Rural Missouri - December 2010 - (Page 26)
Energy-saving boxes: Too good to be true?
by Brian Sloboda firstname.lastname@example.org ost of us think we’re too smart to fall for a scam. Yet every year, thousands of folks are separated from their hard-earned dollars by putting their faith and trust in another person’s sales pitch. There’s no shortage of hucksters pretending to help consumers save energy. These types of scams generally center on misstatements of science or confusion over an electric utility’s energy-efﬁciency programs. The most popular scam right now involves a device that promises to save energy without requiring you to make any changes in behavior, turn anything off or adjust the thermostat. People who sell these “little boxes” often claim outrageous energy savings — sometimes as much as 30 percent or more — couched around legitimate utility terms such as power conditioning, capacitors and power factor. The marketing spiel usually goes something like this: The model being sold will control alternating current power factor and reduce electric bills. It will condition your power and make appliances last longer. It uses no power and has no moving parts. It will make motors in your home run better. Accompanying materials often caution “your utility doesn’t want you to know about this device.” That last part is true — because these boxes are a rip-off. What’s the reality? While electric cooperatives use various components to correct power factor for commercial and industrial consumers, power factor correction is not a concern with homes. Engineers at the University of Texas-Austin concluded that one of the units could produce no more than a 0.06 percent reduction in electric use in an average house.
What’s Power Factor?
Power factor is the ratio between the electricity we use (real power) and the amount of electricity a utility provides (apparent power), expressed as a number between 0 and 1. The average home has a power factor of 0.9, or 90 percent. This means even if an electrical system isn’t performing at its best (1 or 100 percent), utilities deliver extra power to make sure consumers get what they pay for. When power factors come in below 1, special equipment like capacitors are used to keep an electrical system in balance. Real World Example: You buy a soda for $2. The soda jerk may pour a bit extra in the glass to make sure it’s full. You’re not charged for any soda that spills over the rim.
The Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based non-proﬁt research consortium made up of electric utilities, including electric cooperatives, recently tested one of the most popular residential power factor correction products and found that it generated average power savings of just 0.23 percent — far from the 30 percent claimed by its manufacturer. At that rate, it would take typical homeowners more than 70 years to recoup their investment.
In short, these devices are nothing more than ordinary capacitors employed in electronic circuits to store energy or differentiate between high- and low-frequency signals. Companies selling these products change names quickly and often. They move from town to town looking for new victims. There are several questions you should ask a sales representative when reading an ad for the next magical cure-all: • Does the product violate the laws of science? For example, does it claim to be capable of “changing the molecular structure . . . to release never-before tapped power.” If true, the invention would quickly be sold in every store across the country, not marketed through ﬂiers or a poorly designed website. • Was the product tested by an independent group? If the product’s performance was not tested and certiﬁed by a lab or entity not connected to the company selling it, be very skeptical. • Is it too good to be true? If so, it probably is. A video getting play on the Internet shows a consumer reporter for a TV station testing one of these little boxes. By looking at electric bills before and after installation, he concludes the device is a good buy. However, an excessively hot or unusually cool day can cause one month’s electric bill to run signiﬁcantly higher or lower than the previous month. Wise consumers always ask to see electric use for the same month from the previous year or years — not the previous month — and factor in weather anomalies for any savings claims. Sloboda is a program manager specializing in energy efﬁciency for the Cooperative Research Network, a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
device gets a formed piece of copper and a crudely Touching the copper strip while installing it hese days, everyone is trying to save produced DVD that shows how to stick it in a meter can lead to electrocution; successfully installing it money on their electric bills. And opporbase where it shunts power around the meter. can lead to a jail sentence since meter tampering tunities to do just that abound. But coopis against the law. erative members should be wary If a homeowner took that same $199 of any company that claims it can save and spent it on caulking, CFL bulbs, energy just by plugging something into a additional insulation, installing drapes or wall outlet. sealing leaky duct work, it would pay far The truth is, saving energy requires greater dividends. In fact, many of the best some effort, and any claim to the contrary energy-saving ideas are as simple as turncould be an effort to take advantage of ing off unneeded lights and unplugging unwary consumers. appliances such as TVs in spare bedrooms. One of these plug-in promises comes “You’re just wasting your money on from the makers of a device called the devices like this,” Sloboda says. “And you RPU-190, which guarantees it will “slash could have spent that money on actual your power bill by up to 50 percent.” energy-efﬁciency improvements and It’s one of a growing number of energyworked collaboratively with your electric efﬁciency scams that are popping up now cooperative.” that the winter heating season is here. Missouri’s electric cooperatives want to If the only problem with this device help their members save energy. Toward was the company’s misleading claims, it this end, contacting your cooperative for would almost be OK to write it off with a energy-saving tips and solutions to high simple “buyer beware.” photo by Jim McCarty bills is the way to go. But Brian Sloboda, a program manager Don’t waste money on a quick ﬁx. If for the Cooperative Research Network, While the RPU-190’s plug-in promises of energy savings are alluring, put you’re serious about saving money, make calls the device “a potential deathtrap.” your $199 toward tested measures of energy efﬁciency, not a dangerous the effort to become energy efﬁcient. For $199, a person ordering this particular and illegal piece of copper and a crudely produced DVD.
Beware of plug-in promises
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - December 2010
Rural Missouri - December 2010
The Owl Innkeepers
Out of the Way Eats
Best of Rural Missouri
Hearth and Home
Too Good to Be True?
Rural Missouri - December 2010