Pity the life of a thermostat. The poor little device sits on the wall, day after day, controlling thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. But does this little dynamo get any respect? Usually not. It remains, uncomplaining, while people fiddle with it, poke it, swear at it, and most often, ignore it.

Many take for granted just exactly what the thermostat does. Think about it. No matter what type of hvac system a contractor specifies for a home, a thermostat is always required. Without a thermostat, even the most expensive system becomes relatively worthless. After all, who would want to spend a vast sum of money on equipment that can’t be controlled from inside?

But while many contractors (hopefully) give homeowners a range of options for their systems — such as high-efficiency vs. medium-efficiency, or a whole-house humidifier or electrostatic air cleaner — they sometimes neglect discussing the option of upgrading the thermostat.

There is a wide variety of thermostats available from a number of manufacturers: programmable and non-programmable, rectangular and round, expensive and inexpensive. But you really can’t know what your customer would prefer unless you ask.

New buttons, diverse options

It used to be that customers didn’t have much of a choice when it came to thermostats. An electromechanical thermostat was always installed, and it worked just fine.

Then came electronic thermostats, and all of a sudden consumers were able to program what temperature they would like their homes to be at what times — all at the push of a button.

Today’s electronic thermostats can do more than that. Some allow customers to program their fan. Some can display the outdoor temperature on the thermostat. Some allow for seven-day programming or programmable vacation holds. Customers can also determine whether they want the thermostat display in Fahrenheit or Celsius.

Of course, there are always those customers who complain that programmable thermostats are too complicated to figure out. So if you run across one of those whose VCR is still flashing “12:00” all the time, there are even electronic, non-programmable thermostats for them. These cost only a little more than the standard electromechanical thermostats, yet they allow greater temperature control of the space.

The point is to give your customers a choice as to which type of thermostat they would prefer. It may seem like a low-priority item, especially in new construction, where the homeowner has to worry about myriad different things. Why shouldn’t the thermostat be one of those items?

And if the customer chooses an upgraded thermostat, that’s more money for you as well.

Contractor offerings

Ron Friedrich, owner, A-Temp Heating and Cooling, Clackamas, OR, says every time he meets with a homeowner in a retrofit situation, he offers a range of thermostat options. The main reason is that it increases gross profit dollars, he says.

“We try to sell complete systems every time we have the opportunity. That includes an upgraded thermostat. Most customers are intrigued by the different design qualities of the various thermostats.”

Friedrich says that customers are very receptive to having different thermostat options presented to them. He notes that when customers are educated about the different options available, they’ll usually pay more for a better system, and that includes a thermostat.

Dave Salholm, quality control supervisor, First Call Heating and Cooling, Portland, OR, says, “We listen to our customer. We sit down and survey their needs and desires and attempt to make recommendations that would meet those goals.

“In some cases that means we install an electromechanical thermostat, and other times that means a programmable thermostat.”

Common mistake

The most common mistake contractors make is to choose a thermostat based on price without regard for the customer’s preferences, says Don Miller, senior market manager for trade thermostats, Honeywell, Minneapolis, MN.

“Many contractors make the assumption that the customer is not willing to pay more for a stat with more features or better control or programmability. It’s not a negative to ask what the customer wants.”

After all, the customer isn’t going to say “no” to an hvac system just because the contractor had the audacity to ask whether or not an upgraded thermostat would be preferred. In fact, providing a range of choices can make the contractor look better.

“It makes you sound more knowledgeable of the industry, and that you care more about the customer. You become more of an expert,” says Miller.

“The issue of price has been the driving force in the market for so long that many contractors and builders believe it,” says Friedrich. But he can point to his own company’s increase in sales of high-efficiency furnaces and air conditioners — approximately 106% and 141% over the previous year — and he knows that customers are willing to pay more for better comfort.

The same is true in new construction, where Friedrich always installs an electronic programmable thermostat. “Tract builders are looking at the lowest price, so one of our biggest objectives is to educate the homebuilders that our retail clientele do not want to buy what they’re selling. Retail customers will not buy a builder grade furnace unless they’re going to move soon or plan to rent the house,” says Friedrich.

Thermostats are just another option that homeowners should be allowed to upgrade, similar to flooring or cabinets. Friedrich notes that if he is allowed to work with the homeowner, 95% of the time the homeowner will not buy the least expensive product.

“Unfortunately, homeowners are usually given the option to upgrade the things they’re going to see, but nothing that deals with indoor air quality or comfort,” he says.

Salholm adds that many customers don’t even know the various benefits and features of different kinds of thermostats. “That’s part of our education process. The service techs have all different kinds of thermostats, and they survey the customer to see what will work best.”

The bottom line, notes Miller, is to “Ask your customers what they need; educate them on what they don’t know; provide choices to them; then deliver on their expectations. Everybody wins in that situation.”