Beware of Power Factor Correction products!

This post was originally posted here.

 

 

Product developers know that as energy costs rise, consumer's budgets get tightened, and people start to care more about their environment (the trifecta of sustainable drivers), those consumers are going to want products that help them save energy.  But do all these products live up to their claims?

One of these products is a power factor correction device and can be seen here.  This product claims:

Residential customers throughout North America could see a realized savings of 8% - 10% typically and as much as 25% on their electrical usage (and thus power bills).

However, I'm not buying it.  There are two great resources on-line that address this same issue.  One is from the National Institute of Standards and the other is a blogger I've been reading for 4 years and has a great section on electricity, Michael Bluejay. Both of these resources say power factor correction really wont help on your residential bill.  It can make a difference for certain industrial users who may be billed by the Utility for peak demand, but this is another story (and it is addressed in the Bluejay article).

To go a little deeper, the formula for Power Factor (PF) is below:

PF = Real Power (Watts) ÷ Apparent Power (VA)

- or -

Watts = PF*Amps*Voltage = PF * Apparent Power

The power factor correction devices are said to improve the second half of the above equation, the Apparent Power.  However you don't pay your utility for Apparent Power.  You pay them for Real Power (Watts).  Apparent Power is defined as the total power in an AC circuit, both dissipated AND returned! (scroll to the bottom of this link to view the power triangle and description of Apparent, Real and Reactive power).  This means that if you currently have a poor power factor, your  Apparent Power is higher, but all this means is that you are returning more unused electrons to the utility!  But since they only charge you for used electrons (dissipated electrons = Real Power = Watts) you don't give a hoot about your Apparent Power!

Let's take an example of 2 completely identical motors sitting side by side.  Both of these motors have the exact same efficiency and operate at 1.2 kW. The first motor doesn't have a power correcting device.  The second motors does have PF correcting device.


  • Motor 1: 1.2 kW motor, connected to a 120 V circuit, PF = .7
  • Motor 2: 1.2 kW motor, connected to a 120 V circuit, PF = .999 (this has the Power Factor correction device, thus the excellent PF!)
Using the equation above we can show the amps (current) that will be dissipated in motor 1:

1.2 kW = .7 *120V * A → A= 14.29

And we can do the same thing for motor 2:

1.2 kW = .999*120V*A → A=10.01

But this doesn't mean you'll pay less to the utility!  All this shows as that your power factor increases (gets better) your amperage decreases, but the Real Power (Watts =  what the utility charges you) stays the same!  Therefore no matter your power factor, in residential settings the utility is still going to show that you took the same amount of Real Power off of the power lines, so that is what you pay.

I would like to see more info from the manufacturers of these devices on how improving PF helps save you Watts!  Basically, your utility doesn't really care what your Power Factor is, so I want to see some evidence on how this device impacts your energy bill.

One more thing!  On the product's website there are many customer testimonials.  NEVER believe customer testimonials.  Especially on things like energy saving devices or products that claim they can improve your gas mileage.  The reason people believe these testimonials is because they can't see electricity flowing through their home, so they just take the product's statements at face value.  Even if the "customer" really said the things about the product, how do you know they aren't mentally insane and or compulsive liars?

Also, if your energy bill goes down the month after you install this, how do you know its not just because you didnt have your AC or lights on as much?  You dont! Only believe data and analysis from trusted web sources (Mapawatt, Rocky Mountain Institute, Energy Star, Michael Bluejay, Home Energy Pros, etc.).

 

I'm not the only site questioning the validity of Power Factor correction devices.  Open4Energy has a great review of Power Factor correction devices and another post on Energy Saving Scams.  I should note that it is in their "scam" section!  An Electrical Engineer friend of mine just send me the most detailed technical and economic analysis I've seen on the topic of residential power factor correction devices.  Check it out after you read the blog below if you are really interested:  NLCPR: Power Factor correction.  Here's another review I've done on a power factor correction product The Zap Box.

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Tags: correction, factor, power

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Comment by Chris Kaiser on April 21, 2011 at 8:05am

Tom, you're exactly right. Most of the newer devices with motors/compressors (fridges, AC units, etc.) already have PFC installed.  

 

Ed, great point. 

Comment by Ed Minch on April 21, 2011 at 7:58am

The correction only has potential to help on motors, not on electronic equipment and resistance items like bulbs and ovens.  So the potential savings is only on a small portion of your bill, not your whole bill.  Then add the above argument, and even what is saved on the motors is not much

Ed Minch

Comment by Tom Barrett on April 21, 2011 at 7:53am

Thanks for posting that. If these were such great energy savings devices they'd be installed on the products we buy - refrigerators would come with them. Utilities would be providing them or rebating them. They'd even be available in stores, they aren't.

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