The EU should not ban vacuum cleaners

vaccuum I've been on hols, so allow me to be a little behind the times. The EU is proposing to ban vacuum cleaners of more than 1600 watts. If you follow that link you'll find a fairish discussion of whether this matters or not: its easy enough to argue that no-one needs more than 1600, and that Evil Manufacturers merely push the wattage up to fool Idiot Customers into buying something that "must be better". The EU itself says It is not power that makes a vacuum cleaner perform well. The EU will now require that all vacuum cleaners clean well and at the same time avoid wasting electricity. This will ensure quality, help consumers save money, and make Europe as a whole use less energy.

But all this is besides the point. We - or at least I - don't want to live in a Soviet-style command economy where bureaucrats decide what's best for us, or what variety of Trabant we're allowed to purchase. If we have bureaucrats with nothing better to do than this then excellent: fire them all and reduce our taxes by a tiny amount. The correct solution to costing carbon is to cost carbon; not to impose thousands of micro-regulations on aspects of behaviour as trivial as choice of vacuum cleaner.

Refs

* The hairdryer conundrum- David Hone.
* A Republican Scientist Explains Why Coal Is Expensive - Barry Bickmore
* YE ARTS & CLIMATE PYRATES DAILY

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In my country we try to decrease gasoline consumption by mandating fuel efficiencies of the vehicles. We like Soviet-style.

[I've written about this: http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2013/02/25/cafe-standards-are-extremely-i… -W]

I live in the USA. (I've been against that since, oh, about 1975.) Never-the-less, US and Canada have worst fleet economy among first world nations ("CAFE" on wikipedia). US traffic fatality rate is also not smaller than in most other first world nations ("big cars are safer" idea).

But taxes are communiss!

I would argue that efficiency standards for things like refrigerators, washers, dryers, etc. have actually been very effective in the US... having said that, I think clear labeling requirements (e.g., Energy Star), or even efficiency tax/credits, may be better than threshold requirements. (I have the same opinion on lightbulbs in the US: rather than forbidding inefficient lightbulbs, I would have taxed them heavily, thereby providing similar incentives to develop & promote LED lightbulbs, but with less moaning from people clutching their incandescents in their cold, dead hands)

[I think you mean "assert" rather than "argue", though you're welcome to provide evidence if you have it :-) -W]

I agree that labeling requirements are the best way to do this. Most consumers have no need for a 1600 watt vacuum cleaner, but there may be some (mostly but not exclusively commercial/industrial) for whom it makes sense. This is especially true if there is a power/time tradeoff. If it takes you 20 minutes to do the job with the 1600 watt vacuum cleaner, but an hour to do the job with an 800 watt vacuum cleaner, then (assuming you have space to store it) the 1600 watt unit is the better choice.

The biggest problem with US-style CAFE standards is that they have been gamed. Auto manufacturers encouraged consumers to use SUVs and pickups, which are basically trucks and therefore subject to a more lenient standard, as their primary vehicles. Needless to say, profit per unit is higher for SUVs and pickups than ordinary cars. There are some people who need it: if you pull a trailer, or you are a contractor who needs the cargo capacity of a pickup for bringing your tools and materials to a job site, then a truck makes sense for you. But most people who buy these vehicles don't actually need them--that's true in the semirural area where I live, and even more true in and around big cities. And despite the supposed safety and adverse weather handling of these trucks, these drivers are the ones that tend to slide off the road when the snow starts falling. Overconfidence is a factor here.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Sep 2014 #permalink

CAFE standards ought to offer a model: hold manufacturers to a fleet average of whatever your key metric is. (Avg MPG for automakers.)

By garhighway (not verified) on 15 Sep 2014 #permalink

Doesn't seem like much of a burden to me. All the vacuum cleaners in the US that plug into normal wall sockets are, by design and electrical code, designed to draw less than 1250 watts and, assuming that it is well designed and maintained, they seem to clean just fine.

The reason vacuums in the EU can draw more power has to do with the voltage of many European localities being 240 volts. Compared to the US standard which is 120v.

(Power in watts/ Volts = Current in Amps)

Double the voltage and you can get twice the power to the device while keeping the amperage low enough to avoid overheating the wires enough to avoid melting the insulation.

The actual effectiveness of the vacuum, most devices, is a matter of power, in this case, wattage. All other things being the same two vacuum drawing similar wattage will perform the same.

