Buyer Beware Of Energy Savers
TAMPA - Every summer as gas prices rise and electric bills soar, homeowners pine for ways to cut energy costs. Enter Roger Suggs and his team of entrepreneurs at Southern Energy Concepts in Tampa. They have a device that promises to slow down the electric meter on the side of your home. The savings for residential customers can be as high as 35 percent a month, Suggs says. Scores of Tampa Bay area homeowners have purchased the energy-saving device, hoping for a substantial reduction in monthly electric bills. So far this summer, the fledgling company says it has sold more than 120 units at $399 apiece. "I'm selling them almost every day," Suggs said.But engineering experts and consumer advocates warn that consumers should be cautious about buying the device and other products that promise big energy savings for homes. When gasoline prices spike and electric bills soar, marketers emerge with a wide range of gadgets and products they claim can save on energy costs. But government regulators and consumer groups maintain that some claims can be misleading and consumers should closely review claims and guarantees before parting with their cash. "Any time companies make these types of savings claims, they should be able to provide documentation when asked," said Judy Pepper, president and CEO of the Central Florida Better Business Bureau. "Even if they do provide documentation, you need to look very carefully at it." Southern Energy Concepts says it can lower residential electric bills by as much as 35 percent with a device that can be wired to a home's breaker box. About 400 distributors nationwide sell the device, dubbed the Energy Controller. But Ralph Fehr, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of South Florida, said the device and others like it won't lower the electric bill of a residential customer. Such a claim would be misleading at best, Fehr said. "They might be able to reduce the number of kilovolt amps, which is the total power," Fehr said. "But if the goal is to reduce the electric bill, no, they are not going to do that. They're not going to do that because of the way the electricity is being billed." The Better Business Bureau and the state Attorney General's Office have received no complaints against Southern Energy Concepts or the product's manufacturer, KVAR Energy Savings of Port Orange. "We have a file on KVAR Energy Savings," Pepper said. "This year, we've had about 71 inquiries, not complaints." Distribution Of Power Homes and businesses use two types of power: reactive and active. The active power is the real power a home or small business actually consumes and is measured in watts. Reactive power is a small electric current that every house or business needs to trigger the magnetic fields that spin the motors in appliances such as refrigerators and air-conditioning units. Suggs argues that electric utilities charge residential customers for that introductory current. He said the Energy Controller can reduce the amount of reactive power by storing the excess and redistributing the power as it is needed. "You're paying for things you don't use," Suggs said. "Our apparatus enables you to store that power, instead of sending it back to the power company." Capacitors like the Energy Controller can reduce reactive power in homes and small businesses, Fehr said. However, he argues it won't cut home and small business electricity costs because electric utilities don't charge those customers for reactive power. Tampa Electric, the chief power provider in Hillsborough County with 667,000 customers, said it doesn't measure reactive power - often called "phantom" power - for residential customers. Neither does Progress Energy Florida, which serves 1.7 million customers. "The only thing we charge our residential customers for is for the real power that they use," said Tampa Electric spokesman Rick Morera. Because the amount of reactive power used by homes and small businesses is very small, electric utilities don't bill those customers for it. The cost of metering and billing would exceed the financial gain. Utilities only measure watts, or the power that is actually consumed by residential customers. CEO Has Words For Skeptics KVAR Energy Savings CEO Steve Fish said any engineer or professor who questions the company's claims should go back to college "and get a refund on their money. They were robbed." The company has sold about 80,000 units to residential and commercial customers, and none has asked for a refund, Fish said. The retail price for the Energy Controller is $399. Installation costs $100. "It slows the magnetizing current down on the cash register for the power company, which is the power meter," Fish said. "We get all kinds of skeptics, but our people are a whole lot brighter." Fehr, the professor at USF, said capacitors like the Energy Controller have been around for years and are useful for large industrial operations that use a lot of power. For industrial customers who can be charged a penalty for using too much reactive power, the Energy Controller can lower electricity costs. For residential customers, Fehr recommends a home energy audit or replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent lights. An ordinary incandescent bulb converts just 5 percent of the electricity it consumes into light. Fluorescent lights are more efficient, converting more than 25 percent of its energy into light. Converting to fluorescent bulbs can ring up savings over time, he said. "That is something you will see on your electric bill," Fehr said.
Reporter Russell Ray can be reached at (813) 259-7870 or [email protected]