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2 Good 2 Be True = False

Beware of ‘too good to be true’ energy claims

Lean times understandably tend to make people vulnerable to money-saving products and schemes that often turn out to be entirely false or more costly than they’re worth. The old adage “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is” still applies.

Most people already know the tried-and-true ways to lower their electric bills, such as installing proper insulation, investing in Energy Star appliances and unplugging devices they are not using.

But isn’t there a quicker, easier way? What about investing in one of those “magic boxes” that promises to slice home electricity costs by up to 50 percent? Claims such as that should immediately raise a red flag.

Dangerous (maybe illegal)

A pocket-sized, seemingly innocuous item sold online—called the RPU-190—falls into this category. Engineers agree that this $200 piece of copper wire will cut a homeowner’s electricity bills. The catch is that attorneys and municipal and state authorities nationwide also agree that installing such a device is against the law because it requires tampering with a meter and stealing power from a utility.

“I’m concerned that people could be taken in by this thing pretty easily,” says Thomas Suggs, vice president of engineering for an electric cooperative in Tennessee. “The safety aspect jumped out at me immediately.”

He pursued the product to its Internet site and viewed a video that failed to warn potential customers about what qualified engineers know: Power surging through a compromised meter can cause an electrical explosion. Furthermore, a short circuit could produce an arc flash bright enough to cause temporary blindness, hot enough to melt metal and powerful enough to launch fragments of shrapnel-like debris.

“Anytime you get into those meter bases, you’re running a risk,” Suggs says. “With an arc flash, somebody could get hurt or killed.”

Back in Texas, John Ohlhausen, manager of engineering services for Medina Electric Cooperative, ordered an RPU-190. “We wanted to have one on hand, study it and be knowledgeable about it in case questions arose,” Ohlhausen explains. The product arrived in a manila, bubble-wrap envelope with a simple return address of Maitland, Florida. Ohlhausen describes it as a poorly constructed copper shunt coated with black insulated paint. It offers minimal resistance and no energy storage capability.


Deceptive and ineffective

Numerous products fall into the deceptive and ineffective category. One notorious example is the Xpower Energy Saver. Forum Trading, Inc., was collaborating with several other companies to sell a $200 cylinder they claimed consumers could plug into the wall to trim electricity consumption by 25 percent and extend the life of household appliances.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a temporary restraining order against Forum Trading’s sales last spring, and the case is scheduled to go to trial later this year. Texas-based Forum was selling Xpower through a multi-level marketing scheme, Abbott said.

Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that the Xpower could produce no more than a sixth-tenths percent reduction in electric use in an average house. Laboratory tests revealed that the product is an ordinary capacitor. Capacitors are usually employed in electronic circuits to store energy or differentiate between high- and low-frequency signals.

Unfortunately, it’s a buyer-beware world with all of these devices, says Dan Greenberg, an associate director at E Source. The Boulder, Colorado-based organization provides independent research to utilities, major energy users and others in the retail energy marketplace.

“A lot of these salespeople make unrealistic claims for energy savings,” Greenberg says. “They might not even know their claims are unrealistic because the distributor or vendor believes claims from the manufacturer that aren’t true.”

“It’s so important for consumers to be skeptical,” Greenberg emphasizes. “They really should check in with their co-op before making any purchase.”

Generally, Greenberg says, the legal but mostly ineffective devices such as Xpower promise to “fix up” a consumer’s power in some way. The device likely won’t harm anything, but it also won’t save you a noticeable amount of money on your electricity bill. And the dangerous and illegal devices could ultimately cost you a whole lot more than they promise to save.

Elizabeth McGowan is an energy journalist with Energetics, Inc., in Washington, D.C., and writes articles for the Cooperative Research Network’s Tech Surveillance.