "A" is the best performance and "G the worst. Using models with "A" ratings for both energy efficiency and performance, together with lower than average water consumption, will save you the most money as well as being the best for the environment."
This may seem innocent enough but it is we think misleading people into thinking that the energy label is some kind of measure of how well the machine will perform and, it's not!
Or at least, it's not outside a laboratory and under certain conditions, it also fails to take into account a plethora of other factors.
Recently the UK consumer magazine, Which?, has also found that the claims made on energy use by the manufacturers on these labels "can be misleading", in other words, wrong.
Testing The Test
So, what does the EU testing tell us then?
Well, not too much about the real world performance of the machine we are afraid.
To simplify it a bit before we explain in full, you can buy a normal lightbulb with an energy rating of "E" and you can buy one with the same light output, but it is a fluorecent bulb, with an "A" rating. Which is better?
Obviously the latter if you want to save energy, but the label does not tell you that that bulb will not dim, the light is (generally considered) not to be as "white" or bright or that it cycles at the rate of the current it is fed, often giving rise to headaches when working with computers. But then most people can work that out for themselves easily enough.
Where this gets a little more confusing is when it comes to appliances which are far more complex in use that a simple light bulb and there are many ways in which to use an appliance.
Let's look at a washing machine as a prime example;
The single largest use of energy on a wash cycle is used when heating the water up for a wash.
Here's a simple fact of physics, to heat XX amount of liquid to YY temperature takes ZZ amount of energy. Sorry, but it's an inescapable law of nature and physics. Yes you can alter the time it takes by using a more powerful element, you may even be able to shave a little here and there depending on the mechanics involved but, essentially, if you want to heat say, 5l of water up to 40C, it doesn't much matter how you do it as it will always take about the same amount of energy to do it dependendent on the starting temperature of the water.
(N.B. - As an interesting side note here, a lot of people seem to think that it's more efficient to use a hot fill as they have a tank full of hot water, a condensing or combi-boiler... wrong! It is actually cheaper to heat the water in the appliance and, with almost every modern machine, by the time it if full of water, all it's done is replaced the cold water in the pipework with hot water from the tank or boiler. It's totally wrong to think that this (or indeed a hot fill) is better in our opinion, common sense applies really.)
So the manufacturers got around this problem by cutting the amount of water that comes in to give you an "A Class" wash in terms of energy efficiency. But did anyone bother to see what that did to the wash performance?
Well customers have!
People notice that the new washers don't clean as well as the old ones did and that they take longer as well to complete a cycle. They take longer as the length of the wash cycle has been increased to counteract the effect of less water and detergent in the machine. They don't clean as well because the washing is not being done correctly and often people are not dosing the detergent correctly either, with much of it going to waste, just another detrimental environmental impact.
The detergent problem goes on though as it can congeal into a mass inside the appliance leading to premature failures or problems with foul odours that leads the the old smelyy washing machine problem. It gets left behind in the soap drawer forming, once bacteria settles in, a black disgusting mass that gets washed down into clothing, it can also be pretty smelly as well as almost impossible to get rid of once it forms. Yet another reason that customers have to re-wash loads of clothing and yet another black mark for the environmental reasoning in the current thinking.
The next bit is the "wash performance" which is a test made with five different stains which are in fact simulations of a stain, not an actual stain. These "stains" are washed, pressed and presented stitched together and then washed with a powder that is not commercially available in stores. The stain removal, from memory, is judged using reflected light after the wash and to achieve an "A Class" wash label it only has to remove 3% of the stain.
This load, with what they call "ballast" to simulate a wash is then placed on a 60C cotton wash cycle. But since most customers in the UK (as well as many other countries) use mixed fibres at 40C or 30C for the vast majority of clothing this does not offer a true representation of how the appliance will actually be used. In so far as I am aware the time taken is not measured for the test so there is no indication of that in the label.
