Contractors Cool to Utility Control of Thermostats

February 11, 2008
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If the California Energy Commission (CEC) had its way, thermostats in homes and buildings would be controllable by public utilities during times of extreme temperature hikes and power usage. But a public outcry to proposals in the CEC’s 2008 Building Energy Efficiency Standards regarding thermostat control have forced the CEC to modify its stance so that customers would have the option of blocking outside control of their thermostats.

The revised regulation still will require installation of remote-control programmable communicating thermostats (PCTs), but will allow consumers the option of overriding outside control, commission spokeswoman Claudia Chandler said. The regulation would apply not only to new buildings but also to replacement or significant retrofit of cooling and heating systems in existing homes and businesses.

PCTs will be fitted to every new home and every change to existing homes’ central heating and air conditioning system. Each PCT will be fitted with a nonremovable FM receiver that would allow utilities to increase air conditioning temperature set points or decrease heater temperature set points to any value they choose.

In a “Frequently Asked Questions” feature at its Website, CEC made additional comments:

“It is important that consumers have the ability to opt out of or into demand response programs, such as those involving the PCT. The Energy Commission strongly supports demand-response strategies, and believes that the programmable communicating thermostat offers a valuable tool to dampen peak electricity use.

“Demand-response strategies are an important alternative to building costly new power plants that only operate during peak demand times of the year. Technology can be a powerful tool in managing our energy use. However, it is of utmost importance that consumers make their own energy decisions.”

FEEDBACK FROM THE HVAC TRADE

The NEWS asked several HVAC contractors how they felt about PCTs and the involvement of utility companies in their control. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of a “hands-off” approach by the California utilities - or any utilities for that matter.

Joe Rettig of the Habeggar Corp., and a member of The NEWS’ Distributor Panel, said he is not fond of government regulations in everyday life and used the example of when the government tried to regulate the price of gas during the 1970s’ energy crisis and the resulting shortage of gas.

He added, “Our country has grown to where it is today because of the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, and people are quite capable of making decisions that are in their own best interest.

“As one who has made his living for years as a revenue generator worker and not a government employee living off of taxpayer money, I have found the most success when the will of the people is served. People will vote with their pocketbook and do what is in their best interest.”

Michael Curtis of Arctic Air Inc., Palatka, Fla., also alluded to the energy crisis in the ’70s and added, “When government should have looked at this issue was in the late ’70s when we encountered our first oil embargo. Now as we get ready to hit $4 a gallon for gas before the year goes by, government continues to dilly-dally around the big picture. Electrical costs rise and paychecks do not.

“Yes a/c consumption is the biggest part of our home electrical costs; and yes, we can do more to cut those costs - but not by forcing us to do what government is unwilling to do. They hold us - the people - to a higher standard of living in life than the majority of them are willing to do themselves. I think for many of us the problem lies within our state capitals and D.C.”

Gary Richardson, president of Rare Service Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Clovis, Calif., likened the CEC proposal to something that happened in the HVAC trade back in the ’80s.

“This type of control was tried about 25 years ago with a remote control installed on the unit for controlling the use of the air conditioner,” he said.

“We had many homeowners with poorly built homes with this control whose energy costs escalated because their system was shut down long enough for the home to become uncomfortably warm. When they were able to use their system again, it would run for hours, removing the accumulated heat from the home.

“If this were to become law some time in the future, these poorly built homes would still have this problem, and if the home is occupied by someone who suffers when the home is too warm, we could have a problem similar to what happened in France a few years ago when so many elderly people died.”

H. Lance Bent of Melroy Plumbing & Heating, Baltimore, Md., said that too much energy is wasted on producing inferior products, which is one reason why there is an energy crisis. “The cost of efficiency has been more than offset by the true cost of repairing and replacing these very same products,” he said. “We now see water heaters lasting only 9-15 years. A whole factory making water heaters has to be added to keep up with the replacements. Do the math. One million homes equals 1 million water heaters every 20 years. Now it’s every 10 years.

“We must double and triple the use of our resources because we forgot to factor in all the costs of ownership, not just the point-of-use of one energy source.”

IF NOT PCT, THEN WHAT?

If people want a hands-off policy by the local utilities, yet still need alternatives to keeping homes and businesses comfortable with affordable energy, what will work in place of regulated PCTs?

Incentives might work, according to Bruce Silverman of Airite Air Conditioning Inc., Tampa, Fla. He noted, “Most people do not like being told they must do something such as setting up or back temperatures, but if given a choice, many would opt to allow changes in temperature settings if they received reduced dollars per kilowatt from their utility for allowing lowering/raising temperatures when the utility is nearing at dangerous peak demand.

“I also believe that incentives to lower kilowatt usage in homes, businesses, and industry by offering instructive help to reduce kilowatt usage (perhaps reduced pricing via the utilities’ buying power) would be more easily swallowed by consumers and businesses.”

Pat Porzio of Porzio Heating & Cooling Inc., Haskell, N.J., talked about a program in his community that is similar to ones offered by utilities in other U.S. communities.

“Our local utility has had a similar device in place for many years,” he said. “It is a time delay that can shut off large blocks of condensers in portions of the grid for a short period of time. Their apparent purpose is to keep units off for a period of time after a power outage in order to give the grid time to catch up. The utility offers a small financial incentive to the customer to have this device installed.”

But Porzio added, “I’ve often wondered if people would allow the phone company to cut off phone service at any time for the same incentive.”

Craig Jones of Slasor Heating & Cooling, Livonia, Mich., said utility customers of DTE Energy in southeast Michigan are sometimes unaware that the utility has interrupted their service at all, despite having signed up for the discounted interruptible service. “I am all in favor as it is necessary to protect the power grid,” he said. “The real question is: Would you rather have it 79°F in your house during a power grid emergency, or have 75° until the system blows up?

“Maybe [CEC] should try the interruptible a/c route like DTE. We have 300,000 people on this service in southeast Michigan and many think that they have never been interrupted since the program started in the late ’70s.”

Richardson added that home improvements are a good way to ward off utility intervention. “I believe our greater need with regard to the many hundreds of thousands of homeowners with poorly built homes is to have available an aggressive program to make improvements in their homes that would essentially reduce the heat gain in their homes, especially in those areas of the state with high summertime temperatures,” he said.

“The few dollars available in the form of rebates for replacing windows, adding wall and attic insulation, correcting duct system problems, etc., are not enough of an incentive. Perhaps making available very low interest loans would be a better use of that rebate money. Many of our clients are living in homes that are too warm because they cannot afford to use their HVAC system.”

Publication date: 02/11/2008

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