Series in which Sophie Raworth reveals how household products are tested, putting the makers' claims on trial and showing how to get the best value for money.
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Take a look around your home.
Can you be sure that every appliance is safe?
Is everything a company tells you about a product true?
And are you getting the best value for your money?
With the help of the country's top experts, we're going to see
what it takes to test the household products we use every day.
We'll discover how they're pushed to their limits...
We'll put the makers' claims on trial.
And show you how to make your money go further.
You'll find these products in any ordinary house.
But THIS is NO ordinary house.
And no ordinary street.
This is the Watchdog Test House.
Hello - we're deep inside
one of Britain's leading science centres.
Here at the Building Research Establishment,
some of the products and materials
that we use every day are put to the test,
to make sure that they're safe, environmentally friendly...
and that they don't fall apart.
Coming up on today's programme...
The gentleman had suffered quite severe burns.
He'd been sitting in a chair that was on fire,
and hadn't been able to get out of that chair in time.
We're on the road with Trading Standards as they attempt to
get illegal furniture off the market...
At the end of the day, if it doesn't comply with the legislation, that makes it dangerous.
Vanish, Ariel, Wizz.
ALL promise to remove stubborn stains.
But how do they compare?
And the energy-efficient homes of the future.
Could they make high energy bills a thing of the past?
The average energy bill is about £1,300 a year.
For THIS house, it could be less than £150.
It's now more than 25 years
since Fire Safety Regulations were introduced in this country to
try to reduce the number of people dying in house fires.
Since 1988, there have been rules in place to make sure that
covers, upholstery and filling materials on furniture pass
strict flammability tests before they can be sold.
But despite these laws,
there's STILL furniture on sale and in our homes that doesn't comply.
Carlisle in Cumbria... In September 2013, it was
the scene of a devastating house fire.
The gentleman had suffered quite severe burns.
He'd been sitting in a chair that was on fire, for whatever reason
hadn't been able to get out of that chair in time.
Station manager Craig Drinkald was one of the first firemen
on the scene and he helped to co-ordinate the crews.
'It was a relatively small developed fire in terms of a building fire.'
They went into the living room,
it was very hot in there.
There was lots of thick smoke,
quite a low smoke layer.
As soon as the smoke cleared, they unfortunately discovered that
someone had died in that fire.
The victim had dropped a match which hadn't been properly
extinguished into a waste paper basket.
It set fire to his armchair - which rapidly went up in flames.
When we did the investigation, we were able
to find out that the chair didn't meet current safety standards.
Just cos of the fact of its age - it was quite an old chair.
We applied a naked flame to it outside
and it burnt really readily, it gave off thick, toxic smoke.
It gave off droplets of fire.
So it actually ADDED to the fire development
rather than suppressing it.
Just take a look at this footage
which demonstrates the difference
between a sofa that meets current
regulations, and one that doesn't.
The sofa on the left
and can't be sold legally in the UK.
It takes just THREE minutes
to reach life-threatening levels
of fire and smoke.
The sofa on the right
which IS fire retardant and legal
takes TWENTY minutes
to reach the same intensity.
The reason why we've got the regulations is to give people time.
Time so that they can realise there's a fire,
and they can make an escape and unfortunately in this situation,
the gentleman didn't have time because the fire took hold really quickly.
But beware - it's not just old furniture which poses this risk.
Modern furniture can fail to comply with the regulations, too.
And it's up to Trading Standards to seek out these illegal products,
and remove them from sale.
Today we're going to be visiting some furniture shops
in the Birmingham area
that we think might possibly be selling furniture that doesn't
comply with the Consumer Protection Act, and the furniture regulations.
A label should be put on the furniture that has a batch number
on it, which is an ID.
If they haven't, then we'll probably seize them
and send them for testing.
The first shop Hannah and her colleague Sharon are visiting is
one where they've spotted suspicious furniture on display in the window.
But what will their closer investigation reveal?
So this is the label that's got all the information on it.
It's got a batch ID on it.
And it's got the postcode of who's manufactured it.
This footstool looks OK,
but a headboard for a bed soon catches Hannah's eye.
That's made of foam.
And that should have
one of two labels on it.
Either the longer label which has got all the information on it,
or the shorter label.
You can see from this item here, that it's got the short label,
but there's no batch ID.
By law, all upholstered furniture must display labels along with
a batch number which allow it to be traced back to the manufacturer.
If they don't, not only is it illegal, but it could be
an indication that the materials used are not fire retardant.
Later, we'll discover just how much illegal furniture they find on sale in Birmingham.
I have to admit, I'm very disappointed and I'm quite shocked
really, considering this legislation has been out for a number of years.
And we'll find out just how dangerous it can be
when it's taken to the lab for testing.
Now, we've all been there -
sometimes your basic washing detergent isn't enough
to get your clothes clean.
Which is why you might turn to one of the many products on the
market claiming to have brilliant or amazing stain removal powers.
But with some brands costing almost five times more than others...
is it worth spending that much more?
Yes, Sophie - it's testing time. Today's products?
Three stain removers -
all widely available from the major supermarkets.
The cheapest we could find - Wizz Oxi Fabric Stain Remover
for £2.50 per kg. A mid-price version - Ariel Stain Remover Powder
at £8 per kg. And finally, the most expensive we could find -
Vanish Gold Stain Remover,
at a pretty precious £12.12 per kg.
To really put them through their paces, we're going to need
some heavy-duty stains.
Where better to find them than here?
Leeds University Rugby Club.
Normally, everyone's just splattered with mud, absolutely caked in it,
especially with the pitches in the condition they're in at the moment.
It's a tough job to get rid of all the stains.
Something tells me these seven brand-new T-shirts we've provided
aren't going to stay white for long.
A few crunching tackles and triumphant scoring slides later
and layers of mud begin to build up on the surface of the T-shirts.
This is what's known in the science world as "particulate staining".
In this case, the mud and sand get lodged within
the fibres and structure of the textiles.
The session might be over, but the testing isn't.
We're not happy to challenge our stain removers with just
a bit of mud.
We're adding a little extra as the guys re-hydrate
from their workout - cranberry juice -
for what's known as a "molecular stain".
It's different to mud and sands because it will
penetrate more deeply within the structure of the T-shirt.
It will create bonds with the material, with the T-shirt
and it should be harder to remove because of the chemical bonds
formed between the cranberry juice and the T-shirts.
We have our stains, we have the shirts -
time to put them in the wash.
To test the three products, we've chosen three shirts with
a similar amount of staining for both mud and for cranberry juice.
We're washing them in the same machine,
at the same temperature, with the same basic washing powder,
to which we add one of our three stain removing products.
And once they're dry, our volunteers will be giving us
their opinion on which shirt looks the best...
And our expert will measure precisely how well each product
has done at removing the stains.
We'll bring you the results of all that later in the programme.
When it comes to product testing, it's not always just about safety.
Here at the Buildings Research Establishment
it's about efficiency, as well.
Even the Watchdog Test House has helped improve energy use in homes.
Here's Lynn Faulds Wood.
'Welcome to Watchdog.
'In tonight's programme, all these people have written to us.'
With the rising cost of energy bills...
We could face 17 more years
of above-inflation increases in energy
-and water bills.
-And complicated tariffs...
New rules have come into force
to simplify confusing and often complex tariffs.
..there's never been a more important time to understand our homes' energy efficiency.
That's why since 2007,
all houses sold or rented in this country must have one of these -
an Energy Performance Certificate.
This shows how good - or bad - your house is at energy efficiency.
It also gives advice on how to improve the rating of your home
and save money.
And the good news?
There are now plenty of things around to help you do just that.
Many of which were developed here,
at the Building Research Establishment.
Founded in 1921, it was one of the worlds first science centres
dedicated to the development and innovation of buildings.
There's over 26 million homes in the UK.
Less than 1% of those would actually meet modern energy targets.
Of those, about 8 million would be defined as "hard to treat",
namely solid walls, draughty windows, poor central heating.
A typical example?
This Mansion house at the BRE facility built in 1855.
It's often difficult in these houses to understand
where the heat leaves the building and how it leaks out.
