Early this year, five window makers agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the firms had made deceptive claims about the energy efficiency and energy cost savings that their windows could deliver. But that was just one step in the agency’s quest to address deceptive marketing in this building-component category.
Indeed, the FTC, in keeping with customary practice, has been using the agreement to prod other window marketers to conform to its terms, which prohibit unsubstantiated claims that installing replacement windows can yield energy savings. Over the past few weeks, in fact, the agency sent letters to 14 window manufacturers and one window-glass maker (Cardinal Glass) that remind the companies of the settlement terms, cite instances in which the companies had been making unsupported energy-saving claims, and summarize guidelines that can help the companies avoid unsupported or misleading claims.
Basically, the FTC – which said in its letters to the 15 companies that it “hasn't decided that your claims violate the law” – wants the firms to review their marketing material and refrain from making performance claims that are unsubstantiated by scientific analysis.
Points of contention
“The warning letters highlight claims that consumers will save more than 30% on their energy or heating and cooling bills by installing replacement windows,” the agency said in a press release. “The letters state that the FTC has made no determination whether the companies are violating the law” but urges the recipients to be mindful of the following:
1. Energy-savings claims must be backed by scientific evidence.
2. Be specific about the type of savings consumers can expect.
3. Avoid deception when making “up to” claims.
4. Avoid deception when selecting home characteristics for modeling.
5. Clearly and prominently disclose any assumptions.
6. Exercise care in using testimonials or “case studies.”
7. Manufacturers may be liable for misleading or unsubstantiated claims made to dealers or retailers, in addition to claims made directly to consumers.
Adjusting the pitch
While framing customer testimonials in ways that bring them into compliance can be tricky, finding credible evidence to back up a company's claims about energy savings (assuming they're true) isn’t necessarily difficult.
In its letter to one of the companies – Newpro, based in Medford, Massachusetts – the FTC noted “your home page states ‘Home Energy Savings 40%’ above the sentence, ‘According to the Department of Energy, NEWPRO Windows can REDUCE HEAT LOSS up to 40%,’ and a ‘neighborhood testimonial’ on your home page states, ‘We have saved at least 40% on our home heating fuel, if not more.’”
According to energy expert Michael Blasnik, a data-cruncher who has collaborated with utility researchers to analyze the energy bills of tens of thousands of homeowners around the country, "The amount of energy saved by replacing all of the windows in a home is generally on the order of 1% to 4% of the heating energy usage.”
The last time we checked, the energy-saving claim and the testimonial on Newpro’s home page are still in place, although the claim links to a Newpro “Home Energy Savings” landing page whose lead-in text is a little more specific: “NEWPRO Windows Can Save You MONEY! According to the Department of Energy, R-5 windows (windows with a U-Value of .20 or less) may reduce average heat loss through windows by 30 - 40%*.”
The landing page also includes a link to a DOE fact sheet, dated March 2010, for the high-efficiency windows component of the agency’s Building Technologies Program, titled “Highly Insulating (R-5) Windows and Low-E Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program.” The document starts with a definition: “What are Highly Insulating R-5 Windows? Highly insulating windows with a whole-window R-value of 5 (a U-factor of around 0.2) are the top tier of energy efficient windows for cold and mixed climates available today. This compares to ENERGY STAR windows with an R value of 3. Increasing the R value from 3 to 5 reduces average heat loss through the window by 30% to 40%.”
An ongoing process
The companies named in the settlement agreement earlier this year are Gorell Enterprises; Long Fence & Home; Serious Energy; THV Holdings; and Winchester Industries. In addition to Newpro, the FTC sent letters to Cardinal Glass; Acadia Windows & Doors; Nationwide Window & Siding; Pace Window & Door; Pal Windows; Ringer Windows; Sierra Pacific Windows; SureGuard Windows; SwissShade & Security; Thompson Creek Window Company; Value Windows & Doors; Vytex Windows; Weather Shield; and West Window Corp.
The FTC adds that its coverage of energy efficiency claims in this category is part of an initiative the agency launched more than 20 years ago to ensure that environmental marketing is truthful. The FTC hosts a Web page, headlined “Environmentally Friendly Products: FTC’s Green Guides,” that includes links to both general and specific green-product marketing guidelines and enforcement actions.
Whether all 15 companies that received letters details will comply with the FTC's marketing guidelines remains to be seen. In any case, the agency's commissioners voted unanimously to make public all warning letters, and it’s apparent the agency has no intention of letting the terms of the settlement fade from memory.
Here are links to some of the warning letters sent out by the FTC: