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 is 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 to some extent, but grossly exaggerated R-value claims have continued.
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-applied 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% 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.
Inflated R-value claims like Sumpolec’s 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 ads in our local newspaper’s weekend magazine for seemingly magic electric quartz space heaters, and one can find outrageous savings claims for fairly ordinary windows, exaggerated claims for the benefits of weatherizing services, and highly misleading claims about home-scale wind turbines.
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 their 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 directly, or post comments below.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.