So what we do is take them through a number of tests.
One such test - thermal imaging.
The areas where heat is escaping are shown in yellow -
as you can see, the windows and doors are weak points.
You don't need an energy performance certificate to see that
this house is pretty draughty.
So - in order to help improve the energy performance
of houses like this, the BRE set up the Victorian Project.
This house was actually built at the same time as the Mansion house,
but has been upgraded with various products to demonstrate how best
we can improve our older homes.
The key to dealing with these kind of buildings is
having a fabric-first solution.
So in this case we've tried to find the best insulation so we're
not having to reheat that building to make up for the energy losses.
Of course, there are the more familiar measures
like double-glazing, insulation in the loft -
even under the floor boards.
But it was inspiration from an unlikely source
that has taken energy saving to the next level.
We've also got insulations that come from NASA where they
have developed advanced insulations using aerogels and nano technology.
These are still in development and are still quite expensive
and you would use them strategically around the building
for cold bridging and around windows.
So if you now compare the thermal image of this house -
fitted with all the latest energy-saving products - to
that of the Mansion house, you can see the difference a few
simple energy-saving measures actually make.
Escaping heat is shown in yellow
the efficient house on the left has hardly any.
Today, of course,
new houses are designed with energy efficiency in mind.
This is our Watchdog Test House - otherwise
known as The Prince's Natural House, run by the Prince's Foundation.
Made from natural materials, it combines traditional design
principles with all the energy efficient upgrades of a modern
house. It has high ceilings and triple glazing, aerated clay blocks
and clay-tile roofing, all to create a low energy, low carbon home.
But what a house is designed to do
and how it actually performs can be very different.
This is known as the 'performance gap'.
We were particularly interested in whether we could
actually test it for 18 months, 2 years
and see whether it actually performed as it was modelled.
Testing an empty shell is one thing -
but to see how this house truly performed, people had to live in it.
On site. For twelve months.
You can actually understand how those people living in it
found it to live in, we wanted to see what they were actually
doing that actually enhanced or decreased the performance.
The good news - the design of this house is performing well.
So the next step is to get this proven energy-efficient home
onto the market.
But it's not just about reducing our energy bills.
The government also aims to reduce
green house gasses by 80% by 2050.
Stricter building regulations will mean more energy-efficient homes
being built in the future.
But how will they perform?
This is the BRE's Green House.
It was designed to be a super energy efficient house
with zero carbon emissions.
That means in principle we could disconnect it from the gas
and electrical supply and it would remain self sufficient in energy.
Solid concrete walls and external insulation prevent heat loss
and keep the house cool in the summer.
As well as conserving energy, it also generates its own.
On the roof it has solar PV panels to generate electricity
and heat the water.
And rain water is collected and used for the showers and toilets.
It's also designed to cope with changes in climate.
The house is SO good, it would be
at the top of an Energy Efficiency Certificate.
In practical terms, across the UK, the average energy
bill is around £1,300 a year.
For this house, it could be less than £150 for the year's bills.
Energy bills are expensive because our homes are
so poorly insulated with draughty windows and leaky doors.
Testing in places like BRE over the years is not just helping to
cut our carbon emissions, but also our bills.
So more power to them.
Now, if you own a car, the chances are you've had to
replace your tyres.
And it can be an expensive business, particularly
if you pay more than you need to.
Well, with me is Emma Butcher from What Car?
Is it simply a case of the more you pay, the better the tyre?
No, not always.
You need to do your research before you start buying a new tyre.
That's very easy these days because about 18 months ago,
some tyre labelling regulations came into force which requires all
new tyres sold in the UK to have a nice big sticker on them
which tells you how economical they are and also how effective
they are at braking in the wet.
The labels use an A to G scale
so that you can rate how effective tyres are.
In terms of fuel economy, an A-rated tyre could save you
about 7.5% in terms of your MPG
at 50 mph over a G-rated tyre.
We found that the best rated tyres are in general averagely priced.
What about winter tyres - is it worth using them?
Yes, definitely, especially if you live in rural areas where
roads aren't gritted perhaps as frequently as in the cities.
