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The Amish Heater – An Absurd Scam

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, a guy who works in the marketing department of a solar energy company. He mentioned a product that is selling like the proverbial pan-fried discs of batter – the so-called Amish Heater. It is a free-standing heater that runs on electricity. We had a laugh about it, but I thought I should write something about it and its clones.

The ads for the Amish Heater show Amish people in their traditional clothes assembling the wooden cabinets for these devices. What the ads don’t mention is the obvious fact that the Amish don’t use electricity, and that the guts of the thing are made in China. The unit sells for $400, so the profit margin on these must be remarkable. Consider that if you are less concerned with Amish ambiance you can buy a perfectly good 1500 Watt electric heater for $15-$30.

Ok, so the Amish did have a hand in part of it. That’s not really the scam. The fraud is committed when they use the phrase “Slash your heating bills!” Electricity is the most expensive way of creating heat. Unless you lower the temperature of your house to 50 F and huddle next to the heater you are going to be paying more money at the end of the month.

Here’s some basic math on the subject. A BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is the amount of energy it takes to raise a pound of water (roughly a pint) one degree Fahrenheit. How much does it cost for a million BTUs? That’s roughly the amount of heat you’d need to bring 1200 gallons of water from well temperature to 145 F.

Electricity at 14 cents a kilowatt-hour would cost $41.18

#2 fuel oil at $2.75 a gallon would cost $23.97

Natural gas at $15.80 per thousand cubic feet would cost $22.59

Propane at $2.75 a gallon would come closest to electricity at $38.19

Hardwood at $220 a cord would cost $16.18

(All these numbers account for the varying efficiencies of the appliances using the fuel.)

If you have an oil or natural gas fired furnace you’d be nuts to plug in an electric heater. Fuel oil would have to reach $4.75 a gallon (with no increase in electricity prices) before you would break even on that deal. For those of you with differing electric rates, fuel oil would have to be 34 times the price of electricity for you to break even.

If you feel you must get an electric heater as a stopgap spot of comfort, buy the $20 model, put it somewhere inconspicuous, and spend the other $380 on energy efficiency - insulated curtains and tubes of caulk. The pricey heaters advertise “patented” heating elements, but they all are about shoving electrons through a resistor and they all put out the same amount of heat per kilowatt hour.

(Wearily shakes head and rolls eyes)



Reader Comments (2)

Heretic, I regularly use an electric heater even though I have natural gas heat. This is a calculated and, I think, smart decision. I keep my house in the low 60s, which is fine when I am moving around. When I am stationery, at my computer for a while, I turn on a radiant heat electric heater that heats just me and the objects right around me, instead of heating all of the approximately 7200 cubic feet of my house that the natural gas furnace would. I then keep my thermostat low instead of turning it up 5-8 degrees. Because I'm not trying to heat the air of the whole house, but using targeted radiant heat, it is my understanding that this type of heater works out for a net win. Please correct me if I am wrong. I am an energy geek, but you are an energy wizard.

December 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBecka

Hi Becka,

To quote myself: "Unless you lower the temperature of your house to 50 F and huddle next to the heater you are going to be paying more money at the end of the month."

Sounds as if that is roughly what you are doing.

If you wanted to get all scientific about it you could track your hourly usage of the heater in a month, multiply by its wattage, and derive your monthly watt-hours and electrical cost. Compare that to your natural gas bill and you'll get an idea of whether you are ahead of the game. The question is the cost of adding that 5-8 degrees in terms of natural gas, which you really could only determine by turning up the thermostat.

Of course, that only determines the relative financial cost. The relative environmental cost depends upon the utility generation mix. If it's coal, it's 3x the CO2 of direct natural gas heat due to combustion losses, plus mercury and acid rain. Combined cycle natural gas, 2x. Nuclear, 2/3x CO2 plus radioactive waste. Hydro, practically none.

Straightforward answers are few.

December 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterMinor Heretic

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