Bogus claims for energy saving products (commentary)

Opinion : Vilnis is amongst the elite of commentators on effective energy management.  

I agree with almost all he has written but felt some key points were worth emphasizing or expanding upon, or simply interesting - hence this post.

Disclosure: I attended the same college as Vilnis and have occasional non-commercial contact with him. He has not solicited nor endorse this response to his work.

Vilnis writes : 
1. Failure to adhere to the known laws of science ...  
The term ‘boiler’ is a misnomer because the water in contact with the heat transfer surfaces remains liquid. Were steam bubbles ever to form because of localized overheating or inadequate water flow you would get popping and clanging noises (“kettling”) caused by detached steam bubbles condensing and collapsing abruptly in the water away from the surface.
But we have to be careful with "The Laws of Science" and our understanding of "The Laws of Science" bearing in mind that certainly I (and I am sure Vilnis) would admit to really understanding a very few of the "Laws of Science"

So lets take a really simple example (and one that relates to Vilnis' film of steam that reduces heat transfer.

Can water flow uphill (of its own accord) ? 

I would have to say yes - if pushed! (so try to stay aware of your own limitations)

There is a fascinating phenoemenon (and worth a few fun minutes of your time) called the Leidenfrost effect. It is brilliantly explained here which shows after a minute of explanation how water can actually navigate a maze...  (and yes flow uphill)

Vilnis mentions:
2. Implausible percentage savings claims: more than anything, it is claims for savings of 20% or more which prompt people to become suspicious and contact me for my opinion. The problem is that some established technologies do achieve that (and more), so what is really at issue is the nagging question “if this is so good, why isn’t it fitted everywhere?”. Taken on its own, this is not evidence enough, although it is sometimes possible to show from engineering calculations that a claim is unlikely to be feasible. I return to this theme later but the enemy are not all stupid and there is a new breed smart enough to make a subtler pitch. Nobody would think a claim for six percent was suspicious.
I would simply note that we must distinguish efficiency and effectiveness.  A car left running at the kerbside (with no driver) may be a tempting target for a crook.  But consider that the effect of burning a litre of fuel is the same whether the car is a Formula 1 monster or an "economical" runabout for a house husband to do a little shopping.  In short this sort of energy use isn't going anywhere. Since neither achieves anything (except helping warm the car on a cold morning) the use of energy is exactly equally wasteful. The rate of waste may be different, and the smaller car is more economical in use.  By switching off the engine (when there is no intent to travel) we see 100% savings !  This emphasizes that savings "in normal use" is generally the right benchmark for the energy manager.  Again this re-enforces getting the right sized power plant for the job, so over-sizing almost inevitably leads to waste.

Vilnis overlooks (to a pedant) the "inspection or 'regression to the mean' fraud" when considering installation.  See also "Guess the sex of your child fraud"

3. Extreme ease of installation: it has to be just a simple additive, bolt-on, or electrical connection for two reasons. Firstly the salesman needs to put as few obstacles in your way as possible. Secondly it needs to be cheap for him to install and easy to remove (or abandon) when a diligent customer discovers it does not work.

The easiest way of achieving energy savings in half of the sites that you visit is to "wave a wand" chant some incantations perhaps (chanting is all you can do with them) and do nothing else. The cost and time to fit and remove is zero.  

Absolutely nothing in the mechanical world operates without change. Performance hovers around average performance so ( absent a catastrophic or steady deteriorating tendency) if you compare any two periods for one system, half improve and half deteriorate.  The fraud works as follows:
I will guess the sex of your unborn child for $1000 - If I get it wrong I will refund $1500 - so you cant lose !
Explanation - Clearly I add no value if I always guess with the assistance of a fair coin toss - but I will be right half the time (winning $1000) - the rest of the time I may have to refund $500 - On average given a good sample of suckers I cant lose ! 
The benefit of me being right is zero - exactly equal to the information bought. 

By the way if you already know the sex of your child you can make money from the fraudster - if you are smart enough - Do discuss in the comments below if interested ! 