They can provide really good grip and stability in cold
and icy conditions below around 7 degrees Celsius.
In fact, it's not always really expensive to have winter tyres
because a lot of dealers and garages will store them for you
and sometimes will fit them for free.
Don't forget, while you've got your winter tyres on,
you're saving the wear of your summer tyres.
And talking of wear, if you spend more on a tyre,
is it going to last you longer?
It's really difficult to put a mileage on how long your tyre should
last for, because there are so many different variables.
That can take into account how you drive, where you drive,
if you're going very fast or braking a lot,
whether your tyres are inflated to the correct pressure...
There are all sorts of variables, so...be careful the way you drive.
Emma, thank you.
Back to those stain removers now
and the products that claim to get rid of those hard-to-shift marks.
Earlier, we asked a rugby team to scrum down and get dirty for us
as we put three products of varying prices through their paces.
How well will they have delivered on their promise?
Time to come clean.
First, a quick reminder of the products in our test.
The cheapest product,
Wizz Oxi Fabric Stain Remover for £2.50 per kg. The mid-priced
Ariel Stain Remover Powder at £8 per kg. And finally, the most expensive
readily available option - Vanish Gold Stain Remover, at £12.12 per kg.
We built up a nice layer of mud,
then added a splash of cranberry juice - to find how well each
product removed two basic types of stain.
We looked at particulate stains
and we looked at molecular stains.
Particulate stains will be physically lodged within
the fibres and molecular stains will penetrate more deeply
and form chemical bonds with the material.
Now for the science.
This nifty bit of kit is called a spectrophotometer.
It's designed to precisely measure the colour of materials.
For each product, Dr Vadran takes a reading from a brand-new
pristine white T-shirt and compares that to the colour
of our stained T-shirts - AFTER they've been washed.
The closer the two results, the better the stain remover has done.
First up - the Cranberry stain.
All of the stain removers did a very good job.
However, by just a tiny fraction, Vanish came out on top.
Wizz, the cheapest product in our test came in second place,
with mid-priced Ariel coming third, and a narrow win
for Vanish, our most expensive product.
But overall, an excellent start for our stain removers
against the tricky cranberry stain.
Next up - the mud - the stain our experts felt
they should do best with.
After one washing cycle, some
of the mud stains still remained on the surface of the T-shirt.
All of the stain removers found the mud harder to cope with.
The T-shirts were heavily stained by mud and the mud
and sand penetrated really deeply.
Dr Vadran believes that, with a couple more washes,
they would have removed almost all of the stain.
Overall, there was a reversal of fortunes for our stain removers.
This time...the mid-priced Ariel narrowly came out the best
and Vanish, the most expensive product, the worst.
But perhaps the most remarkable part of the test was
the performance of our cheapest product -
the Wizz Oxi Fabric stain remover.
It came a close second in both tests, even though it's a third
of the price of Ariel and nearly a fifth of the price of Vanish.
Stain removers are very similar one to another
when we compare chemical content.
So I'm not surprised by the fact all of the stain removers did
a very good job on removing our stains.
So the more scientific measurements show how close the three products
were in terms of stain removing in our test, regardless of price.
But when we asked our volunteers to say which they thought had
done the best job, there was one clear, stand-out winner.
-B looks by far the cleanest.
-I prefer B, personally.
I'd say B is the best.
B has definitely done the best out of all of them.
In fact, out of the six volunteers,
five rated B - Ariel - as the best overall.
Aerial told us that they undertake more extensive and robust
scientific testing in order to make claims about their products.
But according to our one-off test, all three have done an excellent
job of getting rid of the stains. So, perhaps you don't always
need to spend a fortune to get good results.
I'm impressed with that, considering how much cheaper it is.
I was surprised at how well they actually got the stains out,
especially the cranberry juice.
If it can give me that sort of performance, and clean my stuff,
my kit, week-in, week-out, then brilliant, I don't see why you wouldn't use it.
Earlier, we heard how sofas and upholstered items should now
all be fire-retardant and properly labelled at the point of sale
because of laws introduced in the '80s.
