Amish Heat Surge Miracle Heater Scam


I saw a two-page ad in the Rocky Mountain News this week about some new miracle heater called the ‘Amish Heat Surge‘ and it fell into the category of things that sounded to me to be ‘just a little fishy’. Later I saw a commercial for the same product. Sure enough, after doing some calculations, I figured out that this is just a scam to overcharge people for a cheap electric heater made in China. Searching the Internet, I found a few unhappy customers who fell for it. Even though the heaters are ‘free’, you pay $298 for the ‘Amish authentic wood mantles’ that enclose them. In reality, there’s no reason to wrap an electric heater with a wooden box or mantle. It also has some sort of fake fire effect. Oh, and shipping costs $50 EACH. And they’ll stick you with an extended warranty for $28 each. So for around $770, you’d get a pair of heaters that do the same thing as a pair of $27 electric heaters you can pick up at Wal-Mart.

A 5,119 BTU/hr heater generates about 1/20th the heat produced by a household furnace. It will draw 1.5 kW. For every hour this thing runs, it will cost about $.15 in electricity, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but over a 730 hour month, that adds up to an extra $108 on your electric bill. Electric resistive heat is the most expensive way to heat a house. It costs about twice as much per BTU as natural gas heat. Just to put it in another perspective, a 2,100 sq. ft. house in my home state of Colorado uses about 6 therms of natural gas a day in the coldest winter months. At the current gas price of $1.20 per therm, a typical gas bill is $216/month during the winter months. To heat your house to the same temperature with this electric heater, you’d need to have 5 of these heaters operating at the high setting 24 hours a day. The additional monthly charges on your electric bill for just the heaters would be $540!

This heater can be yours for only $385

This heater produces the same amount of heat and costs $27 at Walmart

The ad talks about only using it to heat zones, which can save on your heating bill, of course, but only at the expense of having some of the rooms in your home being uncomfortably chilly. And you can’t really completely turn off your central furnace without the risk of pipes freezing. In other words, if you put a heater like this in the room that has your furnace’s thermostat, and thus your furnace never comes on, you may freeze pipes in a remote part of the house.

The ad is full of high pressure sales nonsense, such as requiring a special savings code that expires in 48 hours, or you’d otherwise pay $587 each! There is a limit of 2 per household and they need to ‘turn away dealers’ because they can’t keep up with demand.

If you’re one of the people reading this article who bought an Amish Heat Surge heater, please note that I mean no disrespect to you. I’m just tired of con artists using slick advertising to suck people into buying things that aren’t worth a fraction of the sales price.

In Defense of the SUV


I’ve written a lot about renewable energy and so people might classify me as an environmentalist, a tree hugger, if you will. I thought it would be time to address the 4700 lb. elephant in the garage. That’s right, like many Americans, I own a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV). It’s a 1999 Dodge Durango that I bought 10 years ago and I hope to be able to keep for at least another 10 years.

It seems that over the past few years, SUVs have been getting a black eye in the court of public opinion so I wanted to write a little about why I think they remain so popular in spite of their status as gas guzzlers.

There are those who think that anyone who drives an SUV is an enemy of the environment and deserves to be vilified for it. After all, most commuting is done solo, and it is wasteful to be carrying all the weight of an SUV simply to move a single person around. It’s almost as if SUV critics feel everyone should be required to use either public transportation or a compact vehicle that gets at least 40 mpg? My Durango gets 14.7 mpg average, 19 mpg highway. In warm weather, I ride a motorcycle which gets about 50 mpg and that helps to improve my annualized personal fuel economy. In the past few years, I’ve used the motorcycle for nearly half my annual miles driven. A small economy car could provide a similar fuel economy as my combination of SUV/motorcycle, but that solution doesn’t work for me. I prefer having an SUV and a motorcycle to having a small economy car.

