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How to judge a ‘good’ energy efficient eCooking appliance?

17th October 2022

By Dr. Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd.; Loughborough University).

Some of our partners are now at the stage where they are committing large sums of money to bulk purchase eCooking devices. In Nepal the government expects to enable 500,000, Indonesia has a target of a million units over the next two years, in India, our partners EESL have just announced 20,000, government and partners in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania are all exploring a few thousand as a prelude to ongoing sustainable supply chains that will reach deep into the urban and peri urban areas. Some of these are electric pressure cookers, some induction stoves, indeed some are infrared stoves.

So how will the procurement department for all these projects and initiatives ensure that the products they are acquiring are ‘good’. We have all heard of stories of low quality products that break within a few months or even weeks, and we have also heard more rarely of products that under perform and or are even potentially dangerous. 

The issue is not as simple as it might first present. To me there are four aspects to a good assessment of the product. We recently commissioned some work on standards, and the RFP, which is closed now, called for insights into these four aspects of assessing an eCooking product:-

Safety – all electrical products should be subject to International Standards on electrical safety. This provides for some basic rules so that no one gets an electric shock, and the items doesn’t overheat and fail. This is a relatively straight forward assessment and can be done by a qualified electrical professional.  Indeed, most products have to undergo a check before they leave their country of origin (which can be slightly unreliable depending on the country), or as they clear customs when imported (again, not always reliably), and should be checked by the body responsible for consumer protection.

So for electric pressure cookers (EPCs), our colleagues at CLASP when implementing our shared action of the Global LEAP Awards, working with Energy Institute at Colorado State University came up with some guidelines of assessing the quality of the build, and ensuring that it was safe. Interestingly, there were two products submitted to the Global LEAP that were deemed unsafe and rejected. It is important for an EPC particularly that it not only has the electrical safety but also has the safety features for the pressure phase. In a working paper on safety features of EPCs, our CREST colleagues identified that an early direct current EPC for sale to the trucking market in China did not have all the safety features, and did not turn itself off once pressurisation was reached. (This should not be confused with the Direct Current eWant EPC that has all the safety features of a European standard for EPCs.)

Minimal Performance – so while the Global LEAP did a great job at comparing EPCs, it didn’t necessarily set a minimal performance guideline.  The test for the Sauté function was said to be to raise the temp of 2 cm of oil to between 140 to 180, and they compared products by logging the time spent between these temperatures during 30 minutes of cooking.  So does that imply that if an EPC cannot get 2 cm of oil to 140 degrees (which is the case in some of the large EPCs), it hasn’t achieved minimal performance and shouldn’t be sold on the market? Similarly, we have measured the pressure phase as varying between 106 degrees and 114 degrees.  That affects the cooking time – is there a minimum pressure that should be achieved?

So how do the older appliances set minimum performance? My favourite assessment is of a grill. The international guide BS EN 61817:2001 IEC 61817:2000 (unfortunately behind a pay wall) states that one should take “2.5 kg minced beef, fat content 10 % to 20 % or quantity sufficient for 20 burgers depending on the size of the grill”, make burgers, and put five burgers on the grill one in the centre and one at each corner!  “Grill one side for 12 min to 15 min, turn the burgers over and grill the other side for 10 min to 15 min”, then the temperature of the centre of the burger should be logged and the brownness of the outside compared against a chart. So, when I first read this, I wondered why the (international test standard) food stuff was focusing on beef burgers (my childhood food!)? 

First can we just acknowledge that the device is tested by cooking real food not by heating water. It would be very difficult to heat water with a grill! But also, it contrasts with the years of experience of improved cookstoves which assessed efficiency (and by implication performance) by how quickly it could heat water. We have since moved away from that relatively simple calculation to look more closely at whether a product delivers a good cooking experience. Improved stoves, particularly the early rocket stoves, can heat water quickly but are very difficult for people to cook with!

So, checking a product or device by cooking real food. I am guessing the standard was made in the developed economies of perhaps USA, UK or Europe, and beef burgers are a common food, so that’s why a standard created and settled maybe in 2001 focused on beef burgers?  I mention the USA, because it was a culturally relevant food for the time and place of the professionals setting the standard – think George Foreman grill of the 1990’s, said to be more energy efficient than a conventional oven grill. We now have greater diversity in our food, and I don’t think beef burgers would sit well with vegetarian users.  So, should there be another standard for perhaps grilling aubergines?

But these three paragraphs above are about the standards set for older appliances, the humble ‘grill’. The bulk purchase referred to in the opening paragraph is looking to adopt the newer energy efficient appliances.  At some point they may even include the airfryer. Are there minimum performance standards for induction, infrared, EPC, rice cooker, airfryer? There are some for induction, but there doesn’t seem to be minimum performance for the others.

So, this is why we are looking to a) confirm whether there are such standards for the newer devices, and b) whether the food cooking element of any such tests is culturally relevant to the country of use.

