Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Beware salesman offering magic energy saving solutions

At the weekend I was cold called by Envirosolar offering me gizmos to help me save on my heating or hot water bills. The two gizmos were a 'Little Magic Thermodynamic Box' and a central heating management system which includes a 'Magic Heating Box'. My suspicions were immediately raised on hearing the term 'magic'. As Arthur C. Clarke famously said 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. The implication is that when something is described as magic you aren't supposed to understand it - and there is something important that you aren't being told. But I do expect to understand how things work so I had a look in more detail at the products - and I was not impressed. I also looked at a system that purports to make your boiler more efficient by treating the incoming fuel with magnets. I wasn't impressed by that either.


On the initial call from Envirosolar I only got as far as choosing between saving on heating or hot water and was told I would get a voucher. However, the salesman rang again when I was out and spoke with my beloved. Fortunately my beloved expects to understand how things work too - after all he has a degree in physics - so he asked some penetrating questions. The salesman seemed to get more and more confused and eventually accused my beloved of being obnoxious - presumably by that time he had given up all hope of a sale. I have not received a voucher.

The Little Magic Thermodynamic Box will probably cost you more in electricity than it saves in gas
The Little Magic Thermodynamic Box uses a panel, looking a bit like a solar panel, that collects heat for your hot water. The difference between this and a conventional solar hot water panel is that it works in all weathers. I have no issue with any of the claims made on the web page. However, nowhere does it mention that the device needs electricity to run and you will almost certainly spend more on the electricity than you would have done on heating the water with a gas boiler.

The device is a type of 'thermodynamic panel' and it works as a heat pump, using electricity to pump heat from a low temperature to a higher temperature. There is a heat pump in your fridge that pumps heat out of the fridge into your kitchen. The Magic Thermodynamic box pumps heat from a panel mounted outside on the wall of your home into your hot water tank. The key point about heat pumps is that the bigger the temperature difference the harder the pump has to work. For small differences you can use 1 unit of electricity to shift 3 or more units of heat. This gives you a COP (co-efficient of performance) of 3 or more. For larger differences in temperature you will need more electricity to shift the required amount of heat. Since the price of gas is about a third the price of electricity you start making savings as long as COP is at least 3. I found a report from independent testing of a thermodynamic panel system that sounds very similar to the Little Magic Thermodynamic Box. The average COP they got varied through the year as you would expect. In June, when the weather is warm the COP was around 2.0 to 2.5 and in July it almost got to 3.0 but not quite. In January when the temperature outside is much lower the COP was around 1.5.

By the way, you may be aware of heat pumps used for space heating. These typically get a somewhat higher COP because they are not supplying such a high temperature so don't have to work so hard. According to Envirosolar the Little Magic Thermodynamic Box supplies heat at up to 55C. However, for space heating heat pumps normally supply at 45C or even lower. Even so, many heat pumps do not save money over a gas boiler and are rarely recommended for homes that have a gas supply.

The Magic Heating Box removes air from your heating circuit. You can do this yourself with a £2 bleed key.
Then there was the Central Heating Management System. As far as I can tell from the blurb, this involves:
  1. giving your pipes and radiators a good clean and making sure that you have inhibitor in the system to prevent scale
  2. some adjustments to your heating controls to ensure that your condensing boiler is running at a suitable temperature
  3. a 'Magic Heating Box' that removes air from the system, reduces those odd noises you often get and makes the heating fluid run round your radiators faster.
Cleaning the system and removing air will undoubtedly improve performance. In fact the salesman said the heating box included a pump so that the boiler does not have to work so hard. This pump will use electricity but there was no mention of running costs. Since our heating system was only commissioned a few years ago and it was all nice and clean then, and we have weather compensating controls on the boiler to optimise the radiator temperature, and we bleed air from the radiators whenever they need it, this system isn't going to do much for us.

By the way you can get a radiator bleed key for £2 from B&Q.

The Envirosolar web page on the heating system does not make any particular claims about how much your savings will be. This could be because of a ruling by the ASA in March this year that claims it had been making were unsubstantiated.

You will find advice about optimising your heating system on the Transition Cambridge web site.

Fuel conditioning claims to save at least 6% by treating the fuel with magnets.
While I was in debunking mode, I thought I would also see what I could find about 'fuel conditioning' which I heard mentioned recently. According to Magnatech this is supposed to save at least 6% on your heating bills. It isn't clear how it is supposed to work but it is something to do with fitting magnets around the fuel pipes into the boiler. Fuel conditioning is normally targetted at commercial sized heating systems so I was pleased to find an opinion from Vilnis Vesma, my favourite energy manager. He didn't think much of them either. Basically, he believes the efficiency improvements you see are all due to adjustments made during the commissioning of the device, not the magnets. Magnets have also been used in devices to improve fuel efficiency in cars that don't stand up to laboratory tests. The US EPA was unconvinced back in 1982 and nor was Popular Mechanic in 2005. We don't see car manufacturers like Ford or Toyota recommending them.

