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Let the buyer beware

POSTED March 29, 2011 9:46 p.m.

Those of us who have been around the block a few times will remember the last time gasoline hit $4 per gallon a new industry sprang up. Drivers could buy magnets to attach to fuel lines to allegedly boost a car’s gas mileage by 20 or even 30 percent.

The devices didn’t work, but the brisk market for them reflected the pain we were feeling at the pump. I confidently predict the current spike in gas prices will lead to yet another round of activity by the charlatans we saw last time.

The only way to take a good chunk out of a household gasoline budget is the straight and narrow road of combining trips to minimize miles driven and cold starts, sharing rides, driving a vehicle with a small engine, taking public transportation and hoofing it whenever you can.

It’s not easy, but as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s not a requirement that we like it.

Buyers also need to beware of quite a different class of energy-savings products. They purport to save homeowners hard-earned dollars on their monthly electric bills. Recently I got a free steak dinner from two out-of-town salesmen selling the device.

What the pleasant young men showed us was a box of capacitors that can be wired into your home’s electric line near the breaker box (that’s what replaced the “fuse box” for those of us who are older than dirt). The new box changes what engineers call the power factor of your home.

The salesmen gave us a demonstration of how current flow in a wire dropped as the capacitors in their box were switched on. And the drop in current, they told us, meant our electric bill would fall with the device in place.

At my advanced age, it’s worth being a bit skeptical about pleasant young men buying me steak dinners. So I’ve done a bit of research I want to share, in particular because it’s clear different companies across the nation are selling these devices under a couple of names.

Because I know I’m over my little head when it comes to AC power, the kind of electricity that comes out of an outlet in your wall, I asked my friend Robert Olsen of Washington State University for help. Olsen is an engineering professor, and he pointed me to a posting on the government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology website summarizing a report about the kind of device I had been offered.

The NIST posting explains my house isn’t just charged for current flowing into it from the grid, but actually for the product of multiplying that current by the power factor of my home. With the capacitor device in place, current should indeed drop, but the power factor rises in a manner that means the product remains the same.

Bottom line, my house wouldn’t save a nickel with the device.

I also investigated the capacitors-in-a-box by calling a free hotline of the Department of Energy. I immediately got to talk to a real person who took down my questions and got back to me later. He noted that power companies bill residential customers differently from how they bill commercial customers. But for your home, the basic advice is that there’s no reason to think the capacitors will help lower your bills.

The salesmen I met mentioned an association between their outfit and a finance company. I think that means some good souls have gone into debt to buy the capacitors-in-a-box in an effort to save money. From my point of view, that’s a cruel fate, indeed.

At least I got a free steak meal for my trouble. All I’m saying is this: be careful you don’t pay a lot for your dinner.

When it comes to saving on household energy bills, there are indeed tactics that work. Check with your local public utility for ideas and advice. On the web, one site worth visiting is http://www.energysavers.gov/tips/. 

Seize the day and make the effort to educate yourself about energy conservation using reliable sources. The dollar you save really can be your own.

  

— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resources Sciences at Washington State University.

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