Tuesday February 19, 2013

Most of us want to do the right thing in improving the energy performance of our homes. We research energy-saving products like appliances and insulation. We search the internet or clip ads from the paper looking for products that will save us the most energy (and money). We look for the most R-value for the money. Well-meaning homeowners do this all the time.

But it turns out that in a troubling number of situations there’s a significant discrepancy between claimed and actual performance. With insulation materials, for example, exaggerated R-value claims became so rampant in the 1970s -- when adding insulation to homes came into vogue following the 1973 oil embargo -- that the government stepped in to regulate energy performance claims.

The threat of fines hasn’t been as successful as we might have hoped, as exaggerated claims have long continued. Some long-overdue legal actions against insulation companies in January 2013, however, may finally begin to rein in these scams.

The Federal Trade Commission finally doing its job

When R-value scams became common in the 1970s, the U.S. Congress passed legislation assigning the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to the task of policing R-value claims. The so-called "R-Value Rule" was adopted in 1979. That rule helped some, but grossly exaggerated R-value claims have continued.

But a $350,000 fine leveled against Edward Sumpolec, doing business as Thermalkool, Thermalcool, and Energy Conservation Specialists, on January 9, 2013 may cause insulation producers and installers to be a little more careful with their claims. These companies were selling both liquid coatings and radiant-foil insulation materials.

According to a January 31, 2013 FTC press release, "Sumpolec’s advertising included false claims such as ‘R-100 paint,’ ‘This ... reflective coating will reduce wall and roof temperatures by 50-95 degrees ...’ and ‘Saves 40 to 60 percent on your energy bills.’" The U.S. Department of Justice, working on behalf of FTC, won the order on the merits of the case, without requiring a trial. This was the largest fine ever levied on an insulation company based on a violation of the FTC R-Value Rule.

Avoiding scams

Inflated R-value claims like this are so blatantly obvious that most consumers won’t be duped by them. But there are many, many cases where the claims aren’t quite as over-the-top, and it’s very easy for reasonably smart consumers to be duped. I don’t know how many calls I received over the years from friends and family members who are thinking of contracting to have their attics insulated with radiant-barrier insulation or radiant paint or extraordinarily high-R-value rigid insulation.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

It’s not just insulation

Exaggerated energy performance claims aren’t limited to insulation. I have often seen in our paper’s weekend magazine ads for seemingly magic electric space heaters, and one can find outrageous savings claims for fairly ordinary windows, exaggerated claims for geothermal heat pumps. There was even a class-action lawsuit against Honda Motors for unrealistic mileage claims with its Civic Hybrid (we’ve had ours since 2003 and just turned over 170,00 miles).

Share your examples of
outrageous claims

Consumers deserve to have access to clear, accurate information on the energy performance of products they buy. And manufacturers who violate that trust deserve to be called out for deceptive claims. I’d like to compile examples of these outrageous claims and then publicize them -- somehow.

(I may have to let my lawyer weigh in on how aggressive I can afford to be in this campaign for truth in advertising.)

Send links to unrealistic energy claims by manufacturers or service providers to me using my e-mail address below, or post comments to the blog version of this column on one of the sites where it will be posted: GreenBuildingAdvisor.com or BuildingGreen.com.

Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute (www.resilientdesign.org), both based in Brattleboro. Send comments or suggestions for future columns to alex@buildinggreen.com.