Green Tea

Eco Kettle promises a guilt-free, energy-efficient cup of tea. But is it worth the price tag?

"Green tea" is about to take on a whole new meaning: Although the Eco Kettle looks like a garden-variety electric water boiler, it's engineered to help ease the over-consumption of energy.

Product Creation, the U.K. design firm that created the device, begins its pitch by pointing out that most people fill their kettles with more water than they will actually drink in a serving, which in turn requires more energy to boil. The Eco Kettle has two water basins: a reservoir and a boiling chamber. The main reservoir can be filled with seven teacups of water (about 52 oz). By depressing a plunger on the kettle's top, water from the reservoir is drained into the boiling chamber, which has markings that show how many cups have been transferred. Then the kettle boils the water just as any electric kettle would, except that it heats only the amount you need.

The stove-top kettle has seen countless permutations, most of them decorative, since it was invented somewhere in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago. In fact, my fire-red Le Creuset Whistling Traditional Kettle would look right at home in a kitchen circa 1900. To some, that might signify a classically functional object that cannot be improved. But my kettle guzzles energy. An electric kettle (first invented in 1891) or water boiled in the microwave are both more efficient, and the Eco Kettle promises to be better than either. But how much better?

To answer that question, I turned to sustainability engineer Pablo Paster. We set about calculating the energy consumption of the 1.5-kilowatt Eco Kettle versus my 1.48-kilowatt microwave. The Eco Kettle won, but not by much: Both use about a half-cent of electricity at today's inflated rates. "Versus a common hot-plate kettle, there is no difference," Paster said.

But that is hardly the end of the debate: The tiny savings created by the Eco Kettle could be massive if millions of people used the product. In the U.K., for example, nearly every household owns a kettle, and kettles represent 27 percent of total energy consumption in the kitchen, according to a brief on sustainable products prepared for the British government. Switching from the stove top to the Eco Kettle would save millions of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

Yet the Eco Kettle's biggest hurdle to widespread market acceptance is that it is fairly expensive: £40 ($75). Paster notes that reservoir or no, most any electric kettle can be filled with a desired amount of water—it just might be annoying to pour it in precisely. Ergonomic elegance might offset the kettle's high price, but there are other electric kettles with clear reservoir windows and water-level indicators, such as the Proctor-Silex K2070 that retails for just $13. Which means that the Eco Kettle's success or failure is less a matter of how green it is than whether it works well enough to justify its price tag.

I found two real flaws in the Eco Kettle's design: The top is difficult to clasp shut, especially after prolonged use, and the dual chambers are nearly impossible to clean. Such problems mean the kettle isn't likely to be around a home for long. This raises a quandary familiar to green product designers: In spite of its energy-saving features, the Eco Kettle will probably become landfill just as quickly as its predecessors, which last four or five years according to the U.K. product sustainability report.

Still, if the Eco Kettle convinces a few energy hogs like me to switch from iron-clad stove-top teakettles to energy-efficient electric ones, then the environmental effect is net positive—although what you're paying for may only be peace of mind.