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Next-Generation Thermostats: Putting You in Control

The latest programmable thermostats are easier to operate than ever before thanks to backlighting, touch screens and Wi-Fi connectivity. However, researchers tell us that programmable thermostats will help you to save money on your bill only if you refrain from overriding the energy-saving settings.

Masterfile/Nest Labs

Consider this: In 2009, Environmental Protection Agency revoked its Energy Star label for thermostats, because EPA studies showed that thermostats were so complicated to program that most consumers couldn’t figure out how to use the devices to help them to save money on their energy bill!

That’s why in the past 3 years manufacturers introduced nine digital thermostats (starting at $120) that will connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi to allow for easy (and even remote) programming of any heating and air-conditioning system. Consequently, you now can program your thermostat through your computer or smartphone instead of while you stand in front of a wall-mounted device and push a sequence of 30 buttons just to program a schedule. Honeywell and Hunter now even make so-called armchair programming models (starting at $50) that can be detached from the wall and programmed while you sit in an armchair, a sofa or anywhere else.

Almost all manufacturers also added touch screens (starting at $70) or back-lit LCD screens (starting at $30) to their thermostats. These features make programming interfaces easier to read and to operate, says Steve Millheiser of Lux Products, which makes thermostats.

What’s best of all is that we found that the latest thermostats are simple enough for an average consumer to install in less than 1 hour. Five years ago, the average person would have needed help from a professional installer. Almost all of the latest thermostats now come with color-coded connectors into which you place like-colored wires from your heating and cooling, or HVAC, system.

We believe that these convenience features are a giant improvement for thermostats. However, if you want to save money on your energy bill, then you’ll have to program your thermostat to run at temperatures that might be outside of your comfort zone.

TOO COOL? Manufacturers tell us that if consumers allow any programmable thermostat to turn down the temperature when they’re at work or asleep, then the average household will save $200–$300 on a typical $2,000 annual energy bill. That’s a little misleading, because it implies that a programmable thermostat can save money on your energy bill by itself, says Kurt Roth of Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, which is a research laboratory that studies energy efficiency.

Roth and two other independent researchers tell us that consumers actually can save the same amount of money with a mechanical thermostat, which costs as little as $14, as long as they always manually adjust the temperature themselves. The benefit of a programmable thermostat then is that it will adjust the temperature of your home for you, so you can set it and leave it alone.

To save money, however, you have to tolerate the thermostat’s adjustments, Roth says.

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For instance, instead of maintaining your home at 70 degrees Fahrenheit while you sleep during the winter, a thermostat might reduce the temperature to 62 degrees F. Most consumers prefer a warmer temperature, according to a 2012 study that Roth and Fraunhofer Center conducted for Department of Energy.

Fraunhofer Center studied the energy usage of a Boston apartment building. Residents of 77 of the apartments participated and were given instructions on how to use a programmable thermostat that was installed in their apartment. About half of the residents were given what the researchers considered to be an easy-to-program thermostat; the other half used what the researchers considered to be a difficult-to-program thermostat.

After 3 months, the researchers found no difference in the energy usage between the groups. Instead, the study found that in all of the units, residents typically maintained an average temperature of about 70 degrees in their apartments and rarely allowed the temperature to drop when they slept.

Roth says the findings were surprising, because he expected the residents to try to save money on their utility bills by programming the thermostats to lower the temperatures at night. However, the residents preferred to maintain a constant temperature instead of saving a few dollars. Consequently, a programmable thermostat won’t save money as long as a consumer overrides (or doesn’t program) the thermostats’ energy-saving settings, Roth says.