Why are SUVs still outselling hybrids more than 10:1 and were doing so even when recent U.S. gas prices climbed to over $4/gallon? I’d say that much of the reason is because the SUV has fewer limitations than most other vehicles. They just seem to be able to ‘do it all’. For example, there have been several instances where the Durango has allowed me to get home in snow storms that would have been unthinkable in a 2-wheel drive vehicle. Each time that’s happened, the peace of mind that 4WD provided more than paid for its increased operating cost. Many critics of SUVs will point to the fact that SUV owners rarely, if ever, take them off the road. But if you live in any state that gets regular home delivery of snow, you will likely put your SUV in 4WD at least a few times per winter season. For a one-week period around Christmas a few years ago with well above average snowfall, SUVs were the only vehicles with enough ground clearance to make it out of our neighborhood. The Durango also can hold 7 adults, making it possible to leave an extra car in the parking lot when carpooling. I have carried 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood in it and filled enough wood to rebuild a deck. I carried the fuselage of my airplane inside it as well as its 300 lb. engine and each of its wings, one at a time, of course. I’ve towed a camper with it. I’ve actually driven it off-road along with a 4 person crew to repair a ham radio repeater at the top of a mountain. It’s truly a versatile machine with its only limitation being its fuel economy when compared to a compact car.

A 300 lb. aircraft engine fits in easily…

…and so does an 11-foot airplane wing

When I was younger I was a boy scout. The boy scout motto is ‘be prepared’. An SUV helps its owner to be prepared for virtually anything. Sure, there are many missions where I could use a more fuel efficient vehicle, but I don’t want to own multiple cars, one for each potential mission. Our garage is only big enough for two cars and a motorcycle. And just owning a vehicle costs money, even if you don’t drive it. Each vehicle has a capital expense, which needs to be amortized over the miles driven in its lifetime, along with insurance, ownership taxes, and periodic maintenance. Sitting parked in your garage, a vehicle costs money whether it’s used or not. And the capital expense of owning a vehicle usually constitutes a larger per mile expense than its fuel bill.

My wife has a BMW 328i sedan that gets 28 mpg, about twice the fuel economy of the Durango. It’s a great car and a lot of fun to drive. When we go on long trips in nice weather, we often take it instead of the SUV. Recently, we flew to the east coast for a week and when contemplating which vehicle to leave at the airport, we both independently arrived at the same conclusion. Since it was winter, and we didn’t know what kind of weather to expect when we returned, we chose the Durango. Sure enough, when we returned we landed late at night in a blizzard. But it was no problem to get home in the Durango. It would have been a harrowing, white-knuckle, 2-hour drive if we had instead chosen the sedan, and it could have ended up in a ditch in need of a tow, like several others we saw on the way home.

The major costs of owning a car can be divided into the categories of purchase price and operating costs. Operating costs are comprised of items such as insurance, taxes, maintenance, and fuel. The annual fuel cost for most vehicles is surprisingly low in comparison to these other costs. Compared to the purchase price, fuel may be just a small percentage per mile. That’s why people who can afford to spend $60K on a 10-mpg Hummer H2 are not deterred by having to spend $5K per year for the fuel. They could instead have a 45-mpg hybrid along with a $1000 annual fuel bill but it’s a not an issue if they can afford the Hummer’s gas. Now I know there are some who think that fossil fuels belong to everyone and it’s not fair for someone to use more than their ‘fair share’. I have to wonder when a resource is finite and irreplaceable, what would constitute a reasonable ‘fair share’ per person. Because I use my motorcycle in the warmer months, my SUV has been averaging less than 5,000 miles a year, and so it’s actually burning less fuel annually than a compact car racking up 15,000 miles a year. A vehicle’s fuel economy isn’t the only factor that determines how much of an impact someone is having on the environment. A person’s transportation-related carbon footprint also includes the amount of travel one does annually.

