Programmable Thermostats: Hype or Huge Energy Savers?

setting a programmable thermostat

August 31, 2017

Programmable thermostats have the potential to save homeowners a significant amount of money on their energy bills. As with any efficiency improvement, savings will depend on choosing the proper equipment and operating it correctly to maximize efficiency. Therefore, while programmable thermostats can often prove useful in reducing home energy costs, they are not a simple, one-size-fits-all fix. Homeowners should be aware of the advantages and limitations of programmable thermostats prior to purchasing. They should also weigh the possibility of making other energy usage changes – either in conjunction with a new programmable thermostat or in lieu of one.

Why are Thermostats Important?

According to the EPA, heating and cooling comprises 42 percent of home’s energy consumption, on average. This percentage is often higher than it needs to be because a home is often heated or cooled even when occupants are asleep or away. The EPA suggests that homeowners could knock 1 percent off of energy usage costs for every degree a thermostat is turned down (in winter) or up (in summer).

Even with this data, the organization’s survey revealed that roughly half of homeowners don’t alter the thermostat at all. In theory, a programmable thermostat – which can automatically lower or raise temperatures depending on the time of day or day of the week – can save homeowners between 10 and 30 percent on their power bills. However, the EPA’s field tests showed that most homes with the thermostats did not realize this level of energy savings. This was not because the thermostats failed to work correctly, but rather that most people were unable or unwilling to create the proper settings.

How Do I Set my Thermostat Properly?

Energy Star highlights the fact that homeowners can conserve energy even if they use the pre-programmed settings on their thermostat. For most standard thermostats, there are settings for wake, daytime, evening, and sleep. In the winter, wake and evening temperatures range from 68 to 70 degrees, and the daytime and sleep temperatures are eight degrees lower. For air conditioner use, the wake and evening temperatures are 78. The daytime and sleep temperatures are seven degrees and four degrees higher, respectively. Energy Star also offers homeowners guidelines for proper thermostat use. They recommend keeping the thermostat at an energy-saving temperature (warmer in summer, cooler in winter) for at least eight hours at a time (eight hours during the day and/or eight hours while sleeping). Homeowners should also learn how to correctly use the thermostat’s override features to make the home warmer or cooler by selecting a “temporary override.”

Most thermostats also have “vacation” or “permanent” overrides. The thermostat erases temporary settings and returns to the pre-programmed cycle at the end of the timeframe, but vacation settings are in place until they are manually turned off. It is important to use the proper override setting. When making the home cooler in the summer or warmer in the winter, you should always use the temporary override. Vacation settings are effective when making the temperature warmer in summer or cooler in winter while the house is unoccupied.

Choose a Thermostat that Makes Sense

A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said that 90 percent of Americans rarely or never programmed their thermostat beyond the factory settings. The biggest reason for failing to do so? They did not understand how to do it. The U.S. Department of Energy suggests adopting a “set it and forget it” approach to programmable thermostats. This means that the owner sets the temperatures and times according to his or her schedule, and then lets the programmable thermostat take care of the climate controls. To do this, you must first understand how to program your thermostat. There are several different types of thermostats with different levels of complexity.

Choosing the right schedule setup can make programming much more straightforward and help maximize your energy savings. The first and most expensive option is a seven-day programmable thermostat. This is the most flexible selection, as it lets the owner create different temperature settings for every day of the week. A seven-day thermostat involves a more complicated setup, however, since a homeowner must create each day’s setting individually. The next options, 5-1-1 and 5-2 thermostats, are easier to set up. With these models, you make one uniform setting for all five weekdays and then different settings for the weekend.

Slightly cheaper than seven-day models, these thermostats don’t need to be programmed each day, which makes them simpler. If your schedule involves the same work/school routine each weekday, a seven-day thermostat may not be necessary. The cheapest option is a one-week thermostat, which repeats the same cooling and heating patterns every day for the entire week. For people who are often at home on weekdays and only want to lower energy consumption at night when they are asleep, this thermostat is a good option. Keep in mind that whichever model you choose, you will have to program it for both warmer and cooler months.

Will I Save Money?

Programmable thermostats can be good investments when they are used properly. What does this mean, regarding dollars and cents? Basic programmable thermostats are inexpensive, and Energy Star estimates that, if used correctly, the new temperature control could lead to $180 in annual energy savings. New web-enabled models – controlled via a smartphone app – can cost up to $500, but more basic models are under the $180 mark. So, they could potentially pay for themselves in a year or less.

Do I Need Professional Installation? 

Programmable thermostats are available from hardware and home improvement stores, but many experts recommend hiring a professional to install a new thermostat. Homeowners can time the purchase of their new temperature controller with regularly-scheduled air conditioner or furnace maintenance. Then, an HVAC professional can install the device and show the homeowner its functionality without the need for a separate trip. Aside from providing hands-on instruction, this approach gives homeowners confidence that the wiring and setup are correct.

Quality Matters

Programmable thermostats can result in significant energy savings. However, it is not a good idea to skimp when it comes to the quality of the thermostat or installation. Some homeowners might have the impression that they will need to spend more to save more in the future. This may or may not be the case (depending on the home’s specific needs), but the buying strategy should be focused on achieving the necessary performance in terms of energy savings and ease of use.

Programmable thermostats often qualify for PACE (property assessed clean energy) financing. PACE programs help homeowners make energy-saving improvements to their homes for no upfront costs. Instead, the amount financed is paid back over time, as part of the annual property tax bill. Because of the potential energy savings, the new thermostat could be paid off relatively quickly, even when purchasing a high-end model.

PACE financing can help you make energy-saving, water-saving, and renewable energy upgrades. Find out if PACE is available in your area – contact Ygrene at (855) 901-3999,