There is a sure-shot way to perk up the ears of a consumer writer: Hand him an advertisement for a product that claims to be a "miracle." This is what happened to me recently when a neighbor asked me to check out his latest purchase.

Upon entering his living room I saw what appeared to be a small fireplace tucked inside a wood cabinet, and next to that was a large unopened cardboard box. "They were giving two of these away free to each household," my neighbor said. Then he added, "With shipping, both of them cost me $600.00."

While I was trying to figure out why he paid $600.00 for two free products, my neighbor gave me a large advertisement that described his recent acquisition.

"Amish Mantel and Miracle Invention Help Home Heat Bills Hit Rock Bottom," blared the headline on the ad. "The HEAT SURGE miracle heater is a work of engineering genius from the China coast, so advanced you simply plug it into any standard wall outlet," the ad proudly stated.

This was just too good to pass up, so I ran home, jumped online and headed straight for the manufacturer's Web site. However, the search for their Web site popped up other sites where consumers were asking questions about this "miracle" heater.

"An Amish heater? The Amish don't use electricity," said one blogger.

"Isn't this a scam because the photos are of Amish people but the Amish don't allow their picture to be taken," said a poster on another site.

Valid questions that deserved accurate answers.

Amazing free miracle!

Officially called the "Amish Fireplace," the product is really an electric heater marketed by an Ohio-based company called Heat Surge. With huge advertisements in major publications, as well as on TV, Heat Surge based its marketing campaign on a tried-and-true advertising concept: Use power-words such as "free," "amazing," and "miracle" to get the attention of the buying public.

Add into the mix that the product is certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and has the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and you have the makings of a grand marketing campaign.

However, in the case of getting a "free" heater, it didn't take long for consumers to figure out what was free, and what wasn't.

"An ad in USA Weekend was for 2 free heaters. When I called, you had to purchase the mantels from the Amish, but the ad said how to get 2 free heaters. The ad was very misleading. Unfortunately there is nothing free," complained Evelyn, of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Reading the ad closely helps to explain the "free heater" claims. In essence, Evelyn could have purchased the heater by itself for $249.00, or if she bought the Amish Oak mantel for $298.00, the heater would be thrown in "for free." So to get the "free" heater she would need to spend $298.00 for the wood mantel, which didn't include the cost of shipping.

How amazing is it?

According to the ads, the Amish Fireplace produces an "amazing" 5,119 BTU. However, "any 1500 watt heater will provide that amount of BTU, so there is nothing really 'amazing' about that from an engineering standpoint," said Dr. Fiona Doyle, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Whether a space heater costs $40.00 or $300.00, 1500 watts cannot magically be converted into more BTU. The maximum amount of heat energy is 1500 watts and it cannot produce more than that," Dr. Doyle said.

Heat Surge also claims the heater can drastically lower your heating bills, but according to the U.S. Department of Energy, space heaters will cut your bills only if you heat one room and then move the heater to another room, heating just one room at a time. The rooms not being heated will need to be kept at 50 or 60 degrees.

As for the cost per hour, there are many variables to take into consideration.

"It will all depend on where you live, the rates from your electric company, and other things such as how well your home is insulated," said Professor Doyle.

Made in China

The advertising says, "The HEAT SURGE miracle heater is a work of engineering genius from the China coast," but many consumers have questioned just what's so miraculous about it.

"The heating unit is made in China," said Heat Surge Vice President David Baker. "These heaters are being called a miracle because they have what's being called the 'Fireless Flame' patented technology that gives you the peaceful flicker of a real fire but without any flames, fumes, smells, ashes or mess. The patented 'Fireless Flame' looks so real it amazes everybody," Baker said.

Hence, the "miracle" is in the looks of the heater, not the heater itself, which might explain why the advertising says that the heater is the "Latest home decorating sensation."

Miracles aside, the Amish Fireplace also proudly proclaims that it has received certification from Underwriters Laboratories (UL), but consumers need to be aware of exactly what that means.

"When any product has UL certification it means the manufacturer submitted the product to us and we ran it through a battery of tests to make sure it meets the applicable safety standard," said John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer at Underwriters Labs for more than 40 years, and the current UL Consumer Affairs Manager.