Lawnmowers are similar.
When I bought a lawnmower, my thinking went along the lines of
- I want something efficient
- I want something quiet (not too noisy at least).
- I'm only going to use it about 10 times per year, maybe 6 hours total time per year

I found a good 4-stroke lawnmower that runs low-revs and doesn't make much noise. I had to balance the low-power with the slightly longer time it would take me to mow, on those few occasions each year that I use it.
I've had this mower for over 16 years.
A friend borrowed it once. He complained, "your mower is $#@%, it kept stalling when I went into long grass". It works fine for me, though, you just have to take it easy.

Same as these high-power vacuum cleaners - lots of noise, lots of power, not necessarily delivering a benefit.

Banning things is a bad idea. A government-mandated Star-rating system is much better: consumers can see at a glance whether a vacuum cleaner is 5-stars or noisy, power-wasting 0-stars and make a choice.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 15 Sep 2014 #permalink

Regulation, cap-and-trade, carbon tax, all can work just fine in principle. What unifies them is that in practice they all get gamed, and by "all" I mean including the carbon tax beloved of so many.

[Really? I'm dubious about that. Do you have examples? -W]

Yet, despite the gaming, some steps do get taken over time, and they do add up (not to anywhere near enough, but as they say we have to start somewhere). IMO it is unproductive to make the tolerable the enemy of the equivalently tolerable, and we should be happy to support whichever approach seems most likely to overcome political resistance.

[I disagree with that, for the reasons I've given -W]

BTW, appliance regulation as it is practiced in the US does take what amounts to a market approach. Manufacturers are given plenty of warning and time to come up with more efficient widgets, and oddly enough they seem to have been able to. Those who won't or can't meet the standards depart the business (I would assume, although I'm not aware of examples), and others who will and can will get in, to more or less the same effect an increased electricity price would have, although not in accordance with libertarian gospel as she is wrote. So far, so good, although this particular stuff is just nibbling around the edges of the problem.

Speaking of libertarian gospel, let's not forget that in the US it was libertarian think thanks that first advocated for cap-and-trade a tax alternative, then flipped when it began to appear there was a risk of the former being passed. Of course they've been consistently against regulation across the board. One might think that what they're really against is doing anything at all!

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 15 Sep 2014 #permalink

I can't help but think all this kerfluffle over vacuum cleaners is just so much bikeshedding. Really, what fraction of household energy use is due to vacuuming? Does anyone know?

[The EU link I gave claims The new rules will save 19 terawatt-hour per year by 2020, which is the electricity produced by more than 4 power plants or consumed by 5.5 million households. Of course, that's carefully *not* given as a fraction, but even so seems high to me and is unsourced. The wording is a touch vague, too -W]

By Raymond Arritt (not verified) on 15 Sep 2014 #permalink

Very little, Raymond, but add up all the appliances and it starts getting noticeable. Such tightened standards also have an educational effect on the public, which in the US anyway seems to have a pretty positive view of this stuff IIRC.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 15 Sep 2014 #permalink

The single largest use of energy in the home (after heating and cooling of indoor space) is for refrigeration, and fridges have become many times more efficient over the past 20 years. Vacuums are somewhere far down the list.

But all of this is nibbling around the edges. The answer is to just shut down coal fired power plants and replace them with non-carbon energy sources: nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal. Go right to the source and that takes care of that.

Factors that can affect vacuum cleaner performance include the diameter of the hose and pipes (smaller diameter concentrates the suction into a smaller area), the area of the nozzles (smaller nozzles focus the suction into a smaller area), the dust container (a full dustbag makes a cleaner less efficient; the design of the dustbag and container affect how well it retains suction as it fills up), and whether the exhaust is unimpeded after it leaves the fan. Adding a HEPA filter requires using more energy for the same cleaning power, but it traps fine particulates that would otherwise go right into the air.

Manufacturers can tweak all of those factors for better or for worse. If they are limited in terms of wattage, they will find other ways to produce the degree of suction power their users expect.

But frankly in this era of emerging diseases, bedbug pandemics, venomous insects and spiders shifting habitats in response to climate change, and the like, household sanitation & hygiene are bad things to target for energy limits: like demanding that people save paper by using less toilet paper. Liberate the vacuums, and make up the difference somewhere else.

WMC - The Carbon Tax was gamed pretty effectively in Australia. Turns out it's much cheaper to sponsor political parties to repeal the tax than it is to change your behavior.

[I don't think that counts as "gaming the tax". Gaming the system is, for example, like what happened to the CAFE standards in the US - it pushed people towards SUVs -W]

Lots of people will have been taking notes on that experience. Fundamentally, the problem is because a carbon tax doesn't play favorites (In theory the best bit!), it has no well-defined political lobby and is hence easy to kill.

