22 Aug 2014, 11:49am
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  • Self-seeking vacuum cleaner manufacturers lambast energy efficiency moves

    Consumerism, don’tcha love it. Take the humble vacuum cleaner – invented around the turn of the last century. They served previous generations well, given our Northern European habit of carpeting homes. In much of the rest of the world people use hard surfaces for floors like wood or tiles, but that’s a bit chilly in winter. Hence the need to clean carpets using technology more advanced than a broom or a mop.

    In a curious marketing arms race started by that James Dyson fellow, what was once a pedestrian and functional piece of kit throughout the 1970s and 1980s after being perfected over the previous 50 years became an aspirational product with innovation for the sake of it – one obvious problem was solved and a few more subtle ones introduced. Consumerism loves that sort of thing – make big positive changes and introduce faults that take time to develop – you only find out about the irritations as you own the product. It also became a damn sight more noisy that it used to be, with a particularly horrible high-frequency whine, in the case of the Dyson DC03 I used to have. Yeah, I was that middle class consumer suckered by the hype. The Dyson was a lot harder to troubleshoot. There were only four things that could go wrong with a bag-ful vacuum cleaner. The bag filled up, something got stuck in the intake hose or something jammed the brush roller, and all of these were something that were easily visible to the untrained householder. The fourth thing was the motor burning out, and you could smell that 🙂

    Compared with that the airflow of my old DC03 had loads of rubber seals, plastic channels that would crack under use and the whole thing gradually degraded so it was replaced after changing lots of expensive parts because it lacked suction compared to the basic Henry vac in a church hall we hired. I pulled it apart to see if there was anything worth salvaging, expecting to see all sorts of high-tech wondrousness. And was greeted with a bog-standard universal motor – so much for all the high-tech wizardry, eh, James? I don’t doubt the cleverness of the cyclone engineering, but it was the marketing of a new, and ultimately not very useful, technology that enabled you to jack up prices in the 1990s. Yes, bags make the suction fade, but the consumer can fix that. Whereas whatever made the DC03 fade over a few years wasn’t replaceable by a reasonably technical consumer – for all I know the usual little lumps that get sucked into the airways and trashed the plastic channels I replaced may have knackered the cyclone bit. I always hated that DC03 for the earache, anyway, glad to see the back of it 🙂

    Vacuum cleaners are now marketed by the power of the motor, which seems to be pure specmanship and lazy engineering. Previous generations worked in dirty manual industries, their kids played out in the street and garden rather than sitting in front of the computer. These generations were served by vacuum cleaners that were specified in hundreds of watts – I recall being surprised in the late 1980s to see a Miele vacuum cleaner that was rated at 1100W on the high range. So the question has to be asked, if one and a bit horsepower 1was enough to clean the homes of our grandparents with their grubby street urchins, why do we now all of a sudden need the power of three horses running flat-out to clean a carpet?

    Apparently, according to Which,and Dyson  an affront is being perpetrated on the human rights of European consumers by those pesky bureaucrats in Brussels limiting vacuum cleaner motor powers to 1600W, one and a half times the power of the machine that surprised me 20 years ago. It’s still more than two horsepower – people used to deliver coal and collect scrap metal with less power than that.

    Right. So you're telling me that after 100 years of impovement, you need more power to clean your carpet than this guy needed to haul tons of coal? Ain't progress marvellous, and don't spare the horses...

    Right. So you’re telling me that after 100 years of vacuum cleaner refinement, you need more power to clean your carpet than was needed to haul tons of coal? Ain’t progress marvellous, and don’t spare the horses…

    Now some pieces of technology have been reasonably perfected for the requirements most consumers have of them. The bicycle, screwdriver, the pen and paper, the digital SLR and many others. It’s not that innovation isn’t possible in any of these, but 90% of users’ needs are met adequately. The vacuum cleaner reached this stage by the beginning of the 1980s – my experience of Mr Dyson’s much vaunted advances were mixed – great at the start but hellaciously noisy, and, to be honest, overpriced to boot as well as fading over the years and being fiddly to maintain.

    I’m with the Eurocrats here – you don’t need three horsepower to clean a domestic carpet, and motor power doesn’t seem to be turned that well into sucking power. This is specmanship and marketing spin, and more power means more weight and more noise. It’s easy to sell something on a number, but after more than a century of making vacuum cleaners this isn’t a high-tech market in its infancy.

    Also if you have to make more vacuum cleaning stuff to sell to people to make them buy things they don’t need ,why not go the Roomba route – at least it’s genuine innovation in one aspect, rather than just making the motor bigger, noisier and heavier so the marketing droids can push the bigger number? Then at least you can use the time you save to go to work to pay for it. The very fact that people will put up with a Roomba, which clearly doesn’t have a three-horsepower motor 2 shows you don’t need stupendous amounts of power. One horse power, maybe. Knock yourself out with the power of two horses – the eurocrats are easy with that too.


    It’s when you running the same sort of power  that used to pull a coach and horses up the Great North Road that you have to ask yourself whether you aren’t just being suckered by specmanship.

    More power, more noise and more weight  is not the answer. Let’s hear it from Mrs Kingsland – whose machine failed in service after 70 years of cleaning her B&Bs. Apparently the new one is quieter – but too big and heavy 😉 They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh?