If your job requires you to travel frequently by jet, you may be using large quantities of fossil fuels even if you don’t own a car. I’ve known people who fly more than 100,000 miles a year and don’t seem to realize that it also impacts their overall energy consumption and hence their carbon footprint. I find it particularly ironic when energy efficiency evangelists jet all over the world spreading the gospel about conserving energy as they themselves seem to be unaware that their air travel is generating a huge carbon impact. It’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Sometimes they buy carbon credits, thinking it makes up for their ‘unavoidable’ energy use. That seems to me as nothing more than purchasing indulgences to assuage their guilt.

Public transportation vehicles use fossil fuels in large quantities, although many public transportation proponents don’t seem to realize it. Commercial jets typically average 50 miles per passenger per gallon, buses around 80, and trains around 200. These are typical values, not the maximum theoretical numb
ers, which would assume 100% seat utilization (source). Most public transportation vehicles need to have excess capacity and thus travel many miles with empty seats. A person who flies enough to make it to an airline’s annual 100K club uses more oil than a Hummer driver racking up 20,000 miles per year.

Sometimes when people talk about hybrid cars and public transportation, they seem to feel that if everyone would just start using these modes of transportation exclusively, both the fossil fuel depletion and global warming problems would be solved. They won’t. Better fuel economy just pushes the problem out a few years since those modes of transportation consume fuel too. And since these more efficient modes are often erroneously considered to be virtually carbon-free, people may be induced to travel more miles annually.

We all like to have our mobility. Our modern society is defined by it. If we had to travel exclusively by foot or on horseback, you can rest assured we’d do a lot less of it. I’ve certainly done my share of traveling and so I’m in no position to criticize others for their travel habits.

So if you own an SUV, I recommend you keep it. If you feel guilty about it, you can try to drive it fewer miles per year, if possible. You can augment your travel needs with a motorcycle, scooter, or bicycle. Or work from home when you can. Having an SUV will allow you to be prepared for anything and keep you from joining the ranks of those who smugly berate SUVs and their owners with adjectives like ‘revolting, insidious, and despicable’. 🙂

Micro Combined Heat and Power Proposal


Someone asked a question on LinkedIn and it reminded me of a topic I wanted to write about in this blog. I’ll use the opportunity to post my response and elaborate a little about it. The question was related to the electrical grid in this country and what can be done to improve it. I think that instead of increasing the capacity of the grid, we should focus on adding electrical generating capacity closer to the point of use. This would save the need to have to construct new power plants which cost billions to construct and transmission lines, which cost as much as $500,000 per mile, and make the system more resistant to wide spread outages.

National electrical grids are among the largest and most complicated machines ever to be constructed by man. Their inter-connected nature has made them vulnerable to cascading failure effects when a problem strikes just a small portion of a grid. There have been several instances in just the past few years in the U.S. where a fallen tree branch or sagging lines in some remote area has caused outages for hundreds of thousands of customers in multiple states.

A more robust solution would be to have power generated closer to where it’s used but this is not typically done because it’s more profitable for utilities to build large scale generating plants and deliver electricity to many customers over the grid. There’s no profit motive for them to have other sources competing to provide electricity to their customers.

Electrical power generation equipment has three principal costs: capital, operating/maintenance, and fuel. The ratios of these costs vary considerably depending on the type of generating equipment. For example, nuclear plants have low fuel cost relative to other generating equipment, but higher capital costs. Renewable sources such as solar and wind turbines have no fuel costs, but they also have fairly high capital expenses, as well intermittent generating characteristics. Natural gas plants have lower capital costs, but have some of the highest fuel costs per kWh generated, especially when used for peaking loads.

Fuel availability and delivery cost often drive the decision on where to locate power plants. This is especially true in the case of coal because it is heavy and must be delivered by rail thereby adding to its cost, sometimes significantly. And, of course, pollution concerns tend to make it difficult to locate coal plants near the populations they serve. In some instances, power plants have been built near coal mines to reduce the cost of fuel delivery.