Just expanding on Vilnis' comments :
5. Analysis based on indirect measurements like reduced running hours: it is not safe to infer that reducing running hours reduces energy consumption. If you turn your heating off for ten minutes in every hour, for example, you will have an intermittent drop in space temperature and each time the heating system runs it will use extra fuel to restore the desired temperature. 

Note the energy reduction is during the test period and the extra fuel immediately follows the test period - so by comparing on vs. off test rather than on (for a long duration) vs off test (prior to tests), the test shows savings that are relative to the wrong base.

In fact if a system is under less than 100% load a well "planned" test of this type can always show 100% apparent savings simply by "claiming" the slack in the system. I believe this is probably the biggest standard "clip on boiler sequencer" fraud out there.  The parties involved change the name of their company / or operation fast enough that they can make money by  duping the buyers while avoiding the law.

Vilnis talks about maintaining minimum temperature:

Remember in this case that heat is flowing out of the building all the time (even when the heating is off) and over the course of a day or a week, all the heat lost must be balanced by heat input, regardless of how intermittently it is supplied. In fact, to maintain the same minimum inside temperature with intermittent heat input, you would use more fuel by having to maintain a higher average.
Similar considerations apply to voltage reduction, in that any reduction in current, while proving a reduction in instantaneous power, does not take running hours into account. A thermostatically-controlled electric heater in particular will run for longer in order to deliver the required quantity of heat, negating any apparent savings inferred from a spot check.
This is 100% correct BUT there are two important related points:

Not all targets are constant - If you need a lower minimum temperature (say overnight) - then the target should always be lowered. Night setback recognises that people sleep lying down - and we lose heat faster standing up (like radiators we are vertically mounted when operational). So not only is our required body temperature lower (slowing metabolism)  it also takes cooler conditions to maintain it. In this case eg in residential buildings (OR UNOCCUPIED BUILDINGS) we should always set minimum targets and maximum targets as liberally as possible - to allow the control system to trigger least spend.

This also assumes that say a boiler has efficient temperature modulation (many boilers run on-off using time modulation rather than temperature modulation). In boilers that have pre- and post- firing combustion chamber purges (pressurized rather than atmospheric boilers) a wider control band targeting minimum low return temperatures but firing to higher temperatures to prevent rapid cycling can be an efficiency boon (at times of less than 100% load - ie most of the year)

Vilnis is a little soft on secrets:
6. Secret ingredients or principles of operation: claims based on secrets are by their nature hard to assess in principle, so secrecy is the perfect cloak for trickery. However, if you are looking for a way to deter a persistent salesman, you can use secrecy against them. Just fall back on a health-and-safety argument. Ask for toxicity and materials-compatibility tests on any chemical constituents. And if somebody tries to sell you a magnetic device so powerful that it can affect oil or gas, ask for information about its effects on human tissue and body fluids.
In combination with Patents (a publication allowing reproduction of the benefit -"in theory") secrets do not hold water - patents are not secret - end of discussion.

If salesperson tells me they will use a secret means to help me save energy - they in my estimation almost certainly a charlatan.  (It is acceptable for a salesman to admit they do not understand the technical detail of their product - but in this case they should have explanatory literature or technical back up.  In general if you do not understand why it works it probably doesn't - so don't buy !

Vilnis on Patents (Note: for my sins I was an Assistant Patent Search Examiner in Europe for a while)

He is right ! - 
1) I can think of no energy saving device that is creditable simply because it has a patent. 
2) I can think of many that are not. 
3) Many truly effective devices are patented - but the patent offers a temporary monopoly protection in exchange for publication - so
a) it is not secret, 
b) the patent has no bearing on the efficacy

Vilnis on Social Proof

Vilnis covers testimonials, science, and accreditation and simple social "proof"

1) Your mileage may vary
2) Trust your scepticism - there are several billion people out there to give testimonials (some for hire)
3) Science is a debate - not a conclusion (A Physical Law is still only a tentative conclusion that has stood an extensive test of time - longer that say Biological Evolution Theory (and even more than mere conjecture)
4) Just because a million people believe something does not make it so 

Regarding sales tactics - caveat emptor - buyer beware.  A great way to stay aware is to follow Vilnis' blog in my opinion.