But as the Trading Standards operation in Birmingham is proving,
that is not always the case.
Hannah and her colleague Sharon are carrying out
an inspection of a shop they suspect is selling dangerous furniture.
They've already uncovered a headboard which doesn't
comply with labelling regulations.
It's got the short label.
But there's no batch ID.
But what about this stiletto-shaped chair?
Looking at this piece of furniture,
I should be able to trace it back to the batch number, to the
original test house, to the original foam, and to the original cover.
Now...I can't do that, clearly.
And Hannah's not just worried about the labelling on this chair...
I'll sit on it. I'm not a test house, but at the end of the day,
if it's going to start wobbling about...
And it's not... If this isn't very safe...again,
it won't pass general product safety regulations.
In this one store alone, the team find dozens of items that
don't comply with the law.
The shop-keeper claims he didn't know the rules,
but as far as the officers are concerned,
-that's no excuse.
-These items will be seized...
And you're requested to provide me any documentation you have
relating to the supplier, or testing of these products.
The poor labelling is an offence, but it doesn't
necessarily mean the furniture isn't fire retardant to a legal standard.
That's why it has to be tested to find out.
So the officers are going to seize as much as they can
fit into their van.
Onto the next shop.
The premise has been visited previously,
we found on that occasion
that they had furniture that didn't comply with
labelling requirements and the company were asked to provide
documentation to show where they came from.
We haven't received any information from them
so we're going to go back into the premise now.
On arrival, it's clear this could take some time.
Have you got any breadcrumbs?!
The difficulty we've got in here
is that there are so many amounts of furniture
we couldn't physically spend the time to look through every
piece of furniture to make sure that it's labelled properly.
What's more, a quick inspection of just a few of the goods
has already raised some issues.
These footstools that we've found are a potential problem
because there's absolutely no labelling on them at all.
So we need to find out whether they've been imported or
whether they've been made in this country.
Because obviously we need to follow that up
because I can't think of any way these could be traced back to the
original foam and the original covers.
The owner explains that the stools were bought as part of a suite.
What they've said to us
is that the batch number is actually on the settee or the chair
and the footstool just comes with it.
But, you know, the label has to be on all the furniture,
not just the settee, not just the chair.
It also has to be on the footstool.
So some footstools will be taken away for testing, along with
a number of other mislabelled items.
There goes that shoe again!
We've taken some of the items that haven't got the appropriate labelling on.
They've been put in the back of the van and we'll take them up to Yorkshire to get them tested.
A couple of weeks later and a number of items seized in Birmingham
have arrived at the West Yorkshire Trading Standards testing labs.
Among them are two of the footstools we saw seized earlier.
Technician Dale Brockbank is preparing to test them.
He stuffs the material from inside one of them
into a standard covering.
He then sets it alight with a gas flame.
If the foam inside the footstool is fire retardant to the legal
standard, once the flame is removed,
the fire should go out within two minutes.
In fact, in this case, it takes far less time...
So the filling IS fire-retardant and legally compliant.
But what about the footstool's corduroy covering?
Again, the burning should stop by itself within two minutes...
Only this time the flames spiral out of control...
The corduroy covering is illegal.
And it's not alone - here's the second foot stool..
And finally a zebra-print stiletto chair. This covering
goes up like a house on fire.
In fact, of the seven items tested today, only two pass.
It's worth remembering that lots of different manufacturers
make products like these shoe chairs and footstools -
most of them will be compliant with the law -
even Trading Standards were surprised by today's results.
I have to admit I'm
very disappointed and I'm quite shocked, really, considering this
legislation we've been looking at has been out for a number of years.
We'll end up going back to these retailers,
and see where these items have actually come from.
The aim of the game is really to get this furniture off sale
because at the end of the day,
if it doesn't comply with the legislation,
that makes it dangerous.
If you want more information on the safety of products in your home,
you can go to our website:
That's all for today. Thanks for watching.
Series in which Sophie Raworth reveals how household products are tested, putting the makers' claims on trial and showing how to get the best value for money. Lynn Faulds Wood looks at the safety of products in the home and the Watchdog campaigns that have been saving lives for more than 30 years.