Whereas, of course, if you are 4 years into building a fleet of nuclear reactors, with billions invested and contracts signed, it's a lot harder to kill. Hell, it's apparently impossible to kill the construction of a couple of 'White Elephant' class Aircraft Carriers. Having politicians (or better, engineers) picking solutions may fill economists with horror, but frankly that's just tough.

On the other hand, banning vacuum cleaners is daft, energy ratings are fine.. and as G said above - the task is to decarbonise the electric grid; that's a prerequisite to fixing the problem.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

Given that we haven't got a carbon tax in place and there is little sign of one materialising this decade (at the moment - this could well change rapidly) product standards are the only way we can bring energy consumption down. Once we have a carbon tax in place then we can see if it's having the right effect and review our product standards accordingly but until that point we will continue to face energy security and ghg emission challenges and product standards help to mitigate this.

[Well, this is a matter of opinion but I disagree. Product standards like this are fundamentally stupid and fundamentally misconceived; we're better off with nothing rather than this stuff -W]

Consumers *are* ignorant - why should they be knowledgeable? A fridge has a fixed-ish requirement (keep food at about 3C) so energy labels can be used to distinguish "good" fridges. Sticking an energy label on a vacuum cleaner, though, makes not much sense as people don't worry about the cost of running it (like they do with cars).

This isn't about restricting your choice of Trabant because Dyson have shown it is possible to produce a better cleaner for lower power. Given that a sensible person with the right knowledge would choose based on the effectiveness rather than the energy use, surely it is common sense to set a feasible limit in the same way it is common sense to set safety standards or standards for recyclability.

Probably it would be better to additionally create a metric based on effectiveness though. I think Mr Dyson seemed to be suggesting this.

By Steve Milesworthy (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

Yeah, NOT happy with the fuel efficiency standards for cars that made a special category for "light trucks." I LIKED the old Subaru, and a lot of people actually do have a use for a station wagon with some extra snow-survival features.

And, statistics show SUVs are no safer for the passengers and substantially more dangerous for other vehicles and pedestrians. Unless you are regularly transporting enough people or cargo to fill that SUV, it's just dumb.

Is nickle-and-dime regulation of individual items the way to go? Probably not. I think the mandated labeling of Energy Star does make a difference, by bringing energy efficiency forward as a sales feature and making it clear how much energy each model uses.

By Young CC Prof (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

"[Well, this is a matter of opinion but I disagree. Product standards like this are fundamentally stupid and fundamentally misconceived; we're better off with nothing rather than this stuff -W]"

So we just sit around doing nothing until we get a carbon tax? Doesn't sound like a very useful policy direction to me.

Product standards in lighting lead to the replacement of incandescents with CFLs and lighting demand fell of a cliff.

[How do you know? All you know is, we've had new tech for lighting, and we've had standards come in. You've no idea what the uptake rate would have been like without the standards, with just the tech -W]

Average refrigerator efficiency has improved greatly since they've prevented low rated fridges being sold. All new fridges coming to market must be A+ rated or better and cold appliance demand is trending down very nicely.

What about Part L of the building regs? That's a product standard which has progressively tightened energy performance requirements for new build properties since the late 70s and now we have new builds consuming a lot less than their 1960s counterparts, even after those 1960s buildings have had energy efficiency retrofit work done to them..

Of course not all product standards work perfectly and the manufacturers will do everything in their power to water them down, create loopholes and generally fool around with them to reduce their effectiveness but they have made quite a difference to our energy landscape.

"[How do you know? All you know is, we've had new tech for lighting, and we've had standards come in. You've no idea what the uptake rate would have been like without the standards, with just the tech -W]"

No that's absolutey right, I don't know exactly what the uptake rate would have been without the product standards. I'm sure there have been studies to assess the impact of product standards but I don't have them to hand.

I do know that uptake of CFLs would have been much slower than it was because there was a vigorous rearguard action against the introduction of CFLs around the time of the phase out (working in energy efficiency I was on the receiving end of the vitriol that was uttered by certain sections of the media and quite substantial numbers of the general public). In the course of a year we went from incandescents being ubiquitous to incandescents being found here and there, mostly in pound shops. I fail to see how that couldn't have had an impact on purchasing behaviour.

