The EnergyStar® specification for programmable thermostats, which has not been revised since its inception in April 1995, is currently under review. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been closely examining the measurable and verifiable energy-saving benefits of programmable thermostats.

“The EPA is committed to finalizing a new EnergyStar specification by March 2009, which would go into effect on or before Jan. 1, 2010,” said the agency in a summary report of the specification’s current standings. “If new program requirements are not identified in this timeframe, a suspension of the EnergyStar specification for programmable thermostats will go into effect as of Dec. 31, 2009, meaning that the EnergyStar label will not be available for this product category at this time.”

Since this announcement, the EPA has been working through meetings with stakeholders and within the agency to determine whether or not programmable thermostats, as they stand now, capture the essence of the EnergyStar label. What has been determined boils down to one statement: “The energy savings of programmable thermostats depends on behavior, and the units themselves cause no significant behavior change.”


In a Feb. 13, 2007, stakeholders meeting, the EPA took time to outline its programmable thermostat discoveries and the barriers of labeling the devices that the agency had identified. As the EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) considered its guiding principles (see sidebar), it found that there was “little differentiation between EnergyStar-qualified programmable thermostats and nonqualified programmable thermostats.”

The agencies also identified a lack of evidence that EnergyStar-qualified programmable thermostats save money on a consistent, nationwide basis. “Despite the significant energy-saving potential offered by programmable thermostats, studies have shown that consumers are not using them effectively,” explained Christopher Kent from the EnergyStar Products Labeling Branch.

“Since launching its review of the EnergyStar specification for programmable thermostats several years ago, EPA has sought to determine enhancements to the performance requirements that would deliver meaningful differentiation between EnergyStar-qualified and standard programmable thermostats, and promote more effective use of the energy-saving features.”

As a result of the studies conducted between 1996 and 2004, in Jan. 2005, the EPA concluded that consumers operated according to three major behaviors:

1.Programmable thermostats were being used much in the same way as manual thermostats.

2.Programming difficulties inhibited users.

3.There was little understanding or awareness of key terms such as default, set point, and programmable.

Overall there was a lack of knowledge, confidence, and motivation to face programming challenges. According to a study done by Honeywell at the time, 70 percent of homeowners found programmable thermostats too difficult to operate and they were losing out on energy-savings benefits. The online information available was lacking as well.

“We have a digital thermostat,” said one study participant. “It can be programmed, but we don’t know how to do that.”

“I haven’t recommended this type or brand of thermostat to anyone,” noted another participant, “mainly because we can’t figure out how to use it.”

In an effort to substantiate the energy-saving potential of programmable thermostats, GasNetworks conducted another study that ended in March of 2006. The study showed that there were definite gas savings with customers using programmable thermostats, but it was decided that the study itself was too limited and that it primarily addressed gas savings with a strong New England regional focus. The EPA deemed that the study “does not prove that the [EnergyStar] label made a difference.”


With these facts in mind, the EPA began developing a new strategy. Its plan of action focused on transitioning from a performance-based specification to an educational partnership, with an emphasis on addressing user understanding and behaviors.

“The savings potential of a programmable thermostat is more than $150 per year,” noted the EPA. “We want to realize those savings.”

This campaign, much like the “Change a Light, Change the World” and “Million Monitor Drive” campaigns in the past, is tailored to provide educational graphics guidelines for manufacturers, retailers, installers, and program sponsors of programmable thermostats. The enhanced education component consists of product literature, Websites, instructions, user manuals, podcasts, an online interactive tool, and more.

“Originally, the EPA proposed that the EnergyStar markings on thermostats would change from the current logo to an EnergyStar Educational Mark; one crafted towards products that save energy when the user takes advantage of its energy-saving features,” said John Sartain, senior product manager, Emerson Climate Technologies, White-Rodgers Division.

“Although this has been dropped, the new specification is likely to have more consumer educational details to assist users in how to best manage their heating and cooling energy consumption.”

With multiple meetings held and documents created throughout this ongoing process, the EPA found it necessary to clarify the progress it had made and the direction it was pursuing.

“In October 2007, EPA sent out a letter to partners and stakeholders outlining the changes to the existing programmable thermostat specification,” explained Kent. “In February 2008, EPA finalized those revisions which included recommitting under the new MOU process and engaging in promoting the energy-saving potential with EnergyStar programmable thermostats.”


During the evolution process of the Energy Star programmable thermostat specification, stakeholders remained involved as they offered guidance and opinions on the EPA’s proposals and decisions.

According to a meeting note document released in February 2007, “Stakeholders were concerned that by having a specification, abandoning the specification, and then potentially considering a program in the future, EPA may create additional consumer confusion.” Several stakeholders went so far as to say that removing the label would confuse consumers; they offered a different concept.

“There is concern that there will be less progress without a specification; by adding additional educational messaging and keeping the specification, more advances will be made than by just abandoning the specification.”

Still surrounding the issue is what affects the removal of the EnergyStar logo from programmable thermostats will do for the industry and consumers.

“The EnergyStar logo is a well-recognized logo by consumers,” pointed out Betsy Ford, thermostat product specialist, Lennox.

“The consumer may think programmable thermostats without an EnergyStar logo are no longer effective in saving energy. It will be up to the contractors to explain to the consumer they can still set their thermostat to reduce energy usage and save on their utility bills.”

Beyond a shift in consumer attitudes, these new program developments present marketing challenges as well. “We use the EnergyStar logos on all of our programmable thermostats,” said Ignacio Monteros, product manager, controls, Carrier Corp. “It increases the consumer’s awareness that our products meet the high standards set for EnergyStar products.”

“Financially it would be difficult to calculate the impact of the logo,” noted Nitish Singh, general manager, system products, Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems. “But, what it does provide is more product exposure.”

The EPA agreed that the effect of removing the EnergyStar designation to programmable thermostats is unknown. In the midst of the continuing process, however, there have been discussions on the future of the EnergyStar programmable thermostat specification with National Electrical Manufacturers Association representatives, said Kent.

“As always, EPA will maintain an open dialogue with partners and industry,” he added. “We will continue to work with our industry and utility partners to keep our interested stakeholders informed of the specification’s status.”

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Sidebar: Guiding Principles

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy consider the following criteria when determining whether to develop or revise EnergyStar® product specifications:

• Significant energy savings will be realized on a national basis.

• Product energy consumption and performance can be measured and verified with testing.

• Product performance will be maintained or enhanced.

• Purchasers of the product will recover any cost difference within a reasonable time period.

• Specifications do not unjustly favor any one technology.

• Labeling will effectively differentiate products to purchasers.

Publication date:09/22/2008