"We test products for fire, electrical shock and mechanical hazards, so our sole responsibility is to test for safety, not if a product is a miracle, or even if it works," Drengenberg said. "A good example would be a vacuum cleaner that has earned UL certification. We don't even know if it picks up dirt because our job is testing the safety of a product, period."

The Heat Surge advertising also heavily promotes the fact that the product has earned the Good Housekeeping Seal, so we wanted to know exactly what that means.

According to a Good Housekeeping spokesperson:

"In order to earn the Good Housekeeping Seal, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute evaluates a product to ensure it meets product claims and confirms that all product promises and directions are accurate. We verify that all information required or recommended on a label is provided. For categories in which there are accepted industry standards, we review the data to ensure the company has followed current performance and safety methods. If a problem about a Seal product is brought to our attention, we investigate it. Products that have earned the Good Housekeeping Seal carry a limited warranty: if the product proves to be defective within two years of purchase, Good Housekeeping will replace the item or refund the consumer."

In other words, it is what it is.

The Amish Connection

Although consumers have asked many questions about the supposedly miraculous heater, no subject has been brought up more than the Amish connection. Calling something an "Amish Heater" gives consumers the impression that the Amish -- who are known for their disdain of most technology -- are somehow responsible for inventing or manufacturing the heater.

However, the only connection the Amish have is in the making of the wood mantel.

"In response to the advertising that Heat Surge were doing in showing pictures of the Amish, we toured the facility where the mantels were being put together and we were introduced to people of the Amish faith," said Joy Bender, Vice President of Operations at the Canton, Ohio Better Business Bureau.

The Canton BBB learned the Amish-made mantel represented in the ad is crafted and assembled by local craftsman from Holmes and Geauga counties in Ohio.

But what about the issue of the Amish allowing their pictures to be taken?

"There are different sects of Amish. Some do not allow their picture to be taken, but some do," Bender said.

Questions have also been raised about the quality of the wood in the Amish-made mantel. In response to our questions, Heat Surge Vice President David Baker provided ConsumerAffairs.com with the following statement:

"The entire mantle is of real wood, no pressed board. The oak mantle also is built with a true solid oak piece for the top as well as the trim. The cherry mantle also has a solid wood top and trim and is made of poplar with a cherry finish, not unlike many cherry finished pieces of furniture."

Although the Canton BBB received a few complaints about the quality of the mantel and heater, most of the complaints concerned the "miracle" claims in the advertising, as well as customer service issues.

"Heat Surge have taken steps to reduce the number of complaints. The demand for the product was much higher than the company anticipated. They really were not properly staffed to take all the orders," said the BBB's Joy Bender.

Not wanting to run up a big travel bill, I went next door and spoke with my neighbor, who said he was pleased with his heater.

"It looks nice in the room, the fake flames look good, and it gives off heat," he said. "But," he added, "I do wish I would have understood that I was paying $300.00 for basically what turns out to be a 1500-watt space heater."

I didn't want to tell my neighbor this, but I went home and checked the Target Web site, where I found a wide selection of 1500-watt heaters starting at $19.99. They didn't have an Amish mantel but when it comes to heat -- barring a miracle -- 1500 watts is, as Dr. Doyle reminds us, 1500 watts, no more no less.

Thinking of buying other products advertised on infomercials? You might want to read this first.

Consumer comments

Regarding the Amish heatsurge "free" heaters on TV ad and from the website buyheatsurge.com

I called for a free hheater based on the TV ad. They are trying to sell mantals for $300 and then give you a "free"heater. This si false advertising. There is no mention on the TV ad about having to buy a mantle nor do they list prices for anything.

The "free" heater rep said it was a but one get one free deal not afree heater and claimed the ad explicitly makes this known... which it does not. Someone needs to shut this scam down in my opinion. Furthermore, the heater isn't aazing. Energy only has a certain potential for heat and nothing I can tell makes this a more efficient heater than any other electric heater.

Total scam. Tyrone gave me a "customer service number" which no operator would answer. 800-924-7964

Steve of Milton-Freewater, OR Oct. 23, 2010

I am so uset. I have 4 fiends who live in different areas of the country, who purchased the Amish fireplaces and are delighed with them. Two friends live in upstate New York and two others in Maryland. In both states one of families purchased second units lst year and claim they could not be more delighted. Although the electric bills went up a bit their oil useage was a great deal less. Reading the negative remarks I read here have left me wondering what to do as I planned to buy two of them.

