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Challenging the snake oil sellers

Turn the clock back to around 150 years ago and picture a man standing on the back of a horse drawn wagon, perhaps in the Wild West. He shouts out "I have this potion that will cure all!" We know it as snake oil.

Now in the 21st century they say: "Our patented catalytic water softener harnesses the power of a non-sacrificial catalyst, composed of an exact formulation of more than a dozen precious and semi-precious metals. This extraordinary catalyst is then combined with multiple powerful magnets to deliver salt-free, maintenance-free, hassle-free soft water at every water faucet in your home. This remarkable product never uses salt or electricity and never needs backwashing or re-charging and lasts a lifetime". Oh yes ......

I sometimes picture some modern day salesman with their devices and make a comparison. So we see for example, magnetic "water conditioning" and "fuel savers" often being sold on eBay and by a system known as multi-level marketing (it used to be known as pyramid selling); or even masquerading as a franchise .

So do these devices work? Well, my question to these people every time they tell me about their new, latest, all singing - all dancing greatest gizmo, is to throw the gauntlet down and say "prove it". Show me an independent study, by an accredited reputable institution, such as a university or BSRIA, that shows measured results under controlled conditions. Let's see the percentage savings that these devices actually purport to deliver.

I'm yet to see one of these reports from a genuine UK institution. So my message to one and all is, be sceptical...very sceptical.

If these devices are so great, then why aren't the main manufacturers fitting them as standard and why aren't the AA or RAC recommending them for motor vehicles?

I'm staggered that some of these companies haven't been prosecuted under the Trades Description Act by local authority trading standards departments.

What's really worrying is that we are now seeing some similar exaggerated claims creeping into the renewables industry. Some people are making impossible claims for payback and energy saving results that seem to be based on the most extreme operating and ambient conditions that may occur once in a century.

As an industry we have to guard against this, as it risks tarnishing all the good and proven technologies in the same way as the double glazing industry was diminished by the unscrupulous selling and sometimes inferior quality in the 1970/80's.

I believe it's time that we had a set of national standards for environmental and energy products, that have a common label, independently verified to rigorous national standards, perhaps based on the A to G rating model. A simple transparent system that everyone can truly judge on the relative merits of what the technology or product claims to achieve.

We need this system quickly, before it's too late and people become disillusioned and even sceptical for the wrong reasons.

So what I propose is an independent set of standards, backed up by a publicly-funded national testing institution that publishes results for all to see.

We also need an enforcement agency, perhaps an enhanced trading standards authority with real teeth to police these standards and the claims made.

Unless this happens, it will be a free-for-all and those initially trusting facilities managers and consumers will end up being very frustrated and we as an industry will be damaged and ultimately lose out.
Posted by Mike Malina 24 February 2010 12:14:10 Categories: Malina mulls it over


By Simon Mitchell
24 February 2010 12:19:10
Snake oil could be the ultimate bio fuel. Does anyone know the calorific contect and cost per litre.
On a serious note I can confirm that most of the reputable heating equipment manufacturers are investing heavily in training their staff to understand lower carbon system solutions and provide best practice advice.
By Collin Wheeler
24 February 2010 12:18:10

Yes, this is quite right but it has been going on for a long time. We have many clients in our commercial sector who have been persuaded to buy "energy saving devices" and we only see them the next time we attend the site. In our experience the only time these devices have saved fuel is when they breakdown, (normally soon after install) and the client's heating is not operating.

We then have to disconnect them to get the buildings system up and running. Our advice is always to use genuine fuel efficiency controls from known manufacturers and installed by experts.
By Colin Bridle
24 February 2010 12:17:10
Regardless of what stamp or sticker of proof a product has, the reality is I want to see it work in my own buildings across a variety of my building types and applications.

This approach demonstrates what the savings will be and what I can use to convince our internal sign offs.

There are suppliers out there of retrofitted technologies which have been implemented in the estates of some of the UK's largest blue chip companies - these guys would not have invested hundreds of thousands or indeed millions if the product was not validated and the savings proved.

When evaluating a piece of technology do you research what supplier has a track record? Will they let you speak to some of their clients? What is the measurement process used? Will the product change any of my buildings designed set points, timings, controls etc? Will integrate with my existing building controls?

When I buy a new car I don't take Jeremy Clarkson or Whatcar's view as gospel. I test drive it myself
By Rob Fitzroy
24 February 2010 12:16:10
This is a good set of points. So many green cons that could ruin the industry. What's needed is a "green police" type agency. Shoot the cowboys!!
By Ewen McLean
24 February 2010 12:15:10
Mike Malina's piece makes a very pertinent point but I, as a Trading Standards professional, hate to be the bearer of bad tidings: The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 is no more. The good news is that businesses are now afforded protection by The Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 and YES, businesses should be more ready to complain to Trading Standards services when misled into buying goods and services.
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