The following table demonstrates the breakdown of wash cycles used from research carried out across Europe in 2001;
As you can plainly see, the 60C wash accounts for less than 25% of ALL washing cycles across Europe!
However this is slammed still further in respect to the UK in the following quote from the report by the ECEEE;
"Subdivided by type of textile, it appears that cotton (and mixed fibre) is by far the most popular: 79% of all washes. To a considerable extent this is due to Southern Europe where practically all wash cycles are cotton. Easy care (synthetics) programs are quite popular in the UK, a country in which almost half of all EU synthetics washes take place. Without the UK and Ireland, "easy care" would be a mere 8% of all EU washes, now it is 16%.
This says to us that Southern and Northern Europe have different wash habits and trying to apply the same test to different regions is, at best difficult. Especially in respect of countires, like the UK, where the 30 and 40C washes are so popular.
Recently we had a call to perform some tests on detergents (all available commercially may we add), these were basic tests to show the differences between a set of detergents and, bear in mind that this is a basic detergent test being carried out, that test consisted of twenty nine stains across three major groups! That kind of shows the poor information that would come back from a mere five stains.
Hardly what we'd say was in any way realistic at all, or what a customer would, or should, expect in performance terms.
The spin performance rating is based on the amount of water extracted, what it does not tell you is how much harder your ironing will be with the extra creasing as the spin speed increases. It also does not take account of the damage (in terms of wear and tear) to clothing that high spin speeds incur.
And to get in the clothing weights that are on the machine be prepared to fold every item neatly and expertly place it into the drum. These weights serve as an indication only in our experience, they are theoretical maximums and not for real world use.
And finally we come to the noise level, the last one you'll be pleased to hear. This is optional, the manufacturer can choose not to give this information but do bear in mind that the db (decibel) scale is not linear as such, different people have different perceptions of what's noisy and what's not and that the situation in which the appliance is installed can drastically alter the level of noise from the machine.
For example, in the UK most people have wooden flooring and this introduces several elements such as additional noise and vibration from the appliance. On a dishwasher or washer it can easily serve to effectively "amplify" the sound. Of course throughout most of Europe concrete flooring is the order of the day and this is a far lesser problem on such a steady and solid surface.
But "A" ratings sell.
We've not long had the new A, B, C etc. ratings introduced on ovens, but what do they mean? Even we don't know, nor can we seem to find out what they actually signify!
How are these ratings defined, what do they measure.... we simply don't know
However, we would strongly suspect that they will tell customers little or anything of any worth, like the heat up times, how stable the temperature is in the cavity or anything else that customers actually care about.
The basic outline for the label on a cooker or oven is available , although we should doubt that many people will care. However this document does set out the legal framework for the new labels and indicates to us, that it really doesn't tell you very much beyond the rough consumption of electricity.
However should you care to dig a little deeper you will find that even the MTP (Market Transformation Programme) which sets out the tests for these labels actually seem to believe that the current tests are flawed, as per their briefing note. We would tend to agree with that assesment, yet the labels are still out there now!
The After Effects
We have had customers literally screaming down the phone at us in service telling us that the machine that they just installed performs very poorly in relation to their previous one. It takes longer to wash and the results are nowhere near as good and, the customer is absolutely correct in many instances.
The crazy thing is that often a new machine is being demanded as "this one obviously isn't fit for purpose" but that's just silly as the replacement will be exactly the same.
The reason is that to have the "A" ratings sacrifices have to be made in terms of performance and/or the engineering of the product, sometimes both sadly as advanced technology costs money. As consumers we all accept this with most things, but seem not to with appliances for some strange reason.
In effect there is less water in the modern washing machine and therefore, logically, less room for the detergent to work as it should and less "swirling" in water which is, after all, the whole point of a washing machine is it not?
The "Green" Argument
We have no issue with environmental concerns, we're all for it. But we do like the arguments to make sense and to hold water (no pun intended).
