Stem Vacuum Cuts Energy Use By 43%, By Being Just Powerful Enough

A new concept called Stem says it reduces energy usage by 43% by giving the vacuum just enough power—but not too much.

Remember those ads where a vacuum cleaner picks up a series of ridiculously oversized items to demonstrate its supposed strength: peanuts… bolts… golf balls? As it turns out, today’s vacuums suck a little too much, using outrageous amounts of energy just to keep your floor free of dust (or golf balls, as may be the case).

Stem, a new vacuum cleaner concept by Cambridge Consultants, claims that it can reduce energy use by 43% by supplying the right amount of power without sacrificing any suction for the cleaning task at hand.

Cambridge Consultants found that many vacuum cleaners are equipped with the equivalent of over-clocked motors which churn at a single high speed. They realized if they could provide an appropriate amount of energy, and only at the right moments, it would drastically improve efficiency. "From our ethnographic studies looking at the way people use their vacuum cleaners the overall energy used is significantly less, while the same cleaning performance is maintained for each job," Edward Brunner, principal engineer for the Volume Products Group at Cambridge Consultants, tells Co.Design.

The key to Stem’s efficiency is the ability to sense and switch between different power modes: high power mode for when you’re pushing over carpet, a reduced mode when the floor head is used, and almost a sleep mode when the vacuum is placed upright. Although some vacuums have the ability to change from carpet to floor mode by turning off the brush, it usually has to be done manually with a switch — they don’t automatically move between the settings — and the power output remains the same.

In addition, the designers reconfigured the vacuum’s head to ensure that the floor-to-nozzle connection would be the best possible to create suction. This was achieved by a more efficient internalized upright unit. "The main feature we have incorporated is to make the air path from the floor head," says Brunner. "A lot of vacuums use the wand as part of this air path, which is very inefficient."

While potential consumers might be interested in its energy-efficient features, Cambridge Consultants is hoping to lure them in with an arresting visual cue — a slender piece of blond wood that makes up the vacuum’s spine. While wood will certainly lessen the vacuum’s impact compared to the use of plastic, the designers also wanted to use wood to signal to consumers that this vacuum is different. "The wood was an idea our designers had to make the look of the vacuum as radical as the concept itself," says Brunner. "It keeps the eco theme running through the whole product."

Stem signifies a dramatic twist in our thinking when it comes to our appliances. Thanks to the infomercialization of our culture, we don’t think our appliances are performing well unless they’re loud, fast, and far exceeding our expectations. Think about the ridiculous videos of Will It Blend, where iPhones and Xboxes are pulped to advertise the power of the Blendtec blender. Seriously? A blender doesn’t really need to crush anything harder than ice.

Instead of adding special features to our electronics, one solution to save massive amounts of energy in the long run could be to engineer products so they don’t ever allow us to unnecessarily waste tremendous amounts of energy. Maybe we need appliances that are just powerful enough.

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