Posted on November 14th, 2012 78 comments
I’ve been hearing an ad on the radio lately about a discovery that the power company doesn’t want you to know about from a guy named Frank Bates. He mentions that he could get in a lot of trouble for talking about it and calls the power companies and the government “incompetent, lying crooks who are counting on your ignorance and fear to keep your electric bills and heating bills criminally high.” OK, I’m intrigued, so what’s this guy selling?
He wants to show you the secret of how he beat ‘em, and how you can beat ‘em too. It’s described as a “weird” trick on the website. It sounds almost too good to be true. You can hear the commercial along with a video at the Power4Patriots website.
Upon looking further into what Mr. Bates is selling, I discovered it’s a CDROM and downloadable access to a series of pdf ebooks (about 300 pages total) and videos covering the topics of solar and wind energy. Much of it involves DIY information on how to build your own solar panels, wind turbines, and solar water heaters from components you can find in local hardware stores and online for less than you can buy equivalent off-the-shelf products. The value of this ‘package’ is $297, but with the 90% discount, the CD and downloads can be yours for only $27 + 2.99 S&H. After purchasing it, you’ll find that if you pay $67 more, you get a physical spiral bound book along with 3 DVDs that also cover solar and wind DIY projects which is basically the same material, just in a format that might be more convenient for you. If you turn that down, you’ll be offered the printed book for another $27. After that, you’ll be offered heirloom seeds for another $67 to help you through any upcoming societal collapse. So there’s a lot of upselling going on after the initial $27 investment. I’m also now on the email list and I suspect I’ll be hearing a lot more from the company in the future.
How do I know this? I know this because I invested the $29.99 in the ebook/CDROM product. After all, what kind of blogger would review a product he didn’t own? I gotta tell you, this guy’s good. I’m surprised I got out without spending another $134 for the physical book/DVDs and heirloom seeds.
You’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard all the fuss about how Chinese solar panels are coming down in price so fast that they are putting companies out of business that were trying to manufacture solar panels in the U.S. Witness what happened with Solyndra and Abound Solar.
One of the ebooks and 6 of the videos are related to making your own solar panels. I was curious to see just how cheap these homemade panels would be and the book shows a bill of materials of $175 for a 65 watt panel. That’s almost $3/watt not including your labor, and the amount of labor looks quite substantial. I’d estimate the labor at 10 hours per panel or more. That’s not cheap, especially now that you can get manufactured panels that are $1/watt that are already assembled and guaranteed. The manufactured panels are designed to last 25 years, are safety agency-approved, and can withstand all kinds of weather, including hail up to 1 inch in diameter. So trying to roll your own solar panels would be a waste of time and money. And the cost of a solar system doesn’t just depend just on the panel cost. The inverter costs about $.50/watt which is quite expensive in the grand scheme of things, or about half of what you’d be paying for the panels.
And then there’s the installation cost. Of course, you can do the installation yourself if you’re capable and comfortable working on roofs. Once you add in the other ancillary parts and equipment, you can put together a solar system for about $2/watt these days using off-the-shelf components. That’s about half of what they cost just 4 years ago, thanks primarily to the drop in panel costs.
A typical house in the U.S. uses about 730 kWh in electricity per month. To satisfy this need, you are looking at approximately a 5 kW system. That system would cost about $10,000 for materials even if you’re handy and can do the installation yourself. With U.S. electricity rates now at an average at $.12/kWh, it would take about 10 years to pay for itself. That’s not too bad, considering most things you buy for your home will just depreciate over time and not save you a dime, let alone break even or start making you money in the long run. My grid-tied solar system is 5.6 kW and I haven’t purchased any electricity since it was installed nearly 4 years ago but I do get charged about $8/month to be connected to the grid. I have accumulated a surplus (about 5000 KWh) on the meter that could run an electric car for more than 20,000 miles.
The radio commercials imply that you could slash your energy bills and live free of these greedy utility companies but you cannot do that if you install a grid-tied solar system with net metering, which is the most common kind. To disconnect from your utility company, you’d need to have a battery storage system, a charge controller, and a backup generator for those times that you may have a few cloudy days in a row. A set of batteries that would hold a day’s charge of 24 kWh would cost at least another $4K and generator would add another $1K to it. So you’re looking at a much bigger expense when you talk about completely disconnecting from the power grid, I’d say at least $5K more. And those batteries would need to be replaced every 6 years or so. That makes the whole payback period kind of a moot point because of this extra recurring expense so unless you live in an area where there is no grid power, or you believe we are on the verge of complete societal collapse, it’s hard to justify an off-grid system when you can get away with the less expensive grid-tied solar system.
There are some other books included in the package related to making and installing a wind turbine (probably good for 5-10% of the average household energy needs), and some simple solar hot water and solar hot air DIY projects. Bonus materials include ebooks on surviving disasters, storing emergency water, and building a solar cooker.
So for $27, you get 10 ebooks all of which contain some useful information, especially if you’re into renewable energy or worrying about Armageddon. I didn’t feel ripped off afterwards, although the quality of some of the graphic images in the pdf files was pretty poor. I don’t know what the printed materials might look like, but the numbers on many of the charts were unreadable like the image shown below.
