“What goes up must come down.” So goes Newton’s law, and so goes the law in more than a dozen U.S. states when it comes to end-of-life disposal of mercury-containing thermostats.

More specifically, it’s down from the wall and into proper recycling facilities. But actually finding the mercury-containing culprits can be a bit of a riddle, partly because there’s no way to know exactly how many are still out there or where they are located.

Ryan Kiscaden is executive director of the nonprofit Thermostat Recycling Corp. Thermostat recycling has been on the decline the last four years, he said — and that’s good news. Since 2014, TRC has seen about one to two fewer units in their collection bins each month. Kiscaden said it’s because a lot of mercury thermostats have already been collected and recycled.

“That actually makes a lot of sense,” he said. “We attribute this largely to the rise of smart home technologies; we think programmable thermostats really moved mercury thermostats to their extinction. No longer is mercury rising, and we are proud to have participated in its decline. I’m working my way out of a job … and that’s a good thing.”

How many mercury thermostats are still out there?

“The answer is, I wish our members knew,” Kiscaden said.

Thermostats have undergone four generations of upgrades since those round mercury dials that used to hang on the wall, and historical sales data just isn’t available. Because of that, it’s hard to pinpoint what percentage of thermostats get recycled, either. Kiscaden said the numbers for TRC are comparable to other consumer responsibility programs, like batteries, paint, and carpet.

“Certainly it’s not 100 percent, but the industry has done a very nice job of rallying around this, and there’s a lot of manufacturers doing the right thing at end of life,” he said. “We don’t know when the last one will be off the wall, but we plan to be around when it happens.”



HVAC wholesalers are TRC’s biggest ally.

“Some recycling is done through energy efficiency or replacement programs, but the program really lives and dies through wholesalers and HVAC contractors,” Kiscaden said.

Of those, R.E. Michel and Johnstone Supply remain the highest program participants. It’s largely because they serve HVAC almost exclusively, and they have a lot of counter business, versus delivered business.

Plus, their contractor base tends to be residential retrofit, rather than commercial or new construction.

Nest and ecobee have never made a mercury thermostat, but they’re still required to join the TRC program in the state of Minnesota.

About a third of TRC’s budget is dedicated to advertising and outreach.

“Today, we are promoting to a new workforce,” said Kiscaden. “A lot of the newer technicians have not installed a mercury thermostat. When they get out in the field, they might not even know what this thing is.”

Publication date: 10/22/2018

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