In a similar (but more gradual) fashion the lowest performing cold appliances have been phased out so that only the top three categories remain, consuming about a third or less of the worst performing fridges which were available 15 years before. It's not impossible that people could have shifted over to the highest performing cold appliances but it sounds highly unlikely to me given that running costs are generally subsidiary to up front costs.

And we know that house builders wouldn't have designed their buildings to be as energy efficient without the legislation because house builders don't do these kinds of things out of the goodness of their hearts.

So yes my knowledge of how the counterfactual would have played out is imperfect, but in the absence of a definitive answer on that alternative uptake scenario it's a hell of a leap to conclude that product standards are "fundamentally stupid and fundamentally misconceived".

I tend to agree with the principle of putting a price on carbon instead of such regulation and in this case I agree that it's stupid to put a power cap on vacuum cleaners.

However, there's something to be said in favour of such regulations. They can be useful in some cases, when consumer interests (saving money) and manufacturer interests (saving costs) are opposed. An example of smart(er) regulation is the cap on standby power of various consumer electronic devices.

Limiting standby current increases manufacturing costs, but doesn't add enough value to justify a higher price, so manufacturers wouldn't do it, unless forced to by regulation. So even though consumers would prefer the more power efficient device between two equivalent devices, that feature alone doesn't make any device attractive enough for the consumer to select over a device that is perceived to be otherwise better. Conversely, a consumer won't turn down a device because of high standby power consumption, thus making that the first thing a manufacturer would omit.

(In case you think there's no cost to the manufacturer to reduce standby currents, consider for a while the design and operation of line level AC to low-voltage DC converters.)

By Master of Vacuum (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

WMC: "Product standards like this are fundamentally stupid and fundamentally misconceived; we're better off with nothing rather than this stuff ."

You really need a judgement based on more than just personal distaste. The EU may be just starting on this stuff, but there's vast experience around the U.S. with both voluntary and mandatory standards. Somewhere in that experience lies enough evidence to support a point of view.

I haven't looked in detail at it, but gaming on carbon taxes seems to take the form of either making it too low (as in BC) or badly targeted (as in Oz). The parallelisms to gaming of cap-and-trade and regulation seem obvious enough.

If you want an example of a *relatively* well-designed cap-and-trade system, look to California.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

Surely it is time for a vacuum tax , perhaps named in Steve's honor.

As we approach Peak Vacuum, it is time to realize that only by capping vaccum production, and monetizing vacuum offsets, can we hope to end humanity's tragic addiction to this vanishing resource-- if the nation runs out of vacuum, where ever will we sequestrate C02 ?

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

I am unfamiliar on how effective regulations are when dealing with small issues like vacuum cleaners. These types of regulations are in effect forced conservation and they give the right fuel for their anti-regulatory agenda.

I do know in the US, cap and trade has been used to lower air pollution under the Clean Air Act. "Overall, the Program's cap and trade program has been hailed as successful by the EPA, industry, economists and certain environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_Rain_Program

It was fought by environmentalists up to the Supreme Court, and it lead to the landmark case NRDC v Chevron where enviros argued the better way to reduce pollution was command and control. The NRDC and other green groups lost, with the court giving deference to the agencies.

By Joseph O'Sullivan (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

All types of regulations, which in a broad sense do include carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, are in effect forced conservation, Joseph. The right certainly sees them that way, correctly so. In my direct experience it's quite possible to effectively campaign for such things so long as one takes a straightforward approach.

Right now in California, we're starting to see serious water rationing kick in. Note that none of this is being done by way of a modified price structure that would conserve the same amount of water while allowing someone with enough money to escape the burden so long as they're willing to pay more. It is true that in places with very wealthy people they're able to pay to have water trucked in from areas with more water still available, but that's only possible because the bans are local. The general public attitude toward that practice seems very negative, interestingly. Eventually, with continued drought, I expect steps will be taken to limit or ban such private inter-basin transfers.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

That link doesn't work atm, Russell, but I am indeed honored.

One question: Can vacuum features be shorted?

Old joke:

"This vacuum cleaner you sold me doesn't work!"

"Have you tried cleaning any vacuum with it?"

Love the Pirate Day post, BTW. It's become my second-favorite hol, right after... yes, you can see this one coming... Bloomsday.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

But all of this is nibbling around the edges. The answer is to just shut down coal fired power plants and replace them with non-carbon energy sources: nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal. Go right to the source and that takes care of that.

Maybe. But I'd have thought it was obvious that the lowest cost, lowest emission power was the power you no longer need to generate at all.

