Heater's Amish glow just a frame job: Minus mantel, the faux fireplace is made in China
THE AMISH are known for being honest, God-fearing folk, so if they give a product their stamp of approval, it has to be good, right?
That's what the people employing them - and their image - are betting on.
For the past two years, America's newspapers and magazines have been inundated with advertisements for electric fireplaces called Roll-n-Glow, made by a company called Heat Surge.
A recent two-page spread in Parade magazine - designed to look like a series of newspaper articles with photos and sidebars - proclaimed, "Amish craftsmen set to build Heat Surge miracle fireplace mantels for just $58."
Read that carefully. The Amish make the frame that goes around the unit. The heater - which costs about $250 more - is made in China.
"They're touting their faux fireplace and wood surrounds, and if those features are important to you, this is one to consider," said Jim Nanni, manager of the technical department at Consumer Reports, which tested the product last year. "But if you're just in the market for a portable heater ... you can get a decent one for under $100."
But Heat Surge vice president David Baker said people who buy the Roll-n-Glow - about one million have been sold - aren't just looking for something to warm their homes.
"This product is a fireplace, not a heater," Baker said. "Everyone loves a fireplace. It's also a beautiful piece of furniture. We have a lot of satisfied customers."
It's actually a plug-in electric heater with a backlit picture of a fire.
Baker said the Amish aren't being exploited, they're being employed.
He said the company could easily import mantels from China - and charge a lot less - but it wanted to employ craftsmen in their area. And while not all Amish like being photographed, those that do help promote the product that helps feed their families, Baker said.
"Times have changed. A lot of people couldn't make it anymore in farming," said Baker, noting that the product has earned a Good Housekeeping Seal. "This has been a godsend to the Amish. They love doing this. It's woodworking. It's right up their alley. And they're employed."
Heat Surge's ads contain multiple money-saving promises: "guaranteed to save everyone money on home heat bills this winter," and "turn down the thermostat and never be cold again."
But this heater - or any electric space heater - won't save you money if you employ it as you would a regular heating system, Nanni said. In fact, it could end up costing more overall.
"The savings come from reducing the heat in your entire home and only heating the one or two rooms you're occupying," he said. "Everyone is attracted to the lead claim that you'll save on heating, but you can do that without a portable heater. Lower the heat and put another layer of clothing on."
A recent version of the ads plays on the guilt that comes with not living the simple life: "Amish hit hard by recession," reads one faux headline. The "article" under it explains that's why these simple craftsmen are willing to work hard making those wood mantels for less money.
The photo next to the write-up, with the caption "OUT OF WORK," shows a young boy and a man wearing traditional Amish garb holding hands and walking toward a covered bridge. The boy is glancing over his shoulder.
The content doesn't bother Steve Nolt, a professor at Goshen College specializing in Amish and Mennonite history and culture. The Amish have had their name and image used before to market products, including for items that are as Amish as Quaker Oats are Quaker, he said.
"If the Amish image would be used in a way that hurts Amish people or is detrimental to their culture, I would be upset," Nolt said. "In this case, I'm more amused than offended."
Nolt, who is on sabbatical in Lancaster County, said the Amish folk he's talked with say it's clear from the ad that the people pictured are not Old Order Amish. They can tell by the older gentleman's trimmed beard and details like the style of the man's hats and the ladies' bonnets.
But they're not offended, he said. Like him, they're somewhat amused. Before the ad copy was cleaned up to make clear that it is the mantel, not the heating unit, that is Amish-made, one Lancaster man joked, "Are they Amish heaters? Well, let's see, how many Amish live in China?"
The Canton, Ohio, office of the Better Business Bureau gives Ohio-based Heat Surge a "B-"grade and said it is not a BBB-accredited business. More than 300 complaints about the company have been filed since June 2007, but most major issues have been settled, said Amanda Tietze, Canton BBB's vice president of public relations.
"The company has been willing to work with us to resolve any issues or problems or patterns," Tietze said.
Locally, the heaters - and their mantels - can be purchased at Hearth & Stove on South Street near 17th. Seen in person, the units appear smaller than advertised, standing only 2 feet high.
"Everybody says that," owner Dan Carter said.
The acclaimed mantel - Carter has "oak" on display in his shop - is passable. Although Consumer Reports didn't set out to analyze that part of the product, Nanni called the "oak" version "acceptable."
"I wouldn't call it exquisite craftsmanship," Nanni said. "It's not made as fine furniture."
The "miracle" faux flame is just that: Fake. But in the "testimonial" section of Heat Surge's Web site, customers marvel at how real the flame looks and how serene it can make one feel. There's no mention of how they feel when they have to change the lightbulb that produces that effect.
The item sells well and "has a nice price point," being in the $300 to $500 range, depending on what deals the company is offering, said Hearth & Stove's Carter. He has literature detailing how a user can save money by only heating occupied rooms with the Roll-n-Glow, practicing zone heating over traditional heating.
"It's a portable space heater," Carter said. "If that's what you want, that's what you'll get."
He knows the company spends a lot of money on its ads, but he doesn't think buyers are being misled.
"Nobody's going to think the Amish are making electric fireplaces," he said. "They're not supposed to even have electricity."