More than half of the energy in nuclear, coal, and natural gas is lost as waste heat when used to generate electricity. Because these plants can’t easily distribute this waste heat, which could otherwise be used for space heating, they dump it into the atmosphere. Instead of adding more generating plants, I would propose that homes be equipped with small 1 kW natural gas-powered electrical generators which, during the winter, generate electricity and utilize the unavoidable waste heat for space heating needs. About 50% of U.S. homes use natural gas for heat and the ratio is even higher in colder climates. This way, the natural gas energy used for electrical generation could be more efficiently utilized while reducing the need for adding capacity to the grid in the form of extra power plants. In addition, the homes could be equipped with solar panels for generating electricity in the warmer months when there is no need for space heating and when sunshine is at its maximum. In addition to connecting each home with a grid tie inverter to sell back any excess electricity to the grid, a battery bank (~24 kWh) could store a day’s worth of electricity for use when the sun wasn’t shining and to help level the effect of overloading the grid when the sun is shining but demand is low. Overloading the grid will become a bigger issue when grid-tied solar installations grow in popularity. The natural gas electrical generator would also be available when the electrical grid goes down.

This concept is similar to micro combined heat and power (Micro CHP) and is not really that new. There are more than 50,000 home installations of Micro CHP in Japan already. My proposal adds a local storage battery bank and solar panels. This forms a sort of redundancy in the event of a grid outage, helping to guarantee that electrical power and heat will be available even when the grid goes down. It also helps to compensate for the reduced sunlight conditions in northern climates during the coldest months when solar panels tend to generate at their annual minimum.

The cost for a small generator is not that much. I purchased a new 1.4 kW gasoline powered generator recently for $300. Since a grid tie inverter is already part of the solar system, the gas generator could easily tap into it as well. My reason for getting the generator was because I realized that if the electricity goes down in the winter, my furnace will not operate. My gas furnace uses a computer to control it, in addition to a 750 watt blower motor, so with this generator, I’d be able to keep my house warm and prevent my pipes from freezing in the event of a prolonged power outage. There are a few complexities with this system, the primary one which is to make sure not to ‘back feed’ electricity into the grid during a power outage. This is to protect the safety of the electric utilities linemen. But I know how to disconnect my furnace and plug it into the generator without back feeding electricity into the grid, so I’m comfortable with this solution.

In pondering about it, I began to wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to equip every household with a small backup generator that fed off of the natural gas line so that a power outage wouldn’t pose as much of a threat. I realized after looking around the web, that it was already being done in Japan and is available in the U.S. Granted, it’s not cheap, at least not yet, but in light of the costs of a solar system, it seems like a small cost adder to solve several other problems at the same time. The battery would be useful to level the solar output to the grid. The utility company can’t easily throttle base load generating equipment such as nuclear, coal, and combined cycle gas generators, so they will likely start objecting to having too many grid-tied solar customers. The household battery could level out solar output and also provide the necessary emergency power during the time when the grid went down and before the natural gas generator was started. The battery could even connect up to a network and decide when to put the energy out on the grid to help offset peaking loads, thereby making it unnecessary for utilities to keep standby generators to handle the peaks. This concept is related to the smart electrical grid which we have been hearing more about lately. The utility scale standby generators are very expensive for the utility companies to own because their capital costs can only be amortized over a small number of hours of operation per year and gas peaking generators are single cycle, which means they have lower efficiency than combined cycle generation and thus much higher fuel costs per kWh as well.

I realize that natural gas is not a renewable energy source, but it is cleaner than coal both from a pollution and CO2 standpoint, and it’s already in place in many neighborhoods. I had
previously been thinking about figuring out a way to go 100% solar, but then December rolled around and I started looking at the number of days that the sun is not available. It reminded me that all renewable energy systems still need to have backups, particularly in the winter, and natural gas seemed to best fit the bill. Natural gas can work as both a fuel for generating electricity as well as space heating and with this proposal, it would be about 85-90% efficient, and that is considerably better than even utility scale power generation. The overall effect would reduce not just natural gas consumption which is used to produce 20% of our nation’s electricity, but it would also reduce coal consumption which produces 50% of our electricity.