Energy labels are hugely exaggerating the efficiency of televisions, fridge-freezers and dishwashers - with some appliances consuming almost twice as much energy as they claim to.
That's according to a survey of European Union products, which show that domestic appliances seriously fail to measure up to their purported energy efficiency savings when tested outside the laboratory in real-world conditions. The findings are reminiscent of Dieselgate.
The tests revealed that the current outdated official test formats on which appliances' color-coded A to G gradings have been based are "vulnerable to misuse."
The study further warned of the growing potential for goods to outwit tests, saying that "as appliances and products become increasingly sophisticated and 'smart,' they may also become better able to detect specific test conditions set out in the EHTS [European harmonized test standards] and adjust their performance and energy consumption.
"If a test is very similar to real life, it becomes more difficult for software to differentiate between test conditions and real life."
'Defeat devices' to cheat the tests?
Researchers from a coalition of environmental and energy efficiency organizations looked at three groups of appliances sold in the EU: TVs, fridge-freezers, and dishwashers.
They found that under more realistic test conditions - such as switching on modern TV features like ultra-high definition - four out of seven TVs surveyed consumed significantly more energy than under the standard laboratory conditions. One increased its usage by 130 percent.
The standard official test employs a video clip in use since 2007 - considered "obsolete" by the study's authors, as it fails to mirror current broadcast patterns. So researchers created their own video clip more representative of today's TV viewing.
Based on how one particular TV model increased its consumption by 47 percent when playing the video clip, the report said that "given the magnitude of this power increase, and the fact that none of the other models exhibited the same behavior, this model stands out as potentially detecting and adjusting its behavior to reduce average power consumption."
The authors stopped short from comparing the findings to Dieselgate, the scandal involving Volkswagen cars where installed "defeat devices" cheated emissions tests by making the vehicles appear far less polluting than they really are.
Francisco Zuloaga, senior consultant for consumer website Topten.eu - which contributed to the report - told DW that the study was "definitely not" suggesting that defeat devices were put into the household products they tested. "We can't prove that," he said, adding that Dieselgate comparisons "go too far."
"We can only say there's a difference between the tests we did and the tests that the official authorities did - that's all," he told DW. "Our tests are more representative of real life."
Jack Hunter, spokesman for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), another co-author of the report, told DW that regulators in the United Kingdom and Sweden had already complained to the European Commission that TV sets seemed to cut their energy use when they recognize the standard official clip being played.
"This is one of the reasons why we looked into it," Hunter told DW. "We found behavior we thought was suspicious.
"But we can't prove it - it's extremely hard to prove."
Calls for further investigation
The study also found that five TV sets deactivated their energy-saving features when changing default picture settings, without warning the consumer. For two of those five models, energy-saving features were greyed-out, and couldn't be re-enabled without a factory reset, despite these features having contributed to the energy label rating.
Dishwashers are only tested on an efficient - but infrequently-used - eco mode in official test cycles. When tested under more realistic conditions, dishwashers surveyed in the report used up to 73 percent more energy than claimed.
No brands are named in the report, which investigated 20 products in total: seven televisions, 10 fridge-freezers and three dishwashers.
The report's authors cautioned that it is not a comprehensive survey, because sample sizes were limited to one model due to time and budget constraints.
But they have passed on the report's findings to market surveillance authorities, for which EU member states are responsible under European Union regulations, and urged them to carry out further investigation.
Not 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'
The Ecodesign Directive is the main EU policy instrument for improving the energy efficiency of products. It compels manufacturers to improve efficiency and phase out products that no longer meet the requirements.
The directive uses energy labels to help consumers buy more efficient products that are cheaper to run. Ecodesign innovations are expected to cut around 9 percent of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and 15 percent by 2030.
The policies are also expected to reduce the average home energy bill by nearly 500 euros per year by 2020, according to the appliance efficiency study.
"In reality, such savings will only be realized if consumers trust the label and continue buying energy efficient products," the study warns.
Zuloaga said, however, that he hoped that consumers reading reports of the survey's findings "will not throw the baby out with the bathwater."
"The labels are a good tool, and it's working well," he told DW. "But we think they can be made even better."
Matteo Rambaldi, energy policy director at appliance manufacturers' group the European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED), told DW that as each product has many programs, "when defining an energy label, the European Commission cannot consider them all."
"They take the one most representative of consumer behaviour," he said. "There are programs using more energy, other programs using less energy."
He added that saying that some programs use up to twice as much energy as advertised on their energy labels "is only looking at one side of the coin."
"We could as well say that there are programs that 'use less than one half as advertised on their energy labels,'" he told DW. "But we would not make the press."
European Commission to study report’s findings
A spokesperson for the European Commission told DW that it has recently improved European laws in energy labeling, saying: "As part of the new rules, harmonized testing standards will be designed aiming to simulate real-life usage as far as possible."
The commission told DW that it was taking "good note" of the product report.
It acknowledged that the real-life energy performance of products may differ from those under test conditions.
"This is due to the fact that test methods have to be reliable, comparable and reproducible, and cannot address every possible use of a product by consumers," the spokesperson told DW.
The spokesperson added that the revised energy labeling agreed upon by the European Parliament last week "contains clear obligations for suppliers as regards the use of 'defeat devices' [which is forbidden] and the need to inform consumers about possible detrimental effects of software updates on the energy performance of the product."