Think of all those bikes, ellipticals, treadmills and steppers in clubs and homes around the country. What are people doing on them? Churning away to sweat and get fit, all the while creating what could become many thousands of dollars worth of electricity.
Ted Szoch, owner of Exercise Equipment Inc., in Pittsburgh, Penn., sees the wasted energy and wants to do something about it. His answer: a fleet of exercise machines that not only cost zero dollars to operate but can actually generate a significant amount of energy on their own -- energy that can be put to immediate use within a club or home, stored for future use or even sold back to a local utility company.
Szoch has what is called a "provisional patent" for his brainchild, which he's calling "The Green Exercise Machine," and is in the process of courting manufacturers who might be interested in working with him to develop a prototype. Eventually, he hopes to create a type of universal adapter that could be attached to any machine that creates a continuous motion to convert at least some of that sweat and combusted calories into useable power. He's also experimenting with an adapter attached to a weight stack on a strength-training piece, which would harness the energy created as the weights are lowered.
"Now is the perfect time for something like this," he said, citing volatile fuel prices, consumer interest in saving money and natural resources, and an interest among manufacturers in developing energy-saving products. In addition, with a growing interest among consumers for things green, someone could say when they hit a workout, "I'm not just working out for myself, I'm working out for my planet."
While Szoch's idea is still in its infancy, it definitely has potential, said Scott Eyler, director of retail sales and marketing for Star Trac, a fitness equipment manufacturer based in Southern California.
"This type of machine would open up a whole new set of opportunities," he said. Eyler notes that self-powered machines, such as non-electronic rowing machines and indoor cycles, as well as treadmills and other electronic machines that power their own LED displays, have been on the market for several years and are increasing in popularity, as fitness facility owners look for ways to keep operating costs low.
"If you look at the cost of running a health club and the cost of all the electricity used by the electronic machines, you see that using self-powered equipment is a very economical proposition," he said. "Any time you can pull the plug on a machine, you're saving money.”
But harnessing the power is another untapped avenue. Even better, Eyler added.
"All morally and fiscally responsible companies are looking at ways to help our environment," he said. "We know that we have to step back and look at our finite resources and ask ourselves, 'What can we do?' And we know that conserving energy is an important step to take."
Of course, Szoch isn't the first person to think of harnessing human energy and converting it to kilowatts. Although some concepts are more feasible than others, the ideas that include capturing exercise-generated watts just haven't been fully ready for prime time. Some examples:
>> Last year, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania unveiled a prototype of his Suspended-load Backpack, which can use the energy generated by walking to power several small electronic devices. The outdoor industry has yet to fully embrace the concept, but it's an interesting step.
>> In September, The Clinton Global Initiative announced a $16.4 million public/private partnership called the Play Pumps Alliance, through which a novel water-pumping system, powered by the spinning of children's merry-go-rounds, will be installed throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
>> An American company, Inveneo, has developed a communications system fueled by both solar and bicycle power.
>> Another U.S. company, Great Systems, just received a patent on its Energy Generation and Storage System, or EGAS, which uses a step-like mechanism to convert a user's leg power into electricity.
>> And in Scotland, two graduate students grabbed headlines and a big grant earlier this year by linking standard-issue rowing machines and exercise bikes to generators and harnessing the power they produce.
According to the Scottish researchers, the average person generates a few hundred watts of electricity during a workout -- enough to power a bank of fluorescent light fixtures for an hour. Szoch said he's not sure exactly how much energy his Green Exercise Machine could generate, but guesses that it could power 10 100-watt light bulbs.
After a year under a provisional patent, which protects the idea, Szoch said that in March 2007 the official process to gain a patent-pending with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will begin, starting the entire complicated and expensive process of drawings and other paperwork.
"Any exertion of human energy will create electricity," Szoch said. "Up until now, that energy has been wasted. My machine will channel it someplace where we can use it."
Szoch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SNEWS® View: This idea has potential but there is likely still quite a long row to hoe before it can become feasible for the consumer or even for health clubs. Still, if a manufacturer were to get behind this, it could help bring it to the market AND give consumers and clubs a reason to buy the equipment beyond cooler blinking lights, brighter TV screens or other superficial features. This could in fact tap into a "cause" and a "passion" that would bring more attention to the equipment and more buyers who are these days, as GearTrends® magazine has written, looking for a better reason to support one brand over another. This could be that reason. Maybe Ted is ahead of his time, but we think that time is not so far away.