New energy efficiency requirements rolled out in South

Here in the South, there are few things more certain than a hot summer. And we Mississippians have come to rely on having reliable air conditioning. During the warmest months, our AC units kick into high gear, spinning the electric meter faster and faster, increasing our electric bills and, with it, demand on the electrical grid.

According to Entergy, about 55 percent of average Mississippi consumer’s utility bill comes from heating and cooling. But as concerns have grown about the increasing demand on the infrastructure and environmental concerns, government agencies have been paying attention. A few decades ago, the government began to push for new standards designed to increase the efficiency of AC units.

Often unnoticed by homeowners, these steadily-increasing requirements affect us all in the form of higher initial prices for new units, but could be dramatically offset by better energy efficiency (translation: lower energy costs) in the long run.

You probably have heard you’re HVAC tech refer to something called a “SEER” rating. SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) measures air conditioning and heat pump cooling efficiency, which is calculated by taking the cooling output for a typical cooling season, and dividing it by the total amount of electricity required during the same period. In short, a higher SEER rating should equal greater energy efficiency. Theoretically, a more efficient unit should be better at cooling your house quickly, then shutting itself off, while running more efficiently during run times.

On January 1, new rules from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) required that all air conditioning units installed in the Southeast must have at least a 14 SEER rating. For the first time, the country has been divided into three regions, each with different standards. Of course, the 14 number is the minimum allowable SEER number; many units have a much higher energy efficiency rating, which should result in lower bills. If you have an older unit, your SEER rating could be much lower, costing you more in electricity.

“The new guidelines will have a greater effect on the southern states because they have a longer cooling period during the spring and summer,” said Doyle James, president of Aire Serv, which along with other heating and cooling companies has been trying to educate consumers about the new standards. “In a typical summer, the southern states have more cooling degree days, or days where homes and businesses will use the air conditioning systems for longer periods to cool buildings.”

There is some good news for consumers who may be in need of a new unit. Entergy, for example, offers a rebate to consumers (up to $500) for consumers who install a new unit with a more energy-efficient model, and you should also look into possible tax rebates and incentives. To find out more, you can call Entergy at (844) 523-9980.

Here are a few more things to think about, courtesy of Entergy:

  • Replace old equipment while it’s still in working condition, especially if it’s more than 10 years old.
  • Buy ENERGY STAR certified equipment for improved comfort, reduced energy use and energy savings.
  • Replace both the indoor and outdoor units to ensure they are properly matched to last longer and be more dependable.
  • Ask a participating contractor to perform a load calculation to determine the proper equipment size for your home.
  • Make sure your installer is qualified. Improper installation can lower efficiency by up to 30 percent and potentially reduce the life of your equipment.

Of course, if you can stand it to nudge your thermostat up a couple of degrees in the summer, your AC won’t have to work so hard. And taking advantage of programmable thermostats and similar technologies can help keep waste to a minimum.

So before you write that check to replace the noisy monster spinning away outside your bedroom window, taking some time to do your research could have implications well into the future.

Security giant ADT settles with FTC on celebrity endorsement charges

The home security company ADT has signed a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding charges that the company misled consumers with news stories and independent reviews about its products, which were actually paid endorsements.

The FTC charged the company with paying spokespeople to demonstrate its ADT Pulse home security system on various news programs, as well as in blogs and other online locations, but not disclosing that the spokespeople were paid. According to the FTC, this action could lead consumers to believe the reviews were free of bias, when in fact they were not. Placements on major TV or radio news segments can mean big exposure, but the law holds companies responsible for the truthfulness of claims, and regulators are watching closely.

“It’s hard for consumers to make good buying decisions when they think they’re getting independent expert advice as part of an impartial news segment and have no way of knowing they are actually watching a sales pitch,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a news release.  “When a paid endorser appears in a news or talk show segment with the host of that program, the relationship with the advertiser must be clearly disclosed.”

