Heating and cooling a typical U.S. dwelling uses more energy and drains more energy dollars than any other system in the home.

Typically, 44 percent of the residential utility bill goes for heating and cooling. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) notes that combining proper equipment maintenance and upgrades with appropriate insulation, weatherization, and thermostat settings can cut residential heating-cooling bills in half.

Manufacturers say that programmable thermostats make it easier to control temperature settings. Indeed, managing energy costs through strategic temperature control is one of the main goals of programmable thermostats. The other goal, of course, is improved comfort.

The DOE notes that homeowners can save as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling bills by turning the thermostat back 10 percent to 15 percent for eight hours. This can be done automatically - without sacrificing comfort - by installing an automatic setback or programmable thermostat.

This is all fine and good when homeowners take the time to understand their programmable thermostats and actually use them as intended. However, some never bother to learn how to program them and thus lose out on any energy-saving benefits. Fortunately, new technology is on the way to make homeowners less intimidated by their programmable thermostats.

Reducing Complexity

Why don't homeowners use their programmable thermostats? For one thing, they say that the equipment is too complicated. In response to this common complaint, Honeywell talked to hundreds of homeowners, contractors, and distributors to learn what they wanted most in a programmable thermostat.

Dan Joyce, director of Trade Channel Marketing, Honeywell, Minneapolis, said the manufacturer discovered some interesting things while undertaking the study. For example:

  • Homeowners want a thermostat that can be programmed without a manual.

  • Heating-cooling contractors want a thermostat that is so easy for homeowners to program, it reduces service calls.

  • Distributors want programmable thermostats to work on virtually any application.

    In response to these requests, Honeywell has introduced the "VisionPRO," a thermostat that guides homeowners through programming on one screen. "It's a process so easy, homeowners won't even need the instruction manual," said Joyce.

    "Now that Honeywell has made the programming process simple," he continued, "the hope is that homeowners will take advantage of the energy savings that come with programmable thermostats."

    And the savings can be substantial when the thermostat is used correctly.

    John Sartain, marketing manager - White-Rodgers/Emerson Climate Technologies, St. Louis, noted, "Over the years, there have been several independent studies on programmable thermostats where energy savings with paybacks of one year or less have been validated. We've performed laboratory testing verifying the energy savings attributed to programmable thermostats."

    Sartain said White-Rodgers also conducts consumer research and works extensively to make its thermostats easy to use.

    "Consumers want thermostats that do not require them to be adjusted frequently," he said. "Providing proper temperature control and maintaining the users' programs goes a long way in increasing the homeowners' confidence and satisfaction with their systems.

    "Our programming is intuitive, and we provide additional functionality with totally separate heating and cooling programs and permanent memory in our thermostats."

    Installation, Programming

    As with just about any other piece of HVAC equipment, proper installation of the thermostat is the first step to proper operation. Improper installation can result in increased energy usage and customer discomfort.

    These guidelines usually offer some common sense information regarding energy savings; such as, contractors should not install a thermostat on an outside wall or position it in direct sunlight or near heat sources. "Following the guidelines and installing an accurate thermostat will ensure the customer attains the optimum performance and comfort from their system," noted Sartain.

    Joe Hlavacek, product manager, Aprilaire, Madison, Wis., stated that programming is just as important as proper installation.

    "Aprilaire programmable thermostats come preprogrammed with Energy Star-recommended settings for energy savings. More importantly, we have done research during the development of our thermostats to maximize usability and simplify programming."

    Hlavacek noted that during the development of the 8300 Series, the company improved upon existing thermostats by including features such as:

  • Separate buttons to set current time (versus setting a program).

  • Plain language on the display.

  • Programming instructions on the cover.

  • A "DONE" message at the completion of every set-up and programming sequence.

    "Making the thermostats as easy to program as possible is so important," Hlavacek said; "that is why so much of our time and development expense has gone into making our products as easy as possible to program."

    Sharing Knowledge

    Contractors, of course, play an important role in teaching homeowners how to use and program their thermostats. They are integral to a customer's comfort with using their new thermostat.

    "Many homeowners feel intimidated when they see the instruction manual to a programmable thermostat - contractors should feel comfortable programming the thermostats they install, and teaching their customers how to program them as well," said Joyce. "When homeowners are able to program their thermostats with ease, contractors will see reduced callbacks."

    Hlavacek said the best way to prevent a nuisance callback related to thermostat operation is to make sure the user knows how to use and program it.

    Some homeowners may require a little more guidance and if that's the case, the contractor may need additional resources such as interactive programming demonstrations, which now are available on many manufacturers' Web sites. Sartain added, "Web sites can also provide information relating to frequently asked questions and are a great 24/7 backup."

    Educating customers on the benefits of programmable thermostats is also beneficial to contractors. Not only do programmable thermostats sell at a higher price, but as already noted, educating homeowners on the usage of programmable thermostats means reduced callbacks for the contractor. Reduced callbacks means more time to spend with additional customers, ultimately increasing profits.

    "Contractors who claim they don't have time to educate their customers about programmable thermostats are wasting a business opportunity," noted Joyce.

    With the new crop of easy-to-use programmable thermostats, it should only take a few minutes for contractors to educate customers - and reap the benefits of superb customer service.

    Publication date: 10/04/2004