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Is Your Programmable Programmed?

According to Energy Star, approximately 45% of a typical home’s energy consumption is relegated to heating and cooling - roughly $2,100 to $2,500 per annum. Not exactly chump change. Suffice to say, some of that energy, in the form of hot or cold air, gets lost in the cracks, literally. That is, tempered air escapes through gaps around door jambs and window sills, via roofs and floors, heating or cooling unoccupied areas, etc. There’s no shortage of ways for air to escape, and the money spent toward heating or cooling it is lost too. One tool homeowners have at their disposal is the good ol’ thermostat which comes in a few basic models. While you have your run-of-the-mill dial thermostat that’s been around for decades, there is also the programmable thermostat of recent vintage that allows you to schedule temperature changes. And within the last few years, “smart” thermostats have appeared on the scene which “learn” your temperature-changing patterns and take into account when you’re asleep or at work automatically. The latter two iterations are a surefire method of lowering monthly utility bills.

Programmable thermostats work great - in theory! That is, you have to actually program them to reap any of the benefits they’re intended to yield. According to the EPA, “…analyses from recent field studies have suggested that programmable thermostats may be achieving considerably lower savings than their estimated potential.” The EPA goes on to say that the reason for the lower savings is essentially because people don’t know how to set them, or don’t take the time to read the manual.

An article in the Washington Post chronicled the interaction between homeowners and their thermostats, which showcased findings from a study conducted and published by the Energy Research and Social Science Journal. The results were startling and gleaned significant insight into the psychology of people and energy systems. A handful of the more noteworthy tidbits showed that:

  • 42% of those studied claimed their thermostats were programmable - opposed to manual - but didn’t know how to operate them

  • Over a quarter of programmable thermostats were in “permanent hold” mode, which overrides any previously set programs and causes them to operate as manual thermostats

  • A sizable portion of thermostats had dates and times that were fairly inaccurate, making programming difficult, if not moot

  • An all too common trend illustrated that multiple occupants manipulated the thermostat, nullifying some of the benefits that pre-programming normally yields

The study also revealed that when it comes to heating and cooling, homeowner behavior is controlled by myth or misconceptions to a large extent. More than 30% of subjects incorrectly assumed that “setting the thermostat at a higher temperature would heat the house faster.” In addition, a like-minded number also paid heed to the false notion that “turning down the thermostat at night or when people are not home used more energy than keeping the house at the same temperature all the time.”

HVAC industry insiders regularly tout that fact that the average homeowner can save 10% - 25% on the average monthly heating and cooling bill by using a programmable thermostat. However, there is one caveat: the thermostat needs to be programmed. Set it and forget it. And for those of us that aren’t too tech savvy there is the “smart thermostat” which acts as a manual thermostat but over time “learns” our habits and schedules, eventually operating on autopilot, as it were. But, seeing as that technology is “relatively” new, yet gaining a sizable foothold, that topic will be the subject of our ensuing blog.


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