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Large fines levied on companies making deceptive claims about R-values

Exaggerated claims, like this one for SUPER THERM, claiming R-19 for a coating of paint, are getting the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Superior Products International.

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 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.

Avoiding scams

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.

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Comments

1 "Seriously" exaggerated claims posted by Paula Melton on 02/21/2013 at 12:42 pm

Serious Windows was actually implicated by FTC for exaggerated energy claims, as reported by our editorial intern Erin Weaver: http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2012/3/26/FTC-Cracks-Down-...

2 very encouraging.... overhead door companies should be next posted by Joseph Cincotta on 02/25/2013 at 01:21 pm

Thank you..  This is very encouraging.... The next area for clarity are overhead door companies inflated claims that their foam fillled  metal doors deliver R values approaching R10 per inch... They lack the folliowing"

  • a uniform testing proceedure - it varies from mfg to mfg.
  • There is no unit test for the door in the frame.
  • Air infiltration must be accounted for in any serious energy consideration it is not for this industry.
  • the metal doors lack a thermal break

Hope this helps...

Joseph Cincottta AIA

3 Reporting false advertising claims posted by Emerson Dahmen on 02/25/2013 at 06:25 pm

Consumer Reports regularly reports false and misleading advertising claims that readers send them.  They don't specialize in building materials but would certainly be interested in anything with widespread consumer impact -- and they have lots of legal representation available if needed.

4 Garage doors may be a good article opportunity for EBN posted by Joseph Cincotta on 02/26/2013 at 08:13 am

Thanks for your reply however, I beleive this coudl be an excellent lead for EBN.  It would be a very good development if BG cracked the garage door story.   It's not rocket science. all one has to do is look at the published r values of the manufactureres and do the math for the materials used.  My students could do this.  The values simply do not add up 

It's an open and shut case. 

;J

5 Foil coated bubble wrap. posted by David Bourke on 03/04/2013 at 07:34 pm

How about foil coated bubble wrap under radiant heated slabs?  Does any of it really work?

6 air space posted by Tristan Roberts on 03/04/2013 at 09:30 pm

David, a  radiant barrier needs an air space in front of it to affect radiation of heat. If it is just sandwiched under concrete then the aluminium foil will be a very good thermal conductor, i.e., a poor insulator, while the radiant barrier will have no beneficial effect. There is (probably) a time and a place for radiant barriers, as long as we understand their benefit and don't over-rate it.

7 My question should have been, posted by David Bourke on 03/11/2013 at 07:08 pm

My question should have been, "Do the bubble wrap foil products have adequate air space built-in to effectively act as a radiant barrier?"


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