Dorothy of Port Jervis, NY July 10, 2010

My wife one month old baby and I woke up and our bed room was full of smoke from this miracle heater. Its a miracle we didnt die of smoke inhalation.

Stanley of Monticello, MN May 4, 2010

We recieved one of these worthless units as a gift,it didn't last thirty days before the "squirrel cage" generic "bearings" if you can even call them that wore out.As a marine engineer/mechanic i've seen alot of "RUBE GOLDBERG" designs but this is a classic,i told my wife "i know when i look up complaints on this junk ,they'll be others with the same problem" ,sure enough there is.I would really like to know what the "miracle invention" is,all their using is a "toaster type" element and fan to blow out the heat, and not much heat at that.I've had shoe box size ceramic heaters on board boats that put out 5 times the heat and where safer than this "MIRACLE" heater.The wooden mantle "amish made is ok.Maybe i can convert it into a book case or something.The best thing about this product is the advertising,kudos to madison ave. for this one,don't even try to call "customer no service" you'll just get more disappointed.I guess you just have to take your lumps on this one.I feel bad that my inlaws got taken,i would have never fallen for their fancy ad in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC,so save your money ,unless you want a high priced book shelf.

carollee of ritzville, WA May 2, 2010

I purchased a heater and warranty. The heater quit working. I called and was told to send it back and it would be replaced within 2 weeks. Two weeks passed and I called again, was told it was in theshipping department in the process of being shipped. That was 2 weeks ago. Everytime I call, I am told it'll be another couple days. I'm just being given the run around. I use the heater to help heat my home. I have crippling arthritis and this heater helped to make a room warm enough to be comfortable for me.

Debra of Blandburg, PA March 10, 2010

I bought the Amish fireplace with the heater last fall. My husband had passed away and I had to move to an apartment. I thought the fireplace would keep my heating cost down as I was living on social security only. A few weeks later I also purchased the base and the mirror. When I received the first heating bill in December it had doubled and doubled again in January. I called the electric company and they checked my meter and it was correct.I knew then it was the "miracle heater" which I have stopped using only running it on low for a very short time on some nights.

The heater is getting noisy. When I received the base the fireplace wouldn't set in the base where the wheels go. I had to hire a contractor to come and he had to widdle the legs down as they were'nt round like they should have been and wouldn't fit in the holes in the base. It is so tight now in the base that I can't get it out to roll from room to room.

Patricia of Morrison, IL Feb. 4, 2010

My brother purchased two miracle heaters, he payed around $300 dollars each. He uses one at his home but only seldom in the evenings. He gave my mother the other one, the past month she used hers constantly and her electric bill was three times that period last year. She loves it but she can't afford it. Last night it started a roar and she was very displeased to have to turn it off. I took it apart and found the little fitting on the fan on the left side under the rubber grommet out of position, I realigned it and it was back to normal, we will see how long that lasts. I hope it goes crazy again so we can get rid of it, she believes it was just the cold weather that increased her utility bill, wanna bet?? Gooody

John of Carlisle, OH Feb. 2, 2010

My friend came to stay with me and brought his Amish Fireplace, which he bought from the TV advertisement for $180.00, shipping included. This item was at a discounted price because it was a display model and had a very small nick in it (barely noticeable). I loved it! It heated up my entire two bedroom home and is absolutely beautiful. I have baseboard heat so the forced heat is definitely better. My electric bill, however, did increase from the month before, but I was running it 24/7 and it was December in the state of Washington, so it has been cold. And comparing it to last year's bill during the same month, it was only about $25 higher. So, I have to admit, it is serving it's purpose, it has made my livingroom much more cozy and warm and it is by far better than the baseboard heat so I'm extremely pleased and think it was worth the money.

Darlene of Renton, WA Jan. 28, 2010

On the January 8, I requested cancellation immediately while still on the telephone with customer servicer representive placing the order and was advised she could not cancel the order. I had to wait 3 to 4 hours for a call back from the customer service department and was advised that there was no record of the order. However today (01/12/2010) after reviewing my account the charge is posted to my bank account. Also, on the January 8, I sent an email 01/12,2010. Amish has very poor and received a conformination regarding my cancellation request. Very poor customer service

Doris of Oakland, CA Jan. 13, 2010