Combat Thermostat Ignorance and Save

It Pays to Learn Your Thermostat

Combat Thermostat Ignorance and Save
October 2, 2015

Are smart appliances and systems making you feel like you are being outwitted by your home? They shouldn’t. In many cases, it is just a matter of investing the time to read through the manual and understand the capabilities of the system.

For standard appliances like refrigerators, ovens, or TVs, if you do not educate yourself on how the system works, you simply miss some of the capabilities of your device. However, with control systems like home alarms or programmable thermostats, the stakes are higher.

In the case of thermostats, you could be wasting significant money on your energy bills that you could change into savings with a few minutes of attention. According to EnvironmentMagazine.org, home heating is by far the greatest in-home use of U.S. energy within households, with air-conditioning coming in third. Your thermostat controls both of those usages.

A programmable thermostat allows you to program different temperature levels for different days and different times of day — for example, when you are sleeping or out of the house — and save money without sacrificing comfort.

A recent study in energy research and social science shows that far too many of us do not use the capabilities in our thermostats, or use them incorrectly. The reasons seem to be split between misunderstanding of the system and general scientific principles on how thermostats work.

The researchers compiled responses of 192 people regarding questions about their thermostats and their usage through crowdsourcing, but it added a unique twist by asking respondents to upload pictures of their thermostats. The pictures gave researchers even more insight into the problems and how thermostats were being used in suboptimal ways.

The focus of the study was actually more on the survey technique than on the subject at hand — does crowdsourced data with verification (pictures) give better results than standard self-reporting methods? In this case, it certainly seemed to, by revealing basic misunderstanding of the thermostats.

Programmable thermostats were in the homes of 42% of survey respondents, but 39% of those did not know how to use them. While 14% did not know where the settings were, 25% knew where the settings were, but had no idea how to change them.

The pictures showed one critical problem — almost a third of the automatic thermostats were set in "permanent hold" mode. Any programmable commands in the system cannot be executed during that mode, effectively turning a programmable system into a manual one. Day and time settings were off in other systems, negating the effect of programming.

Education on thermostats is unlikely to improve, given that 70% of the total respondents did not know where their manual was, including 67% of those who had programmable thermostats but did not know how to program them. Combine this with basic scientific misconceptions, and it is clear that much of the potential energy savings from programmable thermostats is not being realized.

More than one-third of respondents believed that raising the thermostat would heat the home faster. Raising the thermostat only changes the control temperature to stop/start the heating system; it does not control the time it takes to get there. Approximately the same percentage believed that turning the thermostat down during bedtime or when away from home wasted more energy than keeping the temperature constant (not true, as energy losses to the outside drop when the heat is lower).

New generations of smart thermostats can save money through learning our habits and automatically adjusting temperatures — although with the same levels of misunderstanding by homeowners, it is possible that these systems can be defeated. One really cold day in the home may prompt people to revert to manual modes.

The survey did not look into whether the failings were related to indifference, having never given the thermostat any thought, or fear — perhaps breaking the system or putting in uncomfortable settings that they cannot change back. There may be a lot more fear involved than people would like to admit.

If you are in the latter group, overcome your fear and study your thermostat. If the manual is missing, look for sources online. You may end up saving a lot of money with very little effort.


Photo ©iStock.com/ericsphotography

  Conversation   |   30 Comments

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Steffanie | 10.02.15 @ 14:00
I love having a programmable thermostat. It has saved us a lot of money.
Jonathan | 10.02.15 @ 14:02
Simple stuff here, keep it at the minimum temperature you can handle, turn it down or off when you're not home.
Sarah | 10.02.15 @ 14:03
This is the first time in adulthood I've not had one.... a couple of our window shakers are programmable though. It's a huge saver.
Erin | 10.02.15 @ 14:08
We have had a programmable thermostat for years. It's been a great investment.
Nancy | 10.02.15 @ 14:09
Now I want a programmable thermostat AND I will use the manual.
Daniel Dohlstrom | 10.02.15 @ 14:15
Great tips. Taking advantage of smart items like thermostats and knowing how to set them properly is a great money saving step
Tina | 10.02.15 @ 14:16
We need to invest in one. Except I'm always home so I can adjust it manually.
Irene | 10.02.15 @ 14:19
Mine is not programmable but I do keep it at 67 to save heating costs
Jo Ann | 10.02.15 @ 14:22
I wish I had a programmable, but I rent and the landlord would have to approve. I think it would be cost effective for the tenants to have though. It would save me considerable money. And I would definitely learn how to program it.
Angie | 10.02.15 @ 14:28
I'm in the group of folks who are ignorant about the capabilities of their thermostat - I'm not sure if ours is programmable or not...we do keep ours set to 78 in summer and 68 in winter...
Christina | 10.02.15 @ 14:31
I miss the programmable thermostat we had at our previous home. Once we buy a new house (instead of renting) I'll be upgrading to another programmable!
Ron | 10.02.15 @ 14:35
We finally got a programmable thermostat with our new HVAC system. We have saved $100 off our highest months' bills.
Kamie | 10.02.15 @ 14:36
The survey response on the amount of people that do not know how to use their thermostat is amazing.
Rindy | 10.02.15 @ 14:52
We installed our new system the year before the programmable thermostats came out. I wish we had the newer programmable one but we usually leave ours on one set temperature anyway.
Wanda Langley | 10.02.15 @ 14:53
I can tell a big difference in my electric bill since I switched to a programmable thermostat. It has saved me a lot of money.
Britt | 10.02.15 @ 14:54
My grandmother and i are constantly fighting over the AC because she doesn't realize that leaving it OFF isn't going to help any
Selena Walls | 10.02.15 @ 14:55
I've actually known this for quite a while now.
Amanda | 10.02.15 @ 14:55
I dont have a programmable thermostat but I do keep the digital thermostat off mostly in the spring and fall, set 78-79 in the summer and 70 in the winter. All vacations or small trips out it's turned off. I use our open windows as much as possible. Our electric bill is normally half of our neighbors each month. Wood stove in the winter is helping a lot.
Sara | 10.02.15 @ 15:03
I do not have a programmable one however, I do adjust manually with the weather.
Heather | 10.02.15 @ 15:05
Programmable thermostats are awesome and saves on your energy bill.
Steven | 10.02.15 @ 15:07
Now I want a programmable thermostat.
Beverly | 10.02.15 @ 15:28
I love our programmable thermostat. They're not hard to install and are easy to use.
Alec | 10.02.15 @ 15:40
My apartment is 40 years old so we don't have a programmable thermostat sadly. We have to guess at what the temperature is since the needle is broken and the settings are in increments of 10. Needless to say, we waste a lot of money on our power bill having to mess with the AC constantly to keep it comfy.
Jackie | 10.02.15 @ 15:50
I love our programmable thermostat. We've had one since they first came on the market.
Clarissa | 10.02.15 @ 16:00
Once I started programming mine, my electric bill has gone down tremendously. I am concerned if I will still see as much savings in the winter.
Bobbie | 10.02.15 @ 16:10
We have ours set to Energy Saver mode, but it takes into account that no one is home all day, and I'm a stay at home mom, so there is a little bit of tweaking during the day. Overall it's been a great money saver since it will go to it's default settings twice a day so even if we forget to adjust it, it does it on it's own.
Carla Truett | 10.02.15 @ 16:11
We keep ours at the minimum and I keep a blanket or throw handy
Kathryn | 10.02.15 @ 16:16
We are planning on getting a new thermostat! Our first electric bill in our house was $275 for