The settlement means Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT — which markets extensively on television, radio and print — is prohibited from misrepresenting paid endorsements as independent reviews in the future. The FTC charged that ADT paid three spokespersons more than $300,000 to promote its ADT Pulse, with one spokesperson receiving more than $200,000. The FTC did not name the spokespersons involved. Other freebies included free ADT Pulse systems, worth about $4,000, and free monitoring service.

For its part, ADT expressed its willingness to work with regulators. “ADT has a tough disclosure policy that follows the FTC endorsement guidelines,” ADT spokeswoman Elise Askenazi told the electronics trade publication CE Pro. “That’s why we are happy to have resolved the matter amicably, and why we are willing to commit publicly to maintain that policy.”

The FTC has written an extensive set of rules to be used in advertising, against these three principles:

  1. Endorsements must be truthful and not misleading;
  2. If the advertiser doesn’t have proof that the endorser’s experience represents what consumers will achieve by using the product, the ad must clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected results in the depicted circumstances; and
  3. If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.

Consumers should be wary of testimonials or endorsements of products appearing in news stories, whether in print, broadcast or online. If spokespeople are paid, that fact should be prominently disclosed. You’ll often see the words “compensated endorser” in ads featuring celebrities, to make sure you know the person is being paid. Whether or not they’re paid has a lot to do with whether you can trust that the endorsement is free of bias. In fact, celebrities are rarely uncompensated; if a celebrity appears, you can usually bet they’re being paid. If you’re a business, making a clear connection between the product being endorsed and the benefits accruing to the spokesperson is always a good idea.

(Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 3/10/14.)

Mortgage “assistance relief” scam targeted those behind on mortgages

Originally published in clarionledger.com on 1/14/2014.

PDF: Mortgage relief scams

While the national rate of home foreclosures appears to be on the decline, giving hope to a weary market, it’s cold comfort for millions of homeowners who are still struggling to pay their mortgages in the face of stubborn unemployment and rising prices. An estimated 5.3 percent of mortgages end up in foreclosure in the Jackson metro area, according to a report released in December. That puts Jackson in 72nd place among 366 metro areas.

Many Mississippi homeowners have found themselves on the receiving end of telemarketers, who promise to help prevent foreclosure or lower their mortgage payments. Although there are some legitimate sources of help, there are also many scammers on the prowl. Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a settlement requiring operators of an alleged foreclosure relief scam to pay about $3.6 million and surrender their assets. According to the FTC, the scheme operated under various names, including Prime Legal Plans.

“Using Reaching U Network, a sham non-profit front, and a maze of other companies, the scheme reeled in consumers with false promises that enrollment would save their homes from foreclosure or result in lower mortgage payments,” noted the FTC release.  “The FTC charged that the defendants promised consumers that they would prevent foreclosure or significantly lower their mortgage payments by conducting audits of consumers’ loans and providing access to full-service, expert legal representation to fight their lenders.”

According to court documents, operators of the scheme “allegedly told consumers that they would be assigned an expert mortgage foreclosure defense attorney in their state who would ‘halt the foreclosure process’ and save their homes.  But instead of helping consumers, the defendants charged them illegal advance fees ranging from $595 to $750 per month, while delivering little or no help and driving them deeper into debt.  In addition to alleging that the defendants deceived consumers, the FTC charged that the scheme violated the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule’s ban on advance fees for mortgage relief.  The FTC also asserted that the Defendants placed numerous calls to numbers listed on the national Do Not Call Registry.”

“Rather than make good on their promise to offer people relief from mortgage trouble, these schemers put their targets even further behind financially,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “They broke the law by taking money upfront and making false promises.”

Although this one is off the streets, there are likely many more scammers ready to take their place. To help you avoid becoming another victim, a good resource is the Mortgage Foreclosure Consortium, founded in part by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Some great information is also available from the FTC at http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0100-mortgage-relief-scams.