I’m always intrigued when I hear an over-the-top advertisement for an energy product. Most of the time they turn out to be truly worthless and horrible investments. But this one is harmless enough, and you might even find a few good ideas for your $27. But don’t get your hopes up that you’ll take your electric and heating bills down to nothing without a significant investment in time and money even if you follow all of the DIY information in the ebooks.
Posted on June 24th, 2010 No comments
LG is getting a lot of media coverage for its Solar Hybrid Air Conditioner (model F-Q232LASS) but so far, no one has bothered to do any technical analysis on it. Most blog articles have nothing but enthusiastic praise for it. So, please allow me to provide an alternate viewpoint.
I think this is a product intended just for PR purposes. Some people may look at it and think it is a solar powered air conditioner. Much of the news coverage uses the unrelated logic of how much CO2 it saves or, even more curiously, how it’s like ‘planting 780 pine trees’. As a side note, when someone starts describing an energy benefit with the lifetime CO2 savings and avoids discussing actual costs, be aware that you’re about to be bamboozled. The solar panel on top of the air conditioning unit produces a small amount of energy; according to LG it’s 70 watts. In case you’re curious, that amounts to about $12 of electricity per year, assuming a cost per kW-h of $.10 and average capacity factor of solar panels. That also assumes the electricity it generates can be used by other appliances when the A/C unit is not running and I’m not sure if that’s the case or not.
The air conditioning unit is rated at 28,000 BTU/hr. Assuming a SEER of 13, that translates to a 2800 watt draw, not including the fan the circulates the air through the evaporator and the house, which can add another 900 watts or so. That would mean that there’s a 52:1 difference between the air conditioner’s energy draw and energy produced by the solar panel. I am assuming that there is a grid-tie inverter that puts the energy generated when the air conditioner is not running into your home to offset other energy consumption. If not, then the solar panel output would only be used when the A/C was actually running and that would reduce the $12/year of annual power generated considerably. Also of note is that most residential air conditioning loads occur from around 4-6 p.m. when people return home from work. At that time the sun is much lower in the sky and solar output is about 20% of a solar panel’s maximum rating.
An air conditioner needs to get rid of the condenser’s heat and so it’s best placed in the shade. In this case, however, the condenser would need to be placed in direct sunlight, which counteracts what it’s trying to do, namely to get rid of heat, so that would negatively affect its efficiency. In addition, the condenser needs unimpeded forced air flow which is generally done with a fan that blows air from bottom to top to get the added benefit of natural convection since heat rises, but this unit’s fan has to blow air from side-to-side because the solar panel on top would block bottom-to-top air flow. I should also mention that solar panels work best when they are cool so attaching them to a hot condenser doesn’t help their efficiency either.
You’d be better off with having a solar system that is completely independent of the air conditioning unit because it introduces too many compromises in each of the respective systems’ design goals.
Nice try LG, but this product is no better than one of those solar powered attic fans which is another idea masquerading as a solution to a problem that it doesn’t solve.
I should mention that I am a big fan of solar energy. We use a solar array to power our home and it is a net energy producer, generating more electricity than we use on an annual basis. I hope to someday use the excess for a plug-in hybrid car. The reason I felt compelled to write about this topic is because I just get tired of rip-offs and scams that prey on people’s trust (and ignorance) when it comes to energy savings schemes so I have to call them out.
Posted on March 6th, 2010 6 comments
My friend Jack recently asked me to write about the Energy Saver 3000 and whether it will save money on your electricity bill. I saw this product advertised on TV about a year ago and nearly fell out of my chair when I heard the ridiculous claims being made about saving money using a power factor correction device. And I understand other charlatans have jumped on the bandwagon and have begun offering similar devices that are supposed to ‘pay for themselves in a few months’ with the money you will save on your electricity bill.
Few people understand what power factor means and I guess this makes it an ideal way to extract money from consumers who trust that anything that appears on a TV ad must be legitimate. Basically, the power factor is an indication of phase alignment of the voltage and current in an AC waveform. In a purely resistive load, the alignment is perfect, which gives it a power factor of 1. On loads that have energy storage elements in them like inductors and capacitors, it can get out of alignment and the power factor falls below 1. A power factor below 1 doesn’t mean that all the energy is getting lost, it’s just that a portion of it is being returned to its source. Whenever energy is transmitted through wires a small amount of it is lost in the resistance of the wires, so it’s preferable to minimize the amount that gets returned. The power company has a vested interest in keeping the power factor as close to 1 as possible for the same reason. However, unless you’re a commercial customer, you don’t get charged for power that is returning to its source. You only get charged for actual power consumed. And in the grand scheme of things, the amount being returned is rather small as a percentage of the overall total, less than 10% for the average household. Since about 7% of all power is lost in the power company’s transmission lines, the overall loss due to having an imperfect power factor is 10% x 7% = .7%. This means that if every household in the nation were to have a PFC device (one that actually worked) the maximum potential energy savings is .7%.
