January/February 2007 Editorial—Compliance: Following the Letter (and the Spirit) of the Law

Posted by Home Energy on January 02, 2007

Several unrelated matters related to compliance with energy efficiency regulations crossed my desk recently (see “Caveat Emptor,” p. 12). These incidents illustrate that compliance—or failure to comply—with a regulation is not always objective. Indeed, one could say that there is a spectrum of “compliance.”

First there is outright fraud. This was probably the case where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered an insulation company to desist from its claims. Insulation—especially the IR barrier foil type—seems to have had more than its share of fly-by-night firms, misrepresentation, and general sleaziness. I commend the FTC for continuing to pursue these cases and urge them to maintain vigilance, especially with higher oil and electricity prices prompting consumers to search for low-cost measures to cut costs for space heating. For the uninformed consumer, the simplest advice may be to work with nationally known brands and manufacturers.

That advice doesn’t apply to other products, however. Take the case of air conditioners in Australia (which aren’t much different from air conditioners in the United States). The Australian government discovered that the large Korean manufacturer LG had overstated the effi ciency and capacity of many of its air conditioners. One model did not even meet the minimum-efficiency standard. The Australian government forced LG to pay millions of dollars to air conditioner buyers to offset the higher operating costs. You can be sure that manufacturers noticed.

An insidious, new form of noncompliance has recently emerged. Thanks to microprocessor controls, some appliances now recognize when they are being tested and switch into a low-energy mode. According to Consumer Reports, this appears to be the case with a new LG refrigerator, which inexplicably switches off some operations when the ambient temperature approaches the testing temperature and when doors haven’t been opened for a while. These measures cut enough electricity use to qualify the unit for Energy Star endorsement and sales-enhancing utility rebate programs. LG appears to be failing to comply with energy regulations in two countries. (Is anybody paying attention?) But LG is not alone; Japanese refrigerator manufacturers became so adept at circumventing the test that actual electricity use of refrigerators was typically twice as high as the labels claimed. The situation became so embarrassing that the government changed the test procedure to make it harder to circumvent. Many U.S. appliance manufacturers (and importers) are poised to adopt the same approach as LG and Japanese manufacturers. The FTC, DOE, and Energy Star should be on the alert.

A more subtle form of noncompliance occurs when manufacturers misrepresent the capacity of their products. Efficiency, which is described in terms of energy use per unit of capacity, is thus overstated. (I call this the denominator problem.) Refrigerators, washing machines, and water heaters suffer from exaggerated capacity claims. Consumer Reports again described how the usable volume of one refrigerator was 30% less than the listed volume. (It probably would not have complied with minimum efficiency standards if usable volume had been used.) Most energy regulations pay far more attention to the accuracy of energy measurement than to the capacity of the product.

Finally, there are cases where the energy-saving claims are partly true for example, under certain conditions. The motor controllers (see “The GreenPlug Dilemma,” HE Sept/Oct ’94, p. 2) did save electricity when motors were oversized or the voltage delivered was unnecessarily high. Here the problem is agreeing on appropriate test conditions. Reasonable people may disagree on these conditions, so compliance is less clear-cut.

These stories show that compliance is not a simple yes-no decision. It begins with clear regulations. But it must be followed by vigilance, intelligence, and, occasionally, Solomon-like decisions.

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