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Beware of Energy-related Scams!

Created 12/26/2014 by Justin Holzgrove
Updated 1/16/2015 by Rob Penney
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This article was submitted to the Shelton-Mason County Journal for the January 2015 Powerful Advice: Energy Insights from PUD 3 column. Enjoy!

Be Vigilant!

Diane Hennessy, Mason PUD 3 customer service manager and I were recently lamenting the number of scams designed to attack utility customers. They include con artists posing as utility employees demanding payment and threatening to disconnect power. (Learn more: www.masonpud3.org/scams)

Understanding how electricity works can be challenging to some. There’s no shortage of companies that want to take advantage of cold, unsuspecting consumers in winter months. In what seems like an annual tradition, the swindlers are at it again.

Nestled within claims to “slash utility bills,” companies are marketing basic plug in electric space heaters as a new technology with magical performance. Often it includes a coupon or a deadline by which to secure your new heater. You’ll find a lot of trademarked fancy-words in these ads. But you’ll usually be hard pressed to find vital information such as the amount of energy the equipment uses.


How much energy does a space heater use?


Most electric space heaters are rated at 1,500 watts. In operation, all 1,500-watt electric space heaters produce the same amount of heat and use the same amount of electricity, regardless of cost, brand name or style.


A typical 1,500-watt portable electric space heater costs about $40.00 per month to operate. Depending on how it’s used, the cost can reach up to $70.00. This includes oil filled portable space heaters. This is tricky, because the oil in the oil-filled space heaters is used as a heat transfer liquid, not a fuel. Electricity is the fuel.


Once you determine how much energy an appliance, such as a space heater uses when it’s on, you can plug it into PUD 3’s handy energy usage calculator to get an estimate on what it costs each month: www.masonpud3.org/howmuch.


You’ll need to know the wattage of the equipment and how long it runs each day. A portable electric space heater will usually run 8-12 hours per day in a well-insulated home. If it’s in a garage, shop, RV, or pump house, you can expect it to run nearly 24/7 during the winter months.


Remember, as long as it’s on, if it’s a 1,500 watt space heater, it’s still using 1,500 watts of electricity, regardless of the newfangled technology found within!



A quick fix for heating, but there are better solutions.


The reason most people opt for using a space heater is that their existing heating system isn’t doing its job. Prime culprits include a malfunctioning heating system, leaky ductwork, or insufficient insulation. If you combine a poorly operating heating system with the liberal use of space heaters, it drives up the consumption of electricity and inflates electricity bills.


If a house has leaky ductwork or a manufactured home has a disconnected crossover duct, a customer is essentially heating the great outdoors (www.masonpud3.org/ductsealing).  Insufficient insulation means that precious warm air escapes easily into the elements (www.masonpud3.org/insulation). A malfunctioning heat pump system, means emergency heat strips turn on and the cost to run it can skyrocket (www.masonpud3.org/coilheat).


Adding space heaters is a costly band-aid, and may not address your real heating issues! If you suspect your heating system isn’t working properly, contact a heating technician right away. The cost of putting off the inevitable often outweighs the proper fix.


Ask for help.


PUD 3 has many great energy conservation programs available, including expert advice, low/moderate income insulation and duct sealing opportunities. If you have questions about your home energy usage, portable electric space heaters, insulation, ductwork, or heating systems, feel free to call an energy advisor in the PUD 3 conservation department at (360) 426-0777 or visit us on the web at www.masonpud3.org/conservation.


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Comments (3)
Mattias Järvegren on 12/29/14 on 08:48 AM (Pacific Time)
Nicely done Justin.
Jim Wilcox on 01/15/15 on 04:08 PM (Pacific Time)
Programmable space heaters are currently being sold for over a $100. One "feature" is the ability to have them turn on before one gets home from work. Beside the cost, their ability to turn on with no one around seems questionable in terms of safety. My favorite marketing ploy for one space heater noted its ability to "heat even when it is off". AKA: cooling down after use.
Rob Penney on 01/16/15 on 01:01 PM (Pacific Time)
While the great majority of consultants, vendors, and contractors are honest and helpful, there is a “bad element” that can occasionally misdirect people. Having championed energy efficiency for 30 years, this bad behavior gets me agitated because it can give the energy efficiency industry a black eye. And poor recommendations and resulting bad experiences can make homeowners and business owners reluctant to try legitimate emerging technologies in the future.  

Justin mentioned that all space heaters using the same wattage provide the same amount of heat. That’s true—energy in equals energy out (we engineers love rules like that). However, not all space heaters are created equal. Choosing a model with a fan can be help distribute the heat in a larger space. A radiant model can be useful for keeping you warm while you’re stationary (reading a book, sitting at your desk, or at your workbench in the garage) without having to heat the rest of the room as much—similar to feeling warm out in the bright sunshine on a cool day. Low-wattage panels under your desk can similarly direct the heat right into your lap without heating up the rest of the room.  

Justin also makes the good point that space heaters are often used to compensate for a central heating system that has poor distribution. This is like using lots of bandages rather than dealing with the psychopathic bobcat in your living room. It’s better to spend your money fixing the broken duct or correcting a poor duct design.  

Rule number one for avoiding scams is an old one: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Proceed with caution! Proven technologies really can cut energy use in half, but at the same time technologies that sound reasonable can actually increase your energy use when misapplied.   Rule number two has increased importance in the Internet age: consider the source. Are the sellers well qualified to do what they do? Do they stand to benefit directly from your decisions?  Are their recommendation echoed by other credible information sources? You might decide to stick with deals offered by your utility. Generally, technologies promoted by your utility are well (if not exhaustively) studied and tested, so if there’s also an incentive available, that’s a great deal.  

One information source that may be useful in assessing new and emerging technologies is the database at www.E3TNW.org, which is maintained by the WSU Energy Program on behalf of BPA, neither of which benefit from your purchasing decisions. In addition to a couple dozen fields that describe a technology, such as how it works and how well it performs, the database entries include citations and a list of references to other credible information sources so that you can dig deeper and come up with your own conclusion. Importantly, the fields include aspects such as non-energy benefits (e.g., improved comfort, reduced maintenance or noise) and end user drawbacks (e.g., impact on other equipment, increased noise), which may actually be much more important to you than saving energy. This is the difference between conservation, which is using less of something but possibly having to sacrifice something else (think of Jimmy Carter wearing thick sweaters in a dimly lit room) and energy efficiency, which is maintaining or improving your comfort and happiness while reducing energy use.  

So when choosing electric equipment and appliances, do your homework using information from trustworthy sources that help you apply it appropriately, as with the space heaters discussed above. You should be just fine.  

Rob Penney, Senior Energy Engineer
 Washington State University Energy Program

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