Energy is expensive. You can't drive to work without filling up your gas tank. You can't heat your home without oil, propane or electricity. It's only natural to look for ways to shave a few bucks off those costs, but be cautious if you try.
There are lots of products, gadgets and additives that promise to reduce your home energy consumption or increase your car's gas mileage. Not all of them may work as advertised. Many may not work at all.
Some companies have found themselves in hot water for making false claims about boilers, electric water heater timers, gasoline supplements and windows.
In February, the Federal Trade Commission said it had reached proposed settlements with five window companies, two of them from Pennsylvania. It alleged they were making "exaggerated and unsupported claims" about the energy efficiency of their windows, which in some cases were touted as being able to cut home heating and cooling bills in half.
Gorrell Enterprises and Winchester Industries, both of Indiana County, did not admit any wrongdoing. The settlements ban them and the other window companies from making energy-efficiency claims without "competent and reliable scientific evidence." For companies to promise savings of "up to" a certain amount, there must be evidence that almost all customers would be likely to achieve such savings.
The proposed settlements are part of an effort by the FTC to ensure that environmental marketing is truthful and based on solid scientific evidence.
In December, the FTC announced it had reached a settlement with New Jersey companies that were marketing a device, the Hydro-Assist Fuel Cell, as being able to boost gas mileage by at least 50 percent.
Dutchman Enterprises and United Community Services of America (doing business as UCSA Dealers Group), of Passaic County, were accused of making false or unsubstantiated claims about the device, which was promoted as being able to "turn any vehicle into a hybrid."
The FTC's lawsuit alleged the companies said a 2007 Honda Civic got 85 highway miles per gallon with the Hydro-Assist Fuel Cell, and a 2006 Mazda got 121 highway miles per gallon.
The settlement calls for the companies and one of their officials to turn over about $230,000 in assets that were frozen during the investigation. The defendants did not admit to any of the allegations.
If gas reaches $5 a gallon this year as some are projecting, be on the lookout for all sorts of gizmos that promise to increase your mileage. In 2008, when gas was $4 a gallon, the Better Business Bureau advised motorists to stay away from such products. It said the Environmental Protection Agency had tested more than 100 gas-saving devices and hadn't identified any that significantly improved mileage.
"Unfortunately, these devices and additives will only end up draining the driver's wallet without adding the much-needed boost to their gas tank," BBB spokesman Steve Cox said in a news release.
Another big energy expense is your home energy bills. One way to reduce those expenses is to make sure your home is energy-efficient. Stores and manufacturers must disclose efficiency information on some products so you can shop wisely, but officials have found not all stores and manufacturers are honest.
The Appliance Labeling Rule requires retailers to provide EnergyGuide information for products such as refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, air conditioners, heat pumps, water heaters, furnaces, boilers and washing machines. The information estimates the annual cost to operate an appliance.
Make sure that information is available for appliances or items you are shopping for. The FTC has fined or warned stores for failing to use EnergyGuide labels.
Another rule, the R-value rule, rates the efficiency of insulation. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power. Almost all insulation products, with the exception of pipe and duct insulation, must disclose their R-value.
Manufacturers must label their packaging, installers and retailers must provide fact sheets and new home sellers must include the information in sales contracts, according to the FTC. In 2009, the agency accused several companies of misrepresenting the R-value of their insulation products.
Similarly, the U-value rule rates the energy efficiency of windows. The lower the value, the more efficient a window is.
As a consumer, it's hard to know whether products are labeled with accurate U- or R-values and EnergyGuide information. That's why it is important to comparison shop and check a product's reputation through consumer reviews and other sources. If the rating on one product is substantially different from the rating on similarly priced products, you should question why.
If you are going to buy an energy-saving device, like any other product, do your homework. See if the product comes with a warranty or money-back guarantee. Read consumer reviews. Paying with a credit card can protect you because it you have problems, you can contest the charges and ask for your money back.
More advice and information on some of the federal investigations into energy-saving devices are on my blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/watchdog/.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.