Now Europe wants to make it harder to clean your carpets with new rules BANNING powerful vacuum cleaners. So reads a recent headline in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.

Vacuum cleaner manufacturers are angry. Even James Dyson is annoyed. The UK consumer organisation Which? has said that many of its Best Buy models will be banned from sale and “if you’re in the market for a powerful vacuum, you should act quickly, before all of the current models sell out”. Vacuum sales in the UK are up as a result of the furore—there are reports of people stockpiling powerful models.

The British have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to European Union bureaucrats telling them what to do. So what’s the real story behind the huff and bluster?

In October 2009 the EU adopted Directive 2009/125/EC on eco-design. This aims to reduce the environmental impact of electrical products, including the energy consumed throughout their entire life cycle. It will measure, label and communicate the efficiency of products to the consumer. The idea is that consumers will choose more energy-efficient products, which will encourage manufacturers to design more energy-efficient products.

This idea isn’t new to us. We are used to seeing Energy Star labelling on whiteware and heat pumps. EECA promote energy efficient light bulbs and from October they will be labelling efficient car tyres too.

The EU uses a similar Energy Star labelling system. However, this EU Directive for eco-design goes much further – it allows mandatory requirements to be set for specific products. Highly inefficient products can be banned.

Vacuum cleaners are first off the blocks for electrical appliances, but the list of products to be looked at in early 2015 includes a whole range of heating, whiteware, technology and small domestic appliances.

Cutting through the tabloid “reporting”, the EU documentation makes a strong case for minimum standards. The power consumption of vacuum cleaners has risen from 1275 watts in 1990 to 1500 watts in 2005 and is predicted to reach 2300 watts by 2020. By 2020 the energy consumption of a domestic vacuum cleaner is predicted to equal that of a washing machine (120 kWh/year).

It is easy for a manufacturer to increase the perception of performance by specifying a more powerful motor. Consumers are sold the myth that a more powerful motor equals better cleaning. But the wattage just measures how much electricity the motor uses – it is not a measure of how much dirt the vacuum picks up. Many of our recommended models use a 1200W motor and clean at least as well as vacuums with motors up to 2100W – our tests show that motor power doesn’t define performance.

In the higher-power models, a lot of electrical power gets wasted as heat. Our equivalent organisation in Germany, Stiftung Warentest, has stated that 38 models of vacuum cleaners tested have motors of 1600W or smaller, and plenty of them cleaned very well.

The EU legislation is being reported as a blunt instrument - a 1600W limit applies from September 2014, reducing to 900W in 2017. But the actual legislation is much deeper. It requires vacuum cleaners to meet minimum requirements for power, performance, exhaust air quality, noise and durability.

James Dyson argues that the standards aren’t tough enough – they accommodate less efficient bagged cleaners instead of pushing manufacturers towards more efficient bagless models (like the ones he makes). It is a valid point, but legislation will never please everyone and has to take into account the existing market.

Manufacturers of vacuum cleaners and other electrical products have been extensively consulted—they have known about the eco-design directive for a few years now. However, the large number of inefficiently powerful vacuum cleaners still available shows that there is still some way to go to eradicate lazy design. We back the EU directive—it is good and necessary legislation. We must all embrace energy efficiency, reduce our energy use and lower emissions. The demand for technology and electrical products has exploded in the last few years, with little focus on energy efficiency – the UN’s International Energy Agency estimates that household electrical products use three times more energy than necessary. The EU eco-design directive is an attempt to address this.

As part of a global market, we should see a knock-on effect here too. But perhaps it is about time we considered adopting our own eco-design directive in clean, green New Zealand?

About the author:

Paul Smith manages Consumer’s product test programme. He has spent most of his career pushing user-focused quality into the design and manufacture of cars in the UK, and educating design engineers of the future in New Zealand. Paul wants Consumer’s independent tests to empower people to make informed purchase decisions. He’ll only be satisfied when he rids the world (or at least New Zealand) of underperforming, poorly designed products. Paul’s favourite items are his steel fixed-wheel bicycle and Dieter Rams-designed Braun travel clock.