    1. one horse is good for about 750Watts – your can call on the rippling muscles of nearly three from one UK socket – ain’t modern technology marvellous
    2. very few things powered by batteries have a 3hp motor. And yes, total energy consumed is a function of power and time – even there it seems the Roomba scores relative to one of those eighties-powered units of 2/3 the new EU limit, never mind a 2010 behemoth, and there are many extra inefficiencies to a Roomba)

    As its the end of the week….

    “I’m just about to get rid of my Hoover…well, its only collecting dust”

    “Hi mate I don’t want you to panic but I’m texting you from the casualty. Turns out the new Dyson Ball cleaner isn’t what I thought it was”.

    Pure specmanship as you say.

    A similar thing has been going on in the world of digital cameras for years. The marketing men convince us that more mega pixels = better pictures and neglect to tell anyone that the lens is what really counts.

    While I agree that the power restrictions aren’t a problem in practice, personally I resent having these kind of limits imposed by law – be it from the UK or European governments. And why pick specifically on vacuum cleaners? What next, will it be illegal to sell a PC power supply over 300W?

    23 Aug 2014, 5:53pm
    by robhwales


    We have recently invested in an iRobot – a Roomba 650 to be precise bought new on eBay from a seller in Spain for £250 (i.e. the same price as a Dyson) rather than forking out £380 for the same item from any seller in the UK.

    I was prepared for it to be ok but I have to say that it’s brilliant. My wife and I are crap at housework and this thing is a godsend. Bottom line is that you hit one button and off it goes, cleans the whole top or ground floor of the house without any need to intervene and then returns to it’s dock to recharge itself. We have it on every few days on one floor or the other and our house has never been cleaner. If we wanted we could program it to schedule the cleaning. The only thing you have to do is empty it and clean the brushes occasionally. It can detect the stairs so it doesn’t take a leap, it can handle cables and rugs….

    It’s pretty quiet too – when it vacuums under the bed (when was the last time you did that) the cat (who’s normally afraid of his own shadow) doesn’t even stir.

    having a long-haired black cat and a cream carpet I’m glad of powerful vacuum cleaners …..

    @Steve – there are quite a few cases where regulation of technical specs is used to avoid a tragedy of the commons. I can think of car emissions specs, and most radio specs. It’s perfectly easy to vastly improve your Wifi range with more power. Trouble is, only if your neighbours don’t up theirs – else we will all settle at the same range but using much more power…

    @UTMT – too true – the last genuine innovation in digital SLRs was sensor cleaning, and after that I’ll only need to change my SLR if it breaks!

    @robhwales – it’s great to hear that genuine innovation works here. It’s a far better use of design effort than giving the marketing guys an easy time!

    @Possum – You really don’t need three horsepower to lift hairs. Indeed, from this Which report (Which being on the wrong side of the power debate IMO) being good at lifting hair seems to be about the design of the brush section rather than the amount of vacuum generated. Better design rather than raw power seems the way to go.

    I remember as a teenager walking to work I used to pass a grubby hired out room in an industrial estate where you’d hear the most ridiculous party noises at ungodly hours of the morning. It was like a kids party; clapping, ho-rah’ing, foot stamping, cheering and drum beating. Very very toe curling stuff, I wondered what it was that grown men were doing to have to endure such humiliation. Asking around revealed they were hyping themselves up to sell insanely priced vacuum cleaners to the unwary poor on I believe monthly terms. That was in the 80’s, so I’m afraid Dysan didn’t innovate the bullshit into vacuum cleaners, he merely made it middle class bullshit.
    I just tried to check the spec of that particular brand and I notice that they don’t advertise any numbers at all, not power or price. Now that is premium bullshitery.

    On the subject of consumerism: In case you haven’t encountered them before, look up “Rev Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping”(not a real preacher, by the way – he is a performance artist) …. very entertaining!

    For example:

    25 Aug 2014, 11:01pm
    by Living Cheap In London


    I just bought Mrs LCIL a Henry for the small shop I am helping her open. There’s a very good reason they are the choice of cleaning companies etc…. so simple they rarely fail.

    Your article has only further validated my decision making! Thanks Ermine!

    @Nathan I’d love to have had a recording of that sound 🙂 Mind you, the audio of pretty much any business meeting sounds totally barmy when listened to by outsiders – all the buzzword bingo and crap, but with it owuld be fabulous with added rah-rah!

    @LCIL it was indeed a Henry that showed us what a properly working vacuum cleaner worked like. So we got one to replace the Dyson 🙂

    The trouble is people aren’t used to routine maintenance now, so emptying bags is beyond the wit of the average consumer. Dyson does make the fullness of the crap clearly visible, which is an advantage. But in doing that he’s introduced the gradual degradation of the suction over years as the airways break up with all the little bits that the machine ingests over the years…

    Previous generations ran their machines for decades, usually until them motor burned out as the bearings seized. The Dyson didn’t manage to get past the 10-year mark, even after replacing several expensive parts! But I have a nice Dyson universal motor in the loft – works absolutely fine. It was the rest of the machine that wasn’t up to it.


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