You can improve the power factor of an inductive load such as a motor by adding a properly sized capacitor to it. This is what these power factor correction devices claim to do. But the problem is that they can’t match the capacitance to the load because most of these motors run only intermittently and so when they are not running, the capacitor will cause the power factor to become out of phase in the opposite direction. And none of these devices has active monitoring to switch the capacitor in and out. That is why these devices simply cannot save energy. Even if they did actively monitor and correct the power factor, the savings would be nowhere near what they claim since, as mentioned, the average savings would only approach .7%.
The Energy Star website has an interesting entry on these devices:
“ENERGY STAR does not qualify any Power Factor Correction Devices. Please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you see one that claims to be ENERGY STAR certified.
Power Factor Correction Devices claim to reduce residential energy bills and to prolong the productive life cycles of motors and appliances by reducing the reactive power (kVAR) that is needed from the electric utility.
We have not seen any data that proves these types of products for residential use accomplish what they claim. Power factor correction devices improve power quality but do not generally improve energy efficiency (meaning they won’t reduce your energy bill). There are several reasons why their energy efficiency claims could be exaggerated. First, residential customers are not charged for KVA-hour usage, but by kilowatt-hour usage. This means that any savings in energy demand will not directly result in lowering a residential user’s utility bill. Second, the only potential for real power savings would occur if the product were only put in the circuit while a reactive load (such as a motor) were running, and taken out of the circuit when the motor is not running. This is impractical, given that there are several motors in a typical home that can come on at any time (refrigerator, air conditioner, HVAC blower, vacuum cleaner, etc.), but the unit itself is intended for permanent, unattended connection near the house breaker panel.
For commercial facilities, power factor correction will rarely be cost-effective based on energy savings alone. The bulk of cost savings power factor correction can offer is in the form of avoided utility charges for low power factor. Energy savings are usually below 1% and always below 3% of load, the higher percentage occurring where motors are a large fraction of the overall load of a facility. Energy savings alone do not make an installation cost effective.
Power factor correction devices are NOT eligible for a federal tax credit.”
Most of the ‘evidence’ to support claims by companies hawking these devices is very unscientific, often times just unsupportable anecdotes by shills talking about how their energy bill went down after installing one of them. This could simply be due to behavioral changes one naturally makes when focusing on an area of improvement, behavior that a customer who purchases an expensive power saving device is likely to engage in without realizing it. To truly measure improvement, you need to run a controlled experiment and I’ve yet to see a legitimate experiment demonstrated when it comes to these devices. Even the videos on the websites don’t bother to measure actual power, just current or power factor before and after which to me means that they are intentionally trying to mislead customers. There are many inexpensive power meters out there such as Kill-A-Watt and yet there are no demos with a power meter used properly, i.e., showing watts consumed before and after installing a PFC device. Instead, they show power factor or current before and after, which makes for an impressive demo, but tells you nothing about the energy savings you’d experience.
If you’re thinking about buying one of these devices, I’d recommend you buy a whole house energy monitor like the TED5000 instead. It will cost less than a useless PFC device and is likely to help you figure out where your energy is going so you will be more aware of how you can save energy. It will also tell you exactly what your power factor is at any moment. As I type this, my furnace blower (a 900W load) is running and my power factor is .94, which is close enough to 1 that it’s hardly worth worrying about.
Posted on August 4th, 2009 7 comments
Last year I wrote a blog article about a Miracle Amish Heater that generated a ton of traffic. I was even interviewed by the New York Times as a result of that article. Well, the company that brought us the Amish Heat Surge is at it again, and this time they are doing something even more despicable. They are misleading customers in their ads about a new cooler that uses ’96% less energy than a window air conditioner’. There’s good reason it uses so much less energy than a window air conditioner, and that’s because it only has about 7% of the cooling capacity of a typical window air conditioner.
The $300 product is called the ‘Cool Surge‘ and it uses ‘glacier packs’ that you freeze and then load into the device so that a fan can blow air over the packs and presumably cool the room. Well, there’s only one problem with that approach and that is that device will actually make your house hotter, not cooler! Why? Because the energy it takes to freeze the ice packs comes from your refrigerator which exhausts the heat it removes from the water into your home. They conveniently forgot to mention this in their advertising. In fact, they say that the unit can’t be measured with a BTU rating. That is complete nonsense.
The BTU rating of this so-called cooler is absolutely minuscule compared with even a small window air conditioner. A small 5000 BTU/hr window air conditioner produces the equivalent cooling to melting about 35 lbs. of ice per hour. This cooler holds 12 lbs. of ice total. That’s about 1.5 gallons. Think about the volume of 1.5 gallons of water. You’ll be using a large portion of the space in your freezer to continually re-freeze these glacier packs. Assuming you swapped out these packs every 4 to 6 hours, which is how long they last according to the website, this device would have only about 7% of the capacity to cool a room as a window air conditioner. And, don’t forget, freezing the packs simultaneously puts all the heat removed from the water (and then some) into your home. There’s a good reason that air conditioners need to be vented to the outdoors. It’s because they need a place to dump the heat that they remove from inside your house. You cannot cool a house with a closed system like this.
I wish I could talk with the engineers who dream up these scam products just to see what they are thinking. I cannot imagine how they sleep at night because they are swindling their customers and the worst part is they must know it.