Wait, the Amish build electric heaters now?

Energy Q & A with ECA

Q: Recently I have seen a lot of ads for a “magical Amish space heater” that will heat my home without using much energy.  Should I buy one?

A: Probably not. To be honest, I have not seen one of these mythical heaters live and in-person, but these ads are a little too good to be true. First of all, they are not Amish; the heaters are manufactured in China. Tag lines like “Save money: only uses about 8 cents electric an hour” not only give me pause because of the poor sentence structure, but also because the price of electricity depends on where you live.  I think they mean 8 cents per kilowatt hour – not 8 cents per hour.  Typically, an electric resistance heater use 1500 watts of power, or 360 kilowatt hours per month if used 8 hours a day.  In PECO’s service area, where electricity costs 15 cents a kWh, that will run you $54.00 a month or $0.23 an hour – not 8 cents!!

Portable electric heaters are limited to a power of 1500 watts so they can be plugged into a standard 120 volt outlet.  A 1500 watt heater, any 1500 watt heater, produces 5119 BTU’s of heat per hour.  So the heater you purchase for $15 to $30 at a discount store will do the same job as the $300 “miracle” heater.

I’m also highly skeptical of how the ad manipulates the Amish tradition of high-quality craftsmanship to sell these heaters. Electric space heaters are one of the main reasons that consumers have high electric bills.  I don’t believe that just because it has been put inside an Amish-made wood mantle that it is suddenly going to guzzle less energy. I mean come on - their ad copy says that it's "a work of engineering genius from the China coast so advanced, you simply plug it into any standard outlet.” Hello? All electric space heaters plug into a standard outlet!

OK, that’s enough making fun of the advertising. All I’m saying is that I can't vouch for the accuracy of the numbers in this article (note that the Better Business Bureau gives the company a rating of "F"), and would bet, if you purchased one for this winter, that your electric bill has in fact gone up noticeably. If you have purchased one, let us know what your experience has been!

Q: Why does U.S energy consumption continue to rise even as awareness of sustainability issues seems to be increasing everyday?

A: This is a great question, and the answer has to do not so much with education, but with American life style. Did you know that between 1967 and 2007 the average size of the American household declined from 3.33 to a record low of 2.56?  One person households are up by 350%.  During the same period, the average size of new homes has increased by 34%, which explains why per capita energy use continues to rise by approximately 1.5% every year.

Bigger is not always better. We’ve all been taught to think of big as synonymous with prosperity and luxury. And yet, it turns out bigger is not only what makes us fat, it’s also what makes us energy dependent and addicted to oil. Just chew on some of these facts to be thoroughly convinced. There is no longer a correlation between the age of a home and its efficiency. Overwhelmingly what matters more is its size. Residential energy use is 30% higher today than it was in 1960, which is mostly because of the sharp decline in number of people per household. Just imagine it, all those people living alone, each with their own TV, heater, air conditioner, computer, and the list goes on and on. So, in addition to taking all our advice about the concrete energy efficiency improvements you can make (because they work too!), keep in mind that bigger isn’t always better, and you might not be prepared for the burden of that extra square footage!

In fact, that little rowhouse is looking better and better.

Read more Energy Q&A with ECA here.