If in doubt - look for the technology on independent, reputable websites.
So how are you supposed to know when a salesman is trying it on, if you aren't a physicist or a heating engineer?

First of all, make sure you ask lots of questions, in particular how much the system is going to save and how much it will cost to run. If they don't make any commitments as to the savings, be very wary. If they do, then hold them to it.

Also, check that the technology they are selling is mentioned on a reputable independent website such as the Energy Savings Trust, or the Carbon Trust. Most technologies worth having will be available though the Green Deal, see YouGen for a list. For commercial systems check which ones qualify for an Enhanced Capital Allowance from HMRC.


23 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. This is surely just your opinion, I have a thermodynamic hot water system installed and last year spent £80 running it and it supplied the four people in our home with hot water all year long!

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  3. Good to hear that. I am about to fit a THWS

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  4. The Magnatech is a magnetic filter which removes the particles of rust in the water to prevent the radiators from clogging up thus making the system more efficient as well as saving the hassle of power flushing. It is easy to clean too, there are isolation valves on it to allow removal and cleaning of the magnetic core every so often. I clean mine about once a year.

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  5. I see on the 'ecoexperts' website that the 'magic thermodynamic box' will 'reduce heating costs by up to 80%'. Source? - 'feedback from the manufacturer'. That's concrete proof then.

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  6. This thermodynamic panel mostly used in electricity pumps for heat control form low temperature to higher temperature. It works great but it is very expensive rather than the usage of gas, that’s way it is not affordable for everyone.
    http://www.tnr.co.uk/

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  8. I realise that this an old post but was horrified to find it still on the front page of a google search for the Little Magic Thermodynamic Box.
    I am unaware of ever selling a LMTB to someone with a degree in physics. I am however very aware of the number of architects and eco builders that buy this product. Don't take me at face value, you can watch an excerpt from Channel 4's popular show "Grand Designs" here: http://www.greencastlerenewables.co.uk/testimonials
    Technology moves at a phenomenal rate these days and the LMTB has improved at this same rate. It is now the only MCS approved thermo-pump available.
    Also, I found it neither comforting nor amusing that your beloved decided to flex his intellectual muscles at someone he could safely assume did not have a degree in physics and was simply trying to do a job in earnest. Don't you think, with hindsight, that comes across as a bit arrogant? The demographic suggests that this person was probably either a student or a single parent. This "confused" person on the end of the phone probably had a really bad day after that, for sometimes in those days, no pay.
    I can assure you that many of us that sell green products do it with a passion for the planet. The sale comes as part of that. After all, it's us frontline people selling the innovations of the brilliant that pay their salaries. Or maybe it's just magic. What do I know.

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    1. This is a response from my beloved, the arrogant chap with the intellectual muscles:

      - 'I am unaware of ever selling a LMTB to someone with a degree in
      physics.'

      The point of the article was that we wouldn't consider buying
      the product as the salesman's claims were hyperbolic to the point of
      impossibility, but that they might have been believed by someone with
      less technical knowledge. It was a simple caveat emptor that seems to
      have been appreciated.

      - '... Don't take me at face value, you can
      watch an excerpt from Channel 4's popular show "Grand Designs" '

      Sorry, when it comes to claims about science and technology I prefer
      refereed journals and certified testing labs over popular TV. As the
      saying goes, "data" is not the plural of "anecdote".

      - 'It is now the only MCS approved thermo-pump available.'

      "Thermo-pump" is simply a fancy way of saying "heat pump" and the MCS web site lists over a thousand certified products which are heat
      pumps. In the relatively new category of solar assisted heat pump,
      which covers the LMTB and BMTB, there are ten entries so it's hardly
      unique even there.

      - '... This "confused" person on the end of the phone probably had a really bad day after that, for sometimes in those days, no pay.'

      In other words, I'm an evil, heartless villain, stealing the bread out
      of the mouth of a minimum wage call centre worker who's just trying to
      get by. Well actually, no, I haven't even got a moustache I can twirl.

      I wasn't phoned by a call centre worker required to parrot a script,
      it was a company salesman who I recall was also listed as a director
      of the company. (I can't confirm that today, as a revisit to Companies
      House shows that Envirosolar Ltd is no longer trading, the other
      companies involved with MTB seem to have changed and various directors have come and gone in the last two years.) His sales approach was more steamroller than script and I feel sorry for any elderly person on the receiving end of such high pressure tactics.

      As for arrogance, I'm not sure whether saying "if what you claim is
      true, your product violates the laws of thermodynamics, you'll need to
      clarify that if you wish to sell it to me" is arrogant or not, but I
      do think treating a potential customer with contempt by making
      physically impossible claims and blustering even more when asked to
      justify untruths might well be. If someone is selling a product by
      repeatedly saying "thermodynamics", they really should know what the
      word actually means.