As our partners purchase energy efficient appliances are they just looking for safety or should they also define some minimal performance by combining existing minimum performance for older devices with insights into how these new devices work. For instance, one can imagine adapting the grill standard for airfryers – but most airfryers couldn’t accommodate 5 beef burgers at once!

Comparative performance: – The Global LEAP was excellent (in my opinion) for comparing EPC brands against each other. Many products nowadays have an energy efficiency rating – and there is a large body of work on how to rate devices and assign an energy label. Consider this video for UK by our colleagues at the Energy Savings Trust, part of the Energy 4 Impact coalition. There is even a lot of work on how to make that label understandable to the consumer. So when I buy a new fridge here in the UK, I look out for the energy efficiency label. Indeed EST say as an intro to the videoThe new energy labels for TVs, fridges, dishwashers, washing machines and washer dryers are here. They’ve helped consumers choose energy efficient products for more than 25 years. They’ve also helped manufacturers and retailers develop and sell innovative and efficient products.”  But look at that list – what is NOT on there – cooking appliances!  

So, to date all these new cooking appliances don’t have such an energy label (even in developed economies). There are a few labels for traditional electrical cookers, but perhaps surprisingly not for kettles and microwaves, and certainly not for EPC and airfryer.  Indeed, the EU thought that it was so difficult to conceive of a labelling for the versatile cooking equipment that in 2009 they proposed to create labels for Kettles and Toasters – two task specific devices, and yet that doesn’t seem to have entered the market. The Global Leap did indeed show which devices were more efficient than some of the others, but that was for a cadre of products, and when a new product comes along there isn’t yet such a thing as a label that tells the consumer whether this new EPC design is more (or less) efficient than a previous design. 

Our work is focused on improving access to clean cooking and reducing dependence on carbon.  As such energy efficiency is really important (and is part of SDG7). But also so is consumer choice. We need these aspects to work together so that consumers demand more efficiency through their purchasing habits. But how can they do that without the information as to which device is better than another? So ‘energy labelling’ will become increasingly important – how can we move towards this with cooking equipment? 

Interestingly, the global LEAP was about a set of processes (bringing a fixed amount of water to heat, keeping it at pressure for 30 mins, and raising the temperature of oil). Should comparative tests involve food? After all a device may be able to cook a small amount of food at the same time as a larger device, but to get one meal for a family of four, the energy consumed by cooking twice in a small device could be a lot more than once in a larger device. Global LEAP sidestepped this by have size categories, but for the consumer, perhaps they need to know the energy consumed for a standardised meal? Indeed we addressed this in the paper on large EPCs showing that the cost per portion of food was much less in the larger EPCs. 

Repair and End of Life. Finally, I also think that repair and end of life should be part of the assessment and judgement as to which product to bulk purchase. I am old enough that in my youth I used to work on cars and as a friendship group we would help each other keep our old cars running. Our UK repair culture has gradually transformed into a throw away culture, and now a car engine is almost impenetrable to an amateur like me – you need computer diagnostics etc. There are multiple lessons from the WASH sector where handpumps that could be repaired locally lasted longer than more expensive ones that had to wait for centralised repair. 

As we roll out these energy efficient devices, will we be creating an e-waste problem?  Can they be repaired?  Can they be recycled? Surely in assessing which product to circulate within an economy these questions should be asked from the start, and hence another recently closed RFB that is now underway.

So, there may be four judgements that need to be made on these new energy efficient electrical cooking appliances. This is only my thinking at the moment, and we have commissioned work, and are looking to cooperate with CLASP and others to clarify this. But whatever the judgements to be made – who should make them?

Certainly, there should be enforcement in markets of the standards that pertain to safety, and that needs to be done by an agency with authority to penalise rule breakers. That is not always straight forward as evidenced by the World Bank data on say ‘ease of doing business’. There are opportunities in some countries to side step the law.

So where does that leave our procurement agencies? An assessment can be made at perhaps two defining levels. On an upper level, qualified laboratories could undertake tests and publish their results. This can be expensive and not all countries have labs capable of doing such tests. It can also be time consuming as items have to be shipped to the lab and processed in the queue of other work. 

At a lower level a guideline with some basic visual checks and some basic cooking of food could be undertaken by ‘informed professionals’. So, for instance the procurement team could sit together in a conference room and assess samples from the prospective suppliers against a set of criteria, and then maybe get the works canteen to use the devices and get chefs to comment on it! However, for this to happen there should be a clear guidance document of what to look for and how to check. We know that drafts for such as these have and are being prepared in Nepal and Bangladesh by our partners, but we need to move forward in helping all those in this forthcoming procurement to get it right!

In my opinion a guidance document needs to include ‘minimal performance’ and we need to match the newer devices with culturally contextual foods and dishes; so, the team know that the product will fit the prevailing culture in their country.  


Featured image: Image by cookie_studio on Freepik.