Today, as in the 1970s, when energy costs climb, people begin looking for ways to cut their consumption. A lot can be done through good housekeeping, frequent maintenance and the use of legitimate, accepted energy-saving technologies. However, many people get drawn to the Miracle Solution -- the product that claims improved fuel economy and reduced stack emissions the quick and easy way. Some of the same “miracles” that made the rounds in the ‘70s are resurfacing today. Do they work? Let’s continue to examine the theories behind them, the claims they make, and whether they are valid. Last month (see link at end of article), I looked at fuel ionizers. In this issue, I’ll take up fuel additives and vapor-injection devices.

Fuel Additives. Collectively, these additives were dubbed “Snake Oil” or “Mouse Milk” by skeptics. I have to confess -- in my formative years, I got involved selling one of these products, too. There are many different types of additives, and some are legitimate, such as those that retard stratification, algae and fungus growth, or deterioration of fuel oil in storage tanks.

Most of those that promise higher efficiency and lower emissions, though, are pretty iffy. As one old hand once said, “With all their research capability, don’t you think the oil refiners have already checked out most of these additives? And if they work, don’t you think they’re already putting them in their fuels?”

My own experience was that there would be an immediate jump of a few percentage points in efficiency, but as time went on, efficiencies would drop to their pre-additive levels. Finally, the user would conclude the savings weren’t worth the cost and hassle of doping the fuel with the additive.

My theory on the efficiency falloff is that many of the additives contained ingredients that cleaned up the fuel system as well as the atomizer and injector nozzles, and they also may have knocked some accumulated carbon out of combustion chambers. That restored some of the system’s original performance, but once the housecleaning was done, there was no more improvement. Unless equipment was regularly tuned up, efficiencies would begin to drop. Unfortunately, some users seemed to believe they could scrimp on tuneups and maintenance as long as they continued to use the additive. In the end, they were worse off than before.

Vapor-Injection Devices. Most of these were glorified humidifiers. Water would be sprayed or evaporated into the combustion airstream, which would carry it into the flame.

In one popular design, the humidifying chamber was shaped like a pyramid. (No word on whether you could put razor blades into it to sharpen them, though.) One really ambitious design had a chamber where fuel oil and water were emulsified by a blast of ultrasonic energy.

The main downfall of these devices is that to do their work, they have to add a heat-absorbing material (water) to the flame. The energy absorbed by that water gets carried out the stack. Others, like the ultrasonic mixer, may have improved the burnability of heavy fuel oils in mediocre burners, but they consumed significant amounts of electrical energy to generate the ultrasonic waves. In the overall energy balance, users were simply swapping kilowatts for BTUs.

What about the testimonials, you say? Most of the people who gave them really believed they saw energy savings. True, but the credit may not go to the device or additive.

For one thing, ovens, furnaces and boilers are rarely the stable operations we like to think they are. There are significant day-to-day variations in fuel consumption due to differences in operating cycles and climate conditions. Many of the before-and-after tests were conducted too briefly to factor out these variables.

Some people cheated. I recall one outfit that would collect baseline fuel consumption on a piece of equipment, install their device, and then collect the improved data, after first “optimizing the oven or boiler for their device.” In other words, they tuned it up, which was all it needed in the first place. All the customer got was one really expensive service call.

Some devices do show a short-term reduction in energy consumption, but not for the reasons the seller gave. For example, a close study of one vaporizer showed the pressure drop through it caused the fuel-air ratio to go leaner. The result? Fuel consumption dropped a few percentage points. The customer could have gotten the same result by adjusting the fuel-air ratio controls.

Keep this in mind, too -- people who don’t see any improvement don’t give testimonials, and if someone who did later discovers his efficiency improvement was an illusion, he’s not likely to withdraw the testimonial. It’s embarrassing to admit you were taken.

The bottom line is this -- before springing for any Miracle Device or Substance guaranteed to slash your energy bills and emissions:

  • Make sure your heating equipment is not so out of date that anything could make it look better.
  • Make sure your equipment is tuned properly before applying any energy-saving device. Do this whether the device is a proven technology or something that “the government, the oil companies and the Trilateral Commission want to suppress.”
  • Insist that the baseline and post-alteration tests be run at least a couple of weeks before drawing any conclusions, and you collect the data.
  • Insist on a money-back guarantee. In writing. Better yet, agree to pay only after the device has passed the test for whatever period of time you decided on and you have the results of the baseline and post-alteration tests.
  • Check out the vendor through its local Better Business Bureau. If the business address is the trunk of a car, watch out.

If I still haven’t convinced you, check out this EPA web site:

And if anyone tries to sell you a crystal to hang over your oven, show him the door.