Stupid Investment of the Week
Commentary: Don't get burned by the claims made for this space heater
By Chuck Jaffe, MarketWatch
Last Update: 12:17 PM ET Nov 20, 2009
BOSTON (MarketWatch) -- Larry and Brenda of Pilgrimport, N.Y., were in the Real Deals Dollar Store in Lyons last week, looking for a way to cut their heating bills. They had brought along a newspaper ad, hoping to compare it to the bargain-basement deals in the dollar store.
Larry wanted to improve the household heating situation. Brenda wanted to get the job done with the right "look," which is why she was attracted to the Heat Surge Fireless Flame "miracle heater" with the "Amish mantle."
The couple didn't find a space heater in the dollar store, but no matter where they looked next, they'd be hard-pressed not to find something that works out better than the "Amish fireplace," an expensive way to get less than advertised, and today's pick for Stupid Investment of the Week.
Stupid Investment of the Week highlights the concerns and conditions that make an investment less than ideal for the average consumer, and is written in the hope that showcasing trouble in one situation will make it easier to sidestep problems elsewhere.
Obviously, a space heater that retails for 300 to 600 normally doesn't fall under the label "investment," but for cash-strapped consumers like Larry and Brenda, it represents a big outlay with the expectation of a return -- more comfort or lower electric bills -- that will never come. As such, it qualifies for this column.
The Amish mantle from Heat Surge has been around for several years, and it's hard to believe it hasn't gotten enough bad press to make sure everyone is aware of it, but Larry and Brenda are proof that its mass ad campaigns continue to leave an impression on consumers.
If you've missed the ads -- typically designed to look like newspaper articles -- they carry headlines like "Amish mantle and miracle invention help home heat bills hit rock bottom." Some of the ads have promised to give away these "miracle heaters" for free, although you only actually get them that way if you buy the surrounding mantle, which will set you back about 300.
The device -- formally called a Roll-n-Glow Fireplace -- is a portable heater built to look like an actual fireplace. The "miracle" is the "fireless flame," which basically is a fake fireplace; it doesn't appear to be much different than the film-loop fireplaces that some community television stations use as a backdrop when they don't have fresh programming over the holidays. They're about as warm as those images, too.
You get the fireplace look without the flame, ashes, soot, smell, mess or chimney.
Don't believe the hype
If you're looking for some type of country, feel-good feeling from the Amish connection, you're stretching. Some Amish don't use electricity, so an electric heater made in China isn't too authentic; in fact, it's only the mantle that goes around the heating unit that is made by Amish craftsmen.
The product's claims, however, are the biggest issue.
They can be boiled down to this line in the ad: "Only uses about 9 cents electric an hour; so turn down your thermostat and never be cold again."
U.S. Department of Energy studies show that space heaters save money only when they heat one room at a time, so that you take the heater with you and keep the neighboring rooms chilly. The Amish heater does roll, but it's a lot clunkier than most portable heaters; plus, that fake fireplace might look a bit goofy standing in the middle of the kitchen or laundry room when you need to warm those areas up.
Moreover, electric costs per hour vary not only by the setting you put the heater on, but also based on the electric rates where you live.
And then there's the claim that the Amish Fireplace produces "an amazing 5,119 BTU."
If you remember high-school science classes, you might recall that BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measure of heat created by burning any material) are standard. If you have a 1,500-watt heater -- the wattage of the Roll-n-Glow -- it's going to be capable of producing 5,119 BTU. That's also the BTU capability of the 35 space heater you can get on sale at local hardware stores, at big-box office-supply stores or anywhere heaters are sold. There is no type of heater that can miraculously convert 1,500 watts into more than 5,119 BTUs.
The heater does get the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," but that doesn't mean as much as consumers might think. Basically, it means that a product is what it says it is; there's no judgment about "miracles" or the level of "amazement" a consumer will feel, but rather that the promises and directions are correct.
In the end, there may be a family argument to be had with Brenda and Larry, where she likes the idea of a fake fireplace instead of just a heater. That means the Amish fireplace is more decorating option than heating alternative. But it's hard to believe that a chilly consumer won't be happier giving up the Roll-n-Glow and buying a much cheaper, smaller, less-decorative space heater that can do the job just as well.