For the last six decades, heating and cooling demand has been controlled using simple, wall-mounted thermostats. When a user wants more heat, they adjust a thermostat needle to a higher temperature. When cooling was requested, they rotated the needle the opposite direction.

Those simplistic devices have since evolved into more complex, digital, real-time-response programmable mechanisms. This evolution of these controls is undeniable, however, is the technology actually being utilized? And if it is, is it being used correctly?

In Depth Study

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released a position paper in 2010 titled, “How People Actually Use Their Thermostats.”

The study cited data collected through four tests of usability including personal interviews, an online survey, thermostat setting photographs, and measurements related to a user’s ability to effectively use a programmable thermostat.

The ACEEE results revealed that 89 percent of respondents rarely or never used a programmable thermostat to set a weekday or weekend program. The photographic survey found that only 30 percent of programmable thermostats were ever actually programmed.

“Many of today’s modern programmable thermostats are complicated and difficult for users to understand, leading to errors in operation and wasted energy,” stated the report. “The interviews revealed that many occupants used the programmable thermostat as an on-off switch and most demonstrated little knowledge of how to operate it.”

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) conducted a survey in 2005 that revealed 14 percent of U.S. households report having no thermostat, 5 percent had a manual thermostat, and 30 percent had a programmable thermostat. Further statistics show that U.S. residential thermostat controls are responsible for roughly 11 percent of the nation’s energy use.

Several additional ACEEE field studies show no significant savings in households using programmable thermostats compared to those using analog or manual thermostats. Contributing factors include homeowners believing it is more efficient to run the heat all the time, limited knowledge of how an HVAC system works, and no knowledge of the daily or annual cost to operate a HVAC system. The main reason for a lack of energy savings: failure to use the device as designed.

Proposing a Solution

Several HVAC contractors recently discussed the evolution of thermostat and controls technology with The NEWS, acknowledging that homeowners choosing to install “do-it-yourself” devices often find themselves in need of a helping hand.

“We receive lots of calls from homeowners requesting help over the phone installing newly purchased thermostats from the big box stores,” said David Torbert, engineered service manager, Capstone Mechanical, Waco, Texas. “After they’ve attempted installation, the next set of calls comes in, where they say ‘It just isn’t working.’

“We also receive a fair amount of phone calls from home automation companies that are attempting to tie the HVAC system into a home automation system. Some home automation companies call asking us to install the thermostat, and other home automation companies call us after attempting installation, wanting us to fix their work because the HVAC system is not functioning correctly.”

While a number of the younger “do-it-yourselfers” are certainly tech-savvy, they simply don’t understand the inner workings of an HVAC system, or possess the skills necessary to complete the job.

“A lot of the issues we see have to do with the heat wiring. On heat pump systems this can be confusing to a homeowner that doesn’t know the difference between auxiliary heat and emergency heat much less how to wire it into a thermostat,” said Torbert. “Other times it is simply that a thermostat is not configured correctly in the setup menus. We have also seen cases where a homeowner will purchase a ‘simpler’ thermostat that is not compatible with the manufacturer’s proprietary thermostat interface.”

Homeowners aren’t the only ones faced with the challenge of comprehending these new gadgets and gizmos. HVAC contractors must learn this new technology, incorporate it into their knowledge base, and be prepared to troubleshoot each issue a customer may encounter.

“As equipment becomes more and more efficient, manufacturers have started adding more and more controls and intelligence to HVAC systems,” said Torbert. “Good examples of this are the new variable refrigerant flow systems that are on the market now for the residential sector. These types of systems are packed with technology; ac/dc inverters; 410 volt, 3-phase modulating compressors; electronically controlled TXVs; special thermostats; thermistor temperature sensors; and more.”

Torbert acknowledged that most technicians will require additional training to keep up with the industry’s ever-evolving pace.

“This evolution has raised the bar with the technician’s technical competency requirements, meaning that we are having to be very deliberate with sending our technicians to the latest product training courses as well as being more selective in our hiring practices.”

Craig Williamson, owner, MM Comfort Systems, Seattle, said global manufacturers are competing tooth and nail to gain an advantage in the thermostat and control market, leading to a variety of new ideas, products, and patents hitting the market on a regular basis.

“It’s literally an arms race,” said Williamson. “Manufacturers have always competed for business, but competition has become way more intense over the last several years. These devices are adding more functionality and are much more complex than previous control devices. These new controls truly have brains of their own.”

Williamson said manufacturers are striving to develop complex devices with simple user interfaces.

“A lot of these thermostats have varying levels of intelligence, with some recognizing the heat pump and others able to detect existing devices and communicate with them in a sophisticated way. With all this complexity, average homeowners and business owners just aren’t able to anticipate and design compatibility for the infinite number of situations that they come across,” he said. “The thermostats they buy over the counter simply aren’t compatible with their systems and they don’t realize it until they’ve already tried plugging it in.”

Nest Labs garnered a multitude of media attention upon the release of its Learning Thermostat in November 2011. The device was designed by Tony Fadell, who helped create Apple’s famed iPod, and is available for purchase at Best Buy. The thermostat has garnered 261 reviews on, with an average four-star (out of a possible five star) rating. On Nest Lab’s website, it states: “If you’re comfortable installing a light fixture, you can install Nest yourself. Three out of four people install in less than 30 minutes.”

This assertion, and its over-the-counter availability, essentially eliminates the typical HVACR distribution and contracting lines of work.

Dan Holohan, of, recently purchased a Nest Lab device and offered numerous thoughts on his blog.

“I wonder how Nest will get along with an old steam system and whether people with old steam systems will even be interested in it,” he said. “I wonder how Nest will deal with old houses, and whether the owners of these old houses will expect miracles from this attractive device.

“On their website, the Nest folks link to a YouTube video, which shows how to install the device. You can hire a certified professional to install it if you’d rather, but I couldn’t find any of those through their zip-code search engine,” he said. “The video tells me it’s easy to do myself; all I have to do is open the cover of my current thermostat, use my iPhone to take a photo of the wires, and then email that photo to them. They’ll tell me what to do next. Would you have a customer do that?”

Holohan said he is unsure if the Nest thermostat will be a success, however he believes the instant attention the device received makes for a compelling story.

“People in this business often talk about how most consumers don’t care about what we have to offer because they can’t show it to their neighbors. That’s not the case with Nest,” he said. “This is something that every user will show their neighbor, because of the news coverage. Neighbors will look at it and say, ‘Hey, it’s just like an Apple.’ ”

Matthew W. Smith, owner, Smith Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Stockton, Calif. said a thrifty buyer may buy an “over-the-counter” thermostat in hopes of saving money; however, the opposite is likely to occur.

“With the big box stores offering these items for sale to homeowners without professional service and support, this continues to be a challenge for customers attempting to save money on home improvements,” said Smith. “Most homeowners are not familiar with the proper electrical connections and how they differ from an existing thermostat to a new one. They seem to get confused with how these new thermostats operate, and how they interact with an HVAC system. When we arrive, we place an emphasis on checking the programming and helping our customers properly utilize and schedule their thermostats for greater efficiency. Periodic inspection of the thermostat as part of regular maintenance is necessary and helping the customer to understand all of the features is critical to a properly working system, and is a key part of our occupation.”

Publication date: 9/17/2012