Monday, 29 December 2008

When does an appliance reach its eco break-even point?

In the manner of a game show, I'm calling this week's ethical dilemma 'scrap or save'. Given that the new year sales are likely to feature tons of cheap-as-chips white goods, scrap seems the obvious conclusion. Except that the smart eco (and fiscal) thing to do is to wait until your current appliance has reached its break-even point - the juncture at which it becomes less efficient to keep it running than to replace it with a new one, factoring in all the resources needed to make and transport it. Unless you're an expert on lifecycle cost analysis, you'll need to make an estimate here. In the 'current climate' where energy prices are high, energy efficiency is the consumer's best bet. Therefore the payback period for installing a more efficient appliance is shorter than usual. Add in the fact that your old machine will be recycled (now EU law) rather than dumped in landfill, and give or take the vagaries of the global recyclates market, white goods are stuffed with metals such as copper cooling lines that can be recovered and reused, this also brings forward the break-even point.

Fifteen years is the usual break point for boilers and fridges. This may sound arbitrary, but remember energy labels for household appliances didn't even exist before 1992/93. They've encouraged manufacturers to prioritise energy efficiency (and lately, resource use), making it the new competitive advantage.

In short, if your washing machine looks like it belongs on Antiques Roadshow, you are missing out on €10bn-worth of innovation (the amount manufacturers are estimated to have ploughed into energy-efficiency research and development over the past 10 years). This translates into cash savings in the home: the Energy Saving Trust ( estimates that replacing an energy-inefficient fridge-freezer with a energy-saving version will save you around £34 a year. However, energy labels need a makeover - too many appliances are A grade. Certainly the best appliances are now so way over the standards required for A that they need to be followed by a line of plusses. Two new schemes are now vying to become the energy label of choice: a calibrated A-G that offers a less generous idea of what constitutes an A grade, or - preferred by the European Manufacturers of Household Appliances group - a numerical system that specifies the eco nuances of water saving and steam drying. When you opt for a new model, avoid deferring all eco responsibility. Researchers have found consumers get complacent once they buy a top-flight appliance - for example, the consumer who washes single socks at 90C in their eco-efficient washing machine. Buy the most eco-efficient appliance you can afford and use it well. Then you'll have the save of the century.

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