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Losing the Thermostat Wars

September 25, 2006
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I discreetly cheer for whichever team is behind while watching football games on television. Once they caught on to my odd behavior, my children have decided that I'm schizophrenic. Truth be told, I nearly always root for an underdog. I can appreciate the effort it takes to come from behind, against the odds, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. So it is that I stand and cheer for the unappreciated thermostat on the wall.

Nobody really cares about the thermostat; most people don't even bother to learn how to use it properly. Recent rumor has it that the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Energy Starâ„¢ program is considering pulling back on recommending programmable stats. I'm shocked and somewhat appalled. Would Energy Star dare pull back its support of high-efficiency appliances? Of course not. What's wrong; the downtrodden thermostat isn't good enough anymore?

In defense of the lowly stat, I sought more information. A Google search uncovered the DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy site which offers "A Consumer's Guide, Thermostats and Control Systems." It is a wealth of information, but I wanted to talk to someone who could explain what's going on. What's happening to my beloved thermostat? (As you can tell, I had become quite a fan by this point.)

Next stop: the Energy Star Website itself. Very good information - but still, no one to talk with about the problem - until ... Eureka! I found the store locator that identifies where Energy Star thermostats are sold. I plugged in my area code and searched a radius of 30 miles. I discovered a total of 48 locations, mostly Home Depot and Wal-Mart stores. According to the disclaimer at the end of the listing, "The retail stores found in this database have agreed to train their salespeople to be knowledgeable of Energy Star qualifying products and label qualified products on their showroom floor."

Perfect. The Home Depot store at the top of the list was only 6.4 miles from my house. However, I'm a cheap Irish bastard, so why spend the money on gas? I called the store.

I chose appliances from the telephone menu selection. (How was I supposed to know thermostats are in electrical?) The nice appliance man accidentally transferred me to home center where another nice person transferred me to electrical. Ms. Electra told me that thermostats aren't in electrical, they should be in plumbing and heating. Funny, I didn't remember plumbing and heating being in the menu selection. A nice man said it was No. 26, and he would try to transfer me. About 45 seconds later came the dreaded click. Disconnected.

IN SEARCH OF ENERGY STAR

OK, next step. Cheap Irish bastard gets in the car for a trip to his favorite Home Depot store. (I'll charge the 12.8 mile round trip back to The NEWS on my expense report.)

Upon entering the store, the first orange apron I met courteously walked me directly to the plumbing aisle; (good thing I hadn't stumbled in looking for the plumbing and heating aisle all by myself) sure enough, thermostat heaven. Shortly, another man whom we had passed at the HVAC kiosk came over to ask if I needed some help.

"Sure, do you know anything about these thermostats?"

"No, not much, I've only been in the air conditioning business for 17 years," he laughed. "What do you need to know?"

"Well, some say Energy Star and some don't. What's that mean?"

The man quickly glanced at the box I had pointed to and said, "Oh, that means it comes with a remote control. You see, some do and some don't."

The programmable package I had pointed out did indeed come with a remote control. He then noticed some others on the shelf that didn't have remotes but did have Energy Star labels, about the time I said, "It looks like some other ones have the Energy Star label too."

"Yes," he quickly said, "some of the other thermostats have the Energy Star on them."

"So, does that mean some are better than others?"

"Well, you've got these programmable thermostats, but who's ever going to bother to set one of those up. When I'm home, if it's hot I turn it down, if it's cold I turn it up. That's all you've gotta do."

"So, what does this Energy Star thing really mean?"

"All that really means is that a thermostat is compatible with the newer high-efficiency furnaces or air conditioners."

Never once did Mr.-17-years-in-the-business mention that programmable stats might save around 10 percent a year on my heating and cooling bills by simply turning the stat back 10°-15°F for eight hours. There was a bit more idle chit-chat with my Home Depot thermostat advisor, but as you can guess, I didn't bother to ask why the Energy Star program might be about to pull its recommendation for programmable stats. I think I found my answer.

I'm a bit dejected over this thermostat loss, but I'm still going to pull for the Green Bay Packers to take it all this year.

Publication date: 09/25/2006

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