Selling programmable (“setback”) thermostats with new a/c systems and recommending them when you make service calls can boost customer satisfaction by delivering enhanced comfort, convenience, and energy savings.

So why don’t more contractors offer programmable thermostats? Chalk it up to misinformation and myths.

Let’s have a look at the myths — and the facts — about programmable thermostats.

Myth #1: Price

Some contractors contend that “Programmable thermostats are too expensive. If I quote one I’ll lose the job. Homeowners just won’t spend the money.”

Fact: Experience and research demonstrate that a majority of homeowners do want programmable thermostats, and will spend the extra money up front if they understand the primary benefits — energy savings, comfort, and convenience.

That’s not to say every customer will choose a programmable model. But if you quote one on every job and explain its advantages, you’ll help your customer make an informed decision.

Let’s take a look at those benefits.

Energy savings. There is growing evidence that programmable thermostats can help homeowners save energy. When used as intended, they can help homeowners automatically shave off up to 30% on annual heating-cooling bills, which could lead to savings of up to $200.

Put another way, today’s advanced programmable thermostats may pay for themselves in as little as a single heating or cooling season in some parts of the country, and in one or two years elsewhere. Of course, they will help save heating and cooling energy throughout their entire service life.

These heating-cooling bill savings have been documented in scientific studies, in field tests, and by user experience. Figure 1 shows the range of potential heating-cooling savings across the nation.

Comfort. People are very sensitive to temperature. Many can detect even slight fluctuations, and that’s enough to cause noticeable discomfort. But today’s quality programmable thermostats maximize comfort. They provide tight, consistent temperature control to within 1°F of the thermostat’s setting.

Programmable thermostats let your customers automatically save energy while they are away or asleep, then automatically return to a comfort setting just before they get home or get up.

There’s no need for family members to face chilly indoor temperatures when the alarm clock rings on winter mornings and when they get home from work. Likewise, during the cooling season, they can come home to a comfortably air conditioned house.

Honeywell’s best programmable thermostats take comfort a step further. They incorporate microprocessor “brains” that provide Adaptive Intelligent Recovery, which means the thermostat “learns” how to operate the hvac equipment most efficiently and return the home to a comfortable temperature by the predetermined time.

Put simply, the thermostat “knows” when to start the heating or cooling equipment so that the desired temperature is reached on schedule.

Convenience. We’ve already touched on automatic energy savings and the ability to have the thermostat automatically maximize comfort by controlling to a specific temperature at a specific time of day or night.

But you should also know that manufacturers have made great strides in adding other convenience and ease-of-use features to programmable thermostats. For example, you can find quality programmable thermostats that offer:

  • Preprogrammed energy-saving schedules that are easy to modify; models are available with —

    — Four programmable periods; two comfort settings (“wake” and “return”) and two energy-saving settings (“away” and “sleep”), which are ideal for people who are regularly away from home for work or other reasons;

    — Two programmable periods; a comfort setting (“home”) and an energy-saving setting (“sleep”), which are ideal for those who are usually at home full time;

    — Energy Star® labels, which are the U.S. EPA’s designation to help consumers recognize energy-efficient products;

    — Override buttons (“up” and “down” arrows, for example) to adjust the temperature setting temporarily without changing the scheduled program;

    — Temperature “hold” buttons, to maintain a constant temperature over an extended period of time;

    — A button to push to automatically change to and from Daylight Savings Time;

    — Large backlit displays that are easy to read, even in the dark;

    — Remote outdoor temperature sensors for convenient display of the outdoor temperature; and

    — Programmable fan control to regularly circulate air throughout the house.

    Indeed, with the wide selection available today, you can find a programmable thermostat that’s right for virtually any customer or application.

Myth #2: Too complicated

Some contractors say that “Programmable thermostats are too complicated for customers. I don’t want to spend all day on the phone telling them how to set or reset their thermostat.”

Fact: Simply put, today’s best programmable thermostats are easy to use. They tend to incorporate input from focus groups, usability studies, and other research involving contractors and homeowners.

When you are considering which models to offer, look for thermostats that:

  • Have consumer-friendly design features and are Energy Star listed;

  • Come with clear, easy-to-understand consumer literature and instructions; and

  • Are supported with toll-free telephone assistance (from the manufacturer) for consumers.

You’ll appreciate knowing that the manufacturer can handle consumer calls for assistance; consumers like the fact that expert assistance is just a free phone call away.

Myth #3: They don't work

Some contractors even claim that “Programmable thermostats don’t really save money. They don’t work on heat pumps, and setback wastes energy during recovery.”

Fact: First, let’s tackle (again) the energy-savings myth. For the past 25 years, study after study has shown that programmable thermostats save energy, even in new construction and in homes that are well insulated.

That’s why New Jersey, New York, and California mandate the installation of programmable thermostats in all new homes. That’s why utility companies across the country have programs that promote programmable thermostats. And that’s why programmable thermostats are an important part of the EPA’s Energy Star program.

Over the last 25 years, ASHRAE has published numerous articles that demonstrate that programmable thermostats save energy. These energy savings also have been verified by extensive field testing and user experience.

The EPA has documented potential energy savings. Using Energy Star products, according to the EPA, can “shrink our [national] energy bills by a total of about $100 billion over the next 15 years and dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

Now for the heat pump part of the myth. The fact is, programmable thermostats do work on heat pumps.

True, the first programmable thermostats didn’t have advanced features like Adaptive Intelligent Recovery and would sometimes bring on auxiliary heat to recover from setback, thereby reducing energy savings. But they still saved energy. And today’s “intelligent” programmable thermostats provide excellent performance.

The best new programmable thermostats minimize the use of costly secondary heat, which is typically electric heat. According to the EPA, energy savings garnered by Energy Star-listed programmable thermostats and heat pumps are impressive.

As for that recurring myth that the energy savings you get during setback (or setup) are lost during recovery: It just isn’t so.

Even in new construction and in homes that have been heavily insulated, the percent of heating-cooling energy savings remains about the same (albeit from a smaller overall heating-cooling bill). And a customer who is investing in energy-efficient housing or equipment is more likely to be receptive to owning a programmable thermostat.

Myth #4: They're hard to install, program

Oh, really?

Fact: Most programmable thermostats are no more difficult to install than The Round® thermostat.

As far as training goes, all you need to do is standardize on a few high-quality thermostats that are matched to the systems you sell. That way, your technicians can get “up to speed” quickly and easily. They’ll know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Here’s an idea from a contractor: Give each technician a programmable thermostat to install and use at home. Your technicians will become familiar with “ins and outs” of those thermostats.

Then, when they make calls, they’ll not only be more proficient at demonstrating how to use them, they can speak first-hand about the features they like (“I’ve got a thermostat just like that at my house, and. . . .”).

Programmable thermostats present an excellent business opportunity for contractors. The units can help your homeowners reap heating-cooling bill savings of up to 30%, while maximizing comfort and convenience. Today’s best models are extremely easy to use. And not many people have one.

So put the lid on programmable thermostat myths. Tap into the increased customer satisfaction — and plumped-up profit margins — that programmable thermostats can give.