      ' ...Or maybe it's just magic. What do I know....'

      And there's the problem. If you don't know how it works, how do you
      know it does work? The people making it will claim it works whether
      they're innovative geniuses or crooks. One useful rule of thumb is
      that "thermodynamics" and "magic" shouldn't appear in the same
      sentence unless joined by the word "isn't".

      If you want an independent take on the manufacturer's sales approach,
      take a look at this ASA ruling

      https://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2015/4/Magic-Thermodynamic-Box-Ltd/SHP_ADJ_231310.aspx

      I also suggest that anyone connected with selling this product who is
      considering complaining about this blog post should take a look at
      this

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect

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  9. Had a call from them today claiming a 30% saving on energy bills with this box. I asked how it works and was greeted by a long silence followed by ER!

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  10. We had a visit from their salesman yesterday regarding their Central Heating Management System. They claim up to 30% cost saving on fuel plus extending the boiler life.
    The "Magic" box seems to be a high flow pump and heat exchanger to preheat the returning water to 55° and the boiler is set to 60° outlet temp.
    The other main features are that they perform a system power flush, fit new TRVs and a control panel.
    This costs £12,500, unless you qualify for their referral discount ( we didn't after much calculation to see what our discount level would be). At max discount the price would be around £8,500.
    We declined due to this very high cost, although I believe the system would have benefits.
    The salesman and his manager got into an argument over our solar panel generation and export tariffs, which they clearly did not understand, despite claiming to be a solar panel manufacturer and supplier.
    They would have saved over 4 hours of our and their time if they had told us the system price up front.

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  12. Well I have to be honest here! I have been on their training course this week and as an engineer of over 30 years alarm bells started to ring for me (in fact so loud I got a migraine). I have worked in many lines of engineering (my main trade as a marine engineer) and I have also worked in sales. I do not feel comfortable telling some one at the end of a pitch, and I quote " do not tell anybody about what you have brought in case they talk you out of this purchase because they don't have any information about this product" a great way of selling! I have done my own math and to be honest to be able to put together this product and install should cost no more than £3000 (I am allowing here for all overheads inc product, salesmen, engineers and man hours). To pay £12,500 is madness! a powerflush would achieve the same goals and make you feel the benefit instantly but over time (yes this will reduce the sludge content in your heating system as would any form of automatic air vent) but there are no real benefits to having the system fitted! lets face it you can buy a heat exchange box for £70 (ish) a decent TRV should cost no more than £30 (so if you have 10 radiators that's only £300 or less) a power flush should cost less than £400 (they claim you need this every 18 months to 2 years as recommended by British gas, funny old thing I cant find this recommendation from good old British gas and independent sources say every 5-6 years). my biggest alarm bell was the age group they target..... you guessed it those that are at/beyond or approaching retirement age!!!
    trust me when I tell you they are a bunch of ex-timeshare salesmen who are more than happy to drive around in their flash sports motor and sleep well at night knowing that they have robbed your dear mother or father off in their twilight years!

    I personally can not as an ex-member of her majesties services be a part of this company and knowingly rip anybody off, it sickens me to know that people are so blind to these scams

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    1. Are you talking about the thermodynamic hot water? Or the radiator flushing?

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    2. Mr Engineer of over 30 years you are an honourable Man, the best training they could offer is how to rip people off. Thermodynamics is not smoke and mirrors although they use it to hide behind.
      Take it from me(someone that does know) invest in a reputable Air to water (ATW) or ground Source heat pumps and benifit from technology that works.
      Somone ought to put a stop to them.

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    3. Hi Unknown - Please can you contact me directly? -You can send me a message via http://nicola.qeng-ho.org/sendmail.php - That would be great. NIcola

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  13. We are building a new house next year and our contractor is suggesting a tankless water heater. He has one in his own house and loves it. I’m still undecided. The conventional kind has worked for decades and the tankless is such a new thing. I’ll have to give it more thought.


    Marine Water Heater
    Universal Heating Solutions

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  15. Excellent and informative post, thanks.

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  16. Not affordable for everyone, but it really is worth it!

    Heating Engineer in Perth

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    1. What makes you say this? Where is your evidence?

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  17. Interesting. Girlfriend just bought a house which has one of the LMTB's installed. Curious system hence been researching. No Gas or oil on the property so this makes MORE sense. The place also has photovoltaic solar and an air source heat pump to radiators (daikin)
    Not sure about the previous owners decision given the price and certainly not the credit agreement, but their choice!
    I am curious about putting a timer on it (like for an immersion tank) as keeping at 55 all day isn't really required for someone at work and due to the cupboard with the tank being off a bedroom, when it kicks in (random timing as per 5 degree drop) to regenerate it's not silent!

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