Increase the efficiency of heating, airconditioning, refrigeration, lighting, cooking appliances and all the other essential and optional electric gadgetry around the place and what happens. If you increase efficiency of one kind of appliance or service, say heating, by 10% that reduces whatever need there was to generate power to meet that need previously. Do it for every single one of them, and you no longer need to generate the power that was previously required. Negawatts are the cheapest watts, some people say.

I'm not entirely convinced of that. Retrofitting housing and business premises to reduce or eliminate the need for heating and cooling can be expensive, though there are plenty of examples of commercial buildings getting a payback period of less than 5 years. And the need for power thereafter is minimal or nil.

Stipulating requirements for fridges, freezers and air conditioners has worked pretty well to reduce aggregate power requirements in plenty of cities. I'd say that simply not needing a power station or its replacement at all is a very satisfactory way to deal with the issue of the "cost" of replacing with renewable or any other power source.

Steve Bloom:

Regulation, cap-and-trade, carbon tax, all can work just fine in principle. What unifies them is that in practice they all get gamed, and by “all” I mean including the carbon tax beloved of so many.

[Really? I'm dubious about that. Do you have examples? -W]

I haven’t looked in detail at it, but gaming on carbon taxes seems to take the form of either making it too low (as in BC) or badly targeted (as in Oz). The parallelisms to gaming of cap-and-trade and regulation seem obvious enough.

also W, in response to Andrew Dodds:

WMC – The Carbon Tax was gamed pretty effectively in Australia. Turns out it’s much cheaper to sponsor political parties to repeal the tax than it is to change your behavior.

[I don't think that counts as "gaming the tax". Gaming the system is, for example, like what happened to the CAFE standards in the US - it pushed people towards SUVs -W]

I'm with WC. It's just as easy to craft a fair and effective carbon tax as it is to craft an unfair and ineffective one. The simplest would be to tax fossil fuels based on their carbon content, levied against producers at the mine, wellhead or port-of-entry. The instrumentation and the bureaucracy are already in place. Following market logic, producers would raise their prices proportionately to consumers, who would have incentive to conserve and to seek alternative energy sources. A Border Tax Adjustment on imported goods, based on GHG emissions during manufacture, could address the obvious trade and competitiveness issues, although it might have to be adjudicated by the WTO. Returning all the revenue to taxpayers in an annual check for an equal share would appease anti-tax-increase types and help low-income energy users who might be otherwise pushed over the edge of poverty.

These aren't my own ideas (see http://www.carbontax.org), but they sound pretty straight-forward to me. Of course the political will would have to be mustered, so I can't say my hopes are high. Other than that, what am I missing?

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

Best consider hydrogen rebates before embarking on carbon taxation without representation.

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 16 Sep 2014 #permalink

What's wrong with good, honest, British dust?
Cough.

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 17 Sep 2014 #permalink

Will the EU need to regulate the thickness of the pile in household wall-to-wall carpeting in order to ensure weak vacuums are able to properly clean them?

Once the EU mandates a rolling ceiling on dust particle size, with the legal limit ratcheting down to 1 Fermi in 2100, the way will be open to quantum vaccum cleaners powerfull enough to suck money out of numbered acounts in Lichtenstein and hanging chads out of ballot boxes in Florida.

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 19 Sep 2014 #permalink

Wait 'til marketing comes with "equivalent Watts" (we use to have an advert for a vacuum cleaner with "equivalent amps" so it could compare itself to higher-power models - amperage=suckage). Same way they advertise LED and CFL lights. Pretty soon you'll see 1800W vacuum cleaners that advertise themselves as "equivalent to 40,000W old style cleaner." Then you calculate the power savings from that difference and it pays for itself in 1 week.

By Tim Beatty (not verified) on 20 Sep 2014 #permalink

A vacuum is a tool, used intermittently. Should the bureaucrats limit the power of a table saw? Maybe someone is trying to sabotage energy efficiency by doing something so stupid.

By Bob Maginnis (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

Bob Marginnis: Total agreement re the intermittent use thing. Total disagreement re sabotage. There's no conspiracy. Just Eurocrats being Eurocrats: think of a nifty headline then impose legislation to fit it. The EU is broken.

Fergus Brown: Then there's Tim (Weird Brother) Vine's winning joke at this year's Edinburgh Festival. 'I decided to sell my Hoover. Well, it was just collecting dust."

Shoulda waited a while. He'd have got a better price.

By Vinny Burgoo (not verified) on 25 Sep 2014 #permalink

VInny Burgoo: "The EU is broken."

Compared to what?

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 25 Sep 2014 #permalink