It is argued that if the appliance uses less water and less detergent then the impact on the eco-system is lessened and, to some extent, that is very true. However, you also have to consider the implications of poor performance. What is a person going to do that doesn't get the clothes out the washer clean?
Exactly, they're going back in for another wash!
But there's more, what we've found is that people will then, in order to cut time as these new cycles take far, far longer, is that they will use the 40C "delicates" cycle which is, in essence, a short cycle that is intended to cope with delicate items of clothing. Or use a fast wash program.
These programs will not effectively clean everyday washing and the program is too short for the detergents to work correctly. Once again, if people don't get the result they re-wash the clothing and put it down to poor detergent, a poor machine or both.
These poor wash results have seen the market for "pre-treatments" such as Vanish increase massively in an effort to combat these effects causing further environmental damage through the use of additional chemicals, packaging and waste.
This totally defeats the environmental argument for these labels, it is absurd to think that (in the real world) the person using the appliance does not want good results first time, every time and, when it doesn't happen, they simply repeat the chore. Thus in the process actually increasing the strain on the eco-system, not lessening it as was the intent.
This totally defeats the whole point of the exercise in the first place!
A Solution For These Issues
Yes quite simply there is. But it would involve totally changing the way in which these labels are written and presented which, at the speed that the EU parliment moves at, would likely take about ten years, seriously that's the lead time.
For now there's very little information available other than that of other customer's experiences with a model or brand and the information available here, on UK Whitegoods, from service engineers that have to deal with the issues raised here on an almost daily basis in the course of their work as customers do ask us why the machines are not as good. But until manufacturers choose to provide the results of real world tests to us all then we're all stuck with buying blind as it were.
The implications of all this for service engineers is pretty grim, people expect that an appliance will perform a function to their own notion of how well it has to perform.
All too often we hear a customer tell us that it's supposed to be a good appliance as it was "A" rated, yet that tells you little about how the machine will actually perform. What it does tell you, like any other form of testing in this manner, is how well the appliance met the test criteria and, in almost every instance for energy labelling I've looked at, this does not reflect real world use. We simply have to deal with the complaints from people unhappy with the way in which the machines perform or function.
We hope that this article helps you to understand the EU Labelling system a little better and what it actually means to you, the customer.
The EU ECO Label
As is pretty clear the top section of the label shows who made the machine, or more accurately, what brand it is being sold under, the model number and the the big bars that indicate where the machine falls in the EU table of energy consumption.
This section basically tells you, in a rough way, how much energy is consumed on a cycle, but bear in mind that this is based on a 60C wash cycle.
The "EU Flower" is also displayed here if the machine complies to that standard, but more on that in a bit.
Working out the Cost
The next section shows a little more information on the actual energy use during the standard test, giving the actual consumption in Kwh (Killowatts per hour) of the machine. You can easily find out from your electricity supplier how much you pay for this as electricity is metered and billed in this manner, so if, for example, you pay 10 pence per Kwh and the machine uses 0.6Kwh per cycle then the cost is 6 pence per wash in electricity.
However it is important to remember that this is not the most expensive part of the wash, the cost of detergent is actually higher per wash, not the electricity that is used. It could also be argued that the environmental impact of improper use of the deteregent is higher and so we would recommend that you take a bit of care in the use of detergents.
That does not mean that "the cheapest is best" by any means, in fact they often are a false economy in my opinion.
We will publish further articles on the proper use of detergent in due course as well as our test results.
Please note that it is clearly stated that this figure is based on a "cotton 60C" wash, which most people we know never, ever use.
Also within the costs we are including the wash performance, if you read through the above you'll already be aware that we regard this as a totally misleading measure of the wash performance. It is not a realistic test of the appliance by any stretch in my opinion. So, what you have to remember here is that, should the appliance not wash as you expect or do it at the speed you need, you will often find yourself re-washing articles of clothing. Logically this adds to the cost of ownership to a massive degree and also holds profound implications for the whole notion of eco-labelling.
