Sustainable products are not yet mature – they need to be!

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There are a lot of products out there. A lot of them tell you that they are good at what they do and are sustainable in some way. The trouble is that they are very hard to use and install.

Looking at some of the available products for heating and cooling a home sustainably and comparing with the home appliance industry (airconditioners, water heaters etc) it is somewhat depressing. The large electronics manufacturers have all the boxes ticked when it comes to features and installation aids. There are whole industries devoted to installing and selling their products. Water heaters are all remarkably¬† similar but really offer a captive market for plumbers who drive what consumers by from their recommendations or what they are prepared to install. A sharp intake of breath when you want something they don’t like usually means that they are going to charge a price that makes it uneconomical.

You can buy an airconditioner that does a decent job of heating or cooling for not much more than $1300 and installation costs around $500. For a solar heating panel that can be fitted to a wall (ideally North facing) the cost is not much higher at $1500 but the installation cost is nearly $900. You might think the installation is more complex but it is not that much more or even easier. The solar panel has self contained PV driven fans that mean no electrical wiring and the plumbing is a matter of a hole in a wall and sealing that up again. The airconditioner has electricity and plumbing requirements that are fairly stringent as well as needing special certifications for handling compressant. There are three trades involved for airconditioning and one for the solar panel. The solar panel installation is more like a cottage industry and the number of installers with experience to do the job is usually low – often only the supplier knows how to install it.

Differences in price are mostly down to the volume and lack of knowledge required to complete the installation and I would argue that the quality control on airconditioning installs is not that great because they want to finish several a day. Nonetheless there is a high cost to the installation for the sustainable option. Looking at the manufactured part – the airconditioning has a mass of mechanical and electronic components that are priced relatively low because of mass production. The price is not much more than the cost of raw materials and construction. By comparison the solar panels are almost hand made and cost much more than the raw materials that go into them. If there was the same volume of production for the solar heating panels then the price should/could be a third current price.

All that is what we would expect from standard economics of supply and demand as well as economy of manufacturing scale. However the sustainable industries could do so much better. One thing they could do is to move on from the past where the only people who bought sustainable products were enthusiasts (eg readers of Renew Magazine) who:

  • Wanted to do it themselves
  • Prefer a technical approach
  • Would prefer to cobble together and installation from available materials than buy and install kit
  • Would take a long time to make a decision to buy a product
  • Rarely considered appearance or usability/convenience (often preferring a lot of hands on adjustment or fine tuning)
  • Highly customised for specific customer needs

If sustainable products are to be viable alternatives for more than a fraction of a percentage of the total home market then the products need to be designed to:

  • Be produced in reasonable volume
  • To be installed by moderately skilled standard trades
  • Usable and functional for clearly identified needs (ie use adaptors rather than different products)
  • Have a balance of technical and user documentation pre-sales
  • Not rely on “you can save the world by buying this product” advertising! Make the case for how my life will be improved and how well the product works for me in a sustainable way

These changes are almost essential if the cost of sustainable products is to be competitive with high energy consumption traditional appliances.

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