Are you an A+++ consumer? Cos I’m not

The story of the fridge, the energy label, and the craven Brussels bureaucrats

09 Jan 2013, 13:32

A couple of weeks ago, our fridge broke. With a few days off after Christmas my fiancée and I embarked on the unglamorous yet necessary task of defrosting the freezer box and unplugged the fridge. A day later we plugged the now pristine fridge back in and were immediately plunged into darkness as it flipped the fuse for our flat. A walk to Homebase to buy a new fuse for the fridge's plug ensued, only for the cursed machine to again trip the fuse.

Unfortunately, I am part of that generation you have probably read about that has no idea about how to repair things and I also live in a rented flat where the landlady's interest in her property extends as far as collecting her rent and absolutely no further. All of which meant we had to buy a new fridge.

Thanks to the wonders of online shopping this is now a pretty easy task. My fiancée went online and a few minutes later a fridge was found. "This one looks good," she said. "£130 and it's got an A+ energy rating." Not really paying enough attention and mindful of the fact the landlady would not agree to seeing any more than the bare minimum knocked off the rent that month to pay for the fridge, I agreed it looked good and the fridge was ordered.

It was only a week later when the fridge arrived, boasting a nice little label demonstrating its energy efficiency credentials, that I realised the error of my ways. I'd forgotten about the story we'd run back in 2010 about the EU's new energy labelling standards for white goods and other appliances. I'd stupidly assumed an A+ label denoted a good level of energy efficiency - it doesn't, it denotes nothing of the sort.

When Brussels bureaucrats realised back in 2010 that improvements in energy efficiency meant 90 per cent of white goods were eligible for the old A- grade energy efficiency label, they rightly concluded the labelling system needed updating. But rather than simply changing the specifications so only the top performing appliances could get the A grade, they miserably succumbed to industry lobbying and introduced a new "Beyond A" labelling system where appliances are rated on a D to A+++ scale. As such, our new A+ rated fridge is far from being best in class when it comes to energy efficiency, in fact it is decidedly middle of the road.

A belated closer inspection of Curry's online fridge listings reveals that it provides clear information on each fridge's energy rating, but not where that rating sits in the bizarre A+++ scale. All but one fridge on the first three pages of listings boast the A+ rating; I could not find a fridge with an A rating or below.

As it turns out, we would have had to have gone for an A+ rated fridge regardless. The impossibility of explaining to our landlady that spending a bit more upfront to purchase A++ or A+++ fridge to save money in the long term would have prevented us for opting for a more efficient model. However, it is worth noting that you can get an A++ fridge for around £280 and top rated A+++ models are on sale for around £500, putting them in direct competition with poor performing A+ fridges in the same price brackets.

The white goods industry will no doubt suggest this is all a sign of progress - virtually all fridges are now A+ rated and consumers can also choose competitively priced models that are more energy efficient still.

But in reality this is evidence of an appalling cop-out. The vast majority of consumers looking at various retail websites will assume the A+ energy efficiency rating denotes excellence and even those shopping in store who can see where A+ fits in on the labelling scale will assume it is pretty good - after all, no one ever got more than an A+ at school. I work with these issues for a living, and I still failed to check whether I could get a more efficient fridge for a similar price, mistakenly assuming A+ denoted excellence. If I was a manufacturer of an A++ or A+++ product competing with A+ grade rival products at the same price I would be furious.

The truth is that the near complete absence of D-A rated fridges from the market, while evidence of welcome progress, also means that A+ rated appliances are in many ways closer to worst in class than best in class. Yes, manufacturers have an incentive to develop and market A++ and A+++ rated products, but imagine how much greater that incentive would be if there was transparency over what they really are: A and B rated products that outperform the vast majority of C grade appliances.

It is worth noting at this point that A+++ rated appliances are on average 60 per cent more efficient than A grade products - there are huge savings on offer if manufacturers can be encouraged to develop more best in class products as quickly as possible.

The industry argued that changing the labelling scheme to simply make it harder to get an A rating would confuse consumers and be unfair on manufacturers who had worked to get the A grade. But the EU's craven caving in to lobbyists has created a system that is far worse - a labelling scheme that is confusing for customers and dilutes the incentive for manufacturers to improve their products.

Politicians who genuinely care about their constituents' energy bills and consumer rights should harness the full potential of energy labelling schemes and ensure they adhere to a simple A-G scale that is updated every five or 10 years depending on the pace of energy efficiency improvement. Because, despite the undoubted progress it has delivered, the current system is almost as broken as my old fridge.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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