Additionally you can see, clearly displayed, is the comment that "Actual Energy consumption will depend on how the appliance is used" which, to me, is a classic "get-out" given that nobody we know or have spoken to on this subject actually uses the appliance in the same way in which it is tested. Then add in all the other factors and, whilst the energy label may give a very rough view of the efficiency of the machine, it does not in any way represent real world use of the appliance.
The Minor Details
Below the wash perfomance indication you will find the spin performance indicator, this is a simple rating system based on the amount of water extracted, as per the above.
After that comes the capacity. Again, whilst this gives an indication of the load size it's not realistic as to measure the load size cotton is used which is a heavy and dense material which is folded neatly and tightly packed into the drum to measure it.
You will be lucky if you get half to three quarters of that amount in the drum outside a laboratory.
"Average load weight in Europe is around 3 kilos. Recommended load weights based on the available textile materials that are present in the households are likely to be much lower than 4.5 kilos as well (Based on Uitdenbogerd & Vringer, 2000)." ECEEE Report
You will find that, in order to allow the clothes to move and therefore wash properly, that space has to be left to achive that, the rough guide is one hand widith from the top of the load to the top of the door allows enough freedom of movement to wash properly. In a laboratory testing the raw capacity there is no such restriction.
And finally there is the noise which we touched on above as well.
Please note that on the label that there is not any reference whatsoever to the quality of the goods! People often pick up that this label offers some sort of guide to the quality of the appliance and it simply does not offer any insight at all into how good or bad the machine is in terms of reliability or build quality. And so, when you walk into a store and see a bank of washers, dishwashers or fridges all sitting with labels that say they are all "A" rated at different price points this does not mean that they are all the same, do the same job or are as good as each other by any stretch. And, as I think you may have picked up, it offers a very limited insight into how the machine will actually perform.
The Euro Flower
The new "Euro Flower" or The European Eco Label has been introduced without much fanfare to consumers.
Basically it signifies further reductions in water useage, noise and electricity useage as well as having a clear "take-back" policy at the end of the product's life. There is also to be clearer instructions for owners of these appliances on the use of their machines to lessen any waste or ecologic impact.
What is nice to see here is that (finally) there are some guidance provided on the use of detergents with a stipulation for clear markings in the soap dispencer and guidance on the use of detergents.
But in effect it is only an extension of what already exists and, without proper information, we doubt many people would be able to tell what the symbol meant, would care or would even notice it on the label!
We are not alone in our suspicion that the ECO labels may be doing more harm than good.
On speaking with detergent manufacturers they too have found, as we have in the field, that people are confused by the labels and their meanings, they've also found, like us, that there is a strong resentment with customers on the poor wash performance. Many of the factors in this article account for the fact that detergents are being improperly used on the wrong cycles, with the wrong dosages and offering the user poor results.
Of course the user simply switches brands, decides that one is no better than another and buys the cheapest that they can instead of trying to find the actual cause of the problem. When in fact, the difference between the cheap "own brand" detergents and the known brands are absolutely massive when they are used correctly on the correct wash cycle. often negating the need to use other products, such as pre-treatments to remove stains.
The ECEEE (European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy) seem to have realised already that the existing system of labelling is inadequate and misleading and have offered reports to support that claim which is backed by some pretty extensive research.
Conclusion On Appliance Energy Labelling
On looking into this over the past few months we've learned a lot about consumers and their behaviour as well as what they actually think when they look at labels, it's not just so simple as it first appears.
The striking points about the EU labels we think we've made, we hope it's clear and not too boring but it is an issue that we think that many people should care about and take an interest in. If nothing else the apparent environmental damage being done because of the label seems immense, which is totally contrary to its intent to save energy and help protect our environment.
But the next time you look for a new appliance please bear some of these points in mind and don't buy an appliance just because the right label has been stuck to the front of it, there is far more to consider than just the energy label and, that may not mean what you thought it did.
More information on EU labels can be found from the following websites: