A recent article inThe Newshighlighted a study from the Energy Center of Wisconsin (ECW), which indicated that programmable setback thermostats may not provide the energy savings they seem to promise, and in some consumers’ hands, may actually result in slightly higher energy costs (“Study Questions Setback Thermostats,” December 15, 2000).

The study basically found that Wisconsin homeowners who learn how to program their setback thermostats would also set back temperatures with manual stats, and usually to the same degree of difference. Homeowners with little or no interest in energy conservation would resort to the “hold” function on programmable stats, bringing it back to a steady temperature with no setback.

No Surprises

“I agree with most of the study,” says Don Miller, thermostat business leader, Honeywell, Minneapolis, MN. “I thought the study was interesting, because they really studied homeowners’ behaviors.

“It’s absolutely fair to say that if someone is manually setting back their thermostat and then they put in a programmable thermostat and they’re doing the same thing, they won’t see energy savings when they compare one monthly bill to the next. That’s fair.”

Miller notes that the study should show those in the industry that consumers need education on how to properly set back their thermostats. “There was some evidence that people had abandoned the use of the programmable thermostat for one reason or another, and we don’t know which programmable stats they were using. If they were something that’s not very good, I think our job in the industry is to get them a stat that’s easier to use, or whatever it is that that homeowner had an issue with.”

The energy savings are definitely there if the consumer is willing to use the setback thermostat correctly, says John Sartain, marketing manager, White-Rodgers, St. Louis, MO. “In a study supported by ASHRAE, a user can achieve savings as high as 33% by programming two 10°F setbacks per day, depending on geographical location,” said Sartain.

A setback thermostat will even save energy when the heating and air conditioning systems are a little bit older — and Miller says there are studies to prove it. “The studies we’ve done were on a lot of non-energy-efficient equipment. Some of the studies were done on older equipment.

“Can the homeowner achieve even lower energy bills by putting in a higher-efficiency furnace? Yes. But changing out a standard-efficiency furnace that’s got some life in it may not really have a payback. I can relate to that. Yet, you could take a step and put in a programmable stat and begin to save some energy.”

Sartain does note that not everyone is cut out to use a thermostat correctly, which the Wisconsin study also pointed out. “There is a segment of the population that likes the accuracy of electronic thermostats, but they do not necessarily use the programming features.

“This year, with the rise in natural gas prices, there is renewed interest in energy savings and extra motivation to use programmable thermostats.”

Installation, Education

In addition to having a consumer willing to set back his or her thermostat, there also needs to be a contractor who has installed the thermostat properly. That’s because a thermostat that is installed incorrectly will have an impact on energy savings — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s manual or programmable.

This may seem like old hat to many, but it’s important to make sure the thermostat is located away from windows and direct sunlight, away from drafty areas, not near a door or fireplace, and away from any heat sources, like stoves.

Contractors also need to present thermostat options to the customer. As Miller notes, some contractors choose not to install programmable thermostats, and they also often choose not to inform consumers about them.

“They’re missing out on an opportunity. We know, for a fact, that consumers don’t always know or understand what choices are there. I think as a contractor, it really is to their benefit to provide those choices. I understand it’s not for everyone, and when you present that to people, they may choose to go with a manual thermostat. That’s great. But if you don’t give them the choice, then you never know.”

Sartain adds that contractors have the opportunity to show the homeowner how to operate and maintain all of their equipment, and they should make the homeowner feel comfortable with the whole package, including the thermostat.

“If a contractor leaves the homeowner uncomfortable with any part of an installation, it will likely lead to a callback. Spending time now can save time later.”

Contractors should also take the time to explain how a programmable thermostat can improve comfort levels. If a homeowner has a manual thermostat and is setting back the temperature every day, a programmable thermostat can definitely be more convenient.

Contractors should explain to homeowners that the programmable thermostat can make sure the house is warm and toasty when they get out of bed on a cold winter morning — which is certainly preferable to running over to the thermostat to turn it up, before diving back under the covers.

Train Your Techs

To make sure all technicians are comfortable with programmable thermostats, Miller suggests that contractors make sure they have proper training on the products. He states that most distributors around the country offer many different types of training; these distributors want people to be educated and knowledgeable, so they can pass that experience on to their customers. Contrac-tors could also allocate a little more time on service calls where the thermostat is being replaced.

“Everyone is busy, I respect that,” says Miller. “But what we’re talking about here won’t double the amount of time a technician is in the home. It’s another 10 or 15 minutes at most to present the information to a homeowner about programmable thermostats and make sure they’re comfortable with the product. It’s necessary, and the paybacks can be huge.”

Even though the ECW study showed that some consumers don’t use their thermostats correctly, both manufacturers still note that their own studies and experience show that setback thermostats do save energy. But — as always — the contractor is the key to ensuring the thermostat is installed correctly and the homeowner is educated properly.

Sidebar: NYSERDA Supports Development of Voice-Recognition Thermostats

ALBANY, NY — The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is now working with Enernet Corp. of DeWitt, NY to develop a programmable thermostat that is programmed with simple voice commands rather than a series of key entries. Once programmed, this thermostat will save homeowners energy by automatically lowering the temperature setting overnight or at times when the home is generally unoccupied.

Most programmable thermostats provide homeowners with a range of times to program to account for typical weekdays and weekends. While this wide range of options makes the devices attractive to homeowners, the complexity of programming them results in the fact that many are never programmed.

NYSERDA’s project with Enernet will develop voice-recognition capabilities for programmable thermostats. The final design has yet to be determined, but it is likely that homeowners would be prompted to input times and temperature settings. The device would then take control of the hvac system and adjust the temperature of the home according to the times and settings input.

Publication date: 03/26/2001