This article was originally published in the September/October 1994 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online September/October 1994


The Green Plug Dilemma


Several new types of electricity-saving devices are becoming common. These gadgets rely on electronics to operate an appliance more efficiently. Perhaps the best known example is the Green Plug, which adjusts the voltage applied to motors to improve their performance--but there are also motor controllers, smart thermostats, and sensors now available. We are delighted that the power of integrated circuit logic is now being applied to saving energy; there are many situations where a little intelligence can save energy and sometimes provide new services and amenities.

One trouble with this new generation of electronic energy savers is that they are much more difficult to test (and therefore verify) than previous energy-saving devices. There are few recognized test procedures to evaluate energy savings for these types of devices. When no recognized test procedure exists, manufacturers must design their own and unscrupulous manufacturers may design a test which favors their product and exaggerates the related energy savings.

Furthermore, the situations where these devices save energy are not as obvious as with more familiar hardware-type conservation measures. For example, it's simple to understand that ceiling insulation will save energy in colder climates. In contrast, the greatest savings from a motor controller are likely to occur when the voltage of the utility power is above 115 volts. The voltage supplied to a house is not something a consumer can easily measure. Moreover, just because the voltage in one house is excessive doesn't mean that a nearby town has the same problem. Therefore it is impossible to make blanket recommendations about the value of a device.

These new electronic devices are often very successful in specific situations where an unusual energy consumption situation exists. These niches exist because standard conservation measures are not flexible enough to address all conditions (such as complex thermostat schedule or lights with unusual usage patterns). Yet manufacturers typically claim their devices achieve that maximum savings everywhere. For example, a motor controller manufacturer might claim that its product will cut energy use by 20%, even when this is true only for old refrigerators located in high voltage areas.

There is no way for consumers to easily verify that those savings were achieved in circumstances similar to those found in their own homes. Better information could go a long way towards repairing this problem. For example, prescription drugs list the conditions under which use of the drug is justified. A similar kind of recommendation is needed for electronics-based conservation devices.

Finally, there are virtually no sources of independent verification of manufacturers' claims. Occasionally Consumer Reports will publish the test results of an isolated device, but the magazine has been lamentably unsophisticated in its evaluations of electronic thermostats and other devices. Utility companies--which are constantly studying new energy-using and -saving equipment--know much more, but are afraid to release their findings due to lawsuits the results may trigger. The federal government is much further behind; it barely recognizes that such devices even exist. In any event, regulations ensure that the government won't be able to provide information to consumers to distinguish between legitimate energy savers, niche-savers, and outright frauds.

The good news is that new energy-saving devices are becoming available which can save energy in unusual circumstances. They may also provide additional convenience or security. The bad news is that circumstances in which cost-effective savings are achieved may be rare, or at least difficult for consumers to determine.

Alan Meier (signature)


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