Elderly and poor targeted for sale of questionable gadgets
By Michael W. Kahn | ECT Staff Writer Published: November 2nd, 2010
Sold under different names, the gadgets are all basically the same gray boxes. “You just apply it on the outside of your home,” Sloboda said. “Inside the box are some capacitors. The capacitors are just batteries. As the power fluctuates, the batteries in theory kick in and level everything out. But these capacitors are small and have minimal to no effect.”
For commercial accounts, capacitors are useful in helping avoid penalties imposed by some utilities for poor power factor, but they would have to be way bigger than these devices. “But for residential members it doesn’t do anything,” Sloboda said, because power factor is not an issue for them.
The devices are being sold online—usually on cheap-looking websites—as well as through newspaper ads and door-to-door. “They’re targeting the elderly, people on fixed incomes and exploiting them,” Sloboda told ECT.coop. Prices range from $200 up to $600, but, he emphasized, “The value of the capacitors inside the box is just a couple of dollars.”
Several independent observers have tested the devices. The Electric Power Research Institute tried one claiming to provide a 30 percent energy savings. EPRI found it saved 0.23 percent. At the University of Texas at Austin, the best researchers could get was a 0.06 percent reduction in electric use for an average home.
Sloboda said it is easy to understand the attraction of the gadgets to non-engineers. “These are people who legitimately want to save energy, legitimately want to do something that’s environmentally responsible,” Sloboda said. “These are people who ought to take the $400 and buy some insulation.”
Perhaps the only bright spot is that unlike some devices that require people to risk their lives by opening the electric meter, these boxes are neither dangerous nor illegal to use, Sloboda said. They just waste money.
In the end, CRN’s energy-efficiency advice to consumers is to go for the proven methods, such as installing compact fluorescent bulbs, turning off and unplugging appliances when not in use, and sealing leaks. If you get a sales pitch for some incredible energy-saving device, take a careful look at what you’re being sold and how.
“Anything that says it will condition your power or make your motors run better inside your home, just stay away from it, you don’t need it,” Sloboda said. And, he added, keep this in mind: “If there were a device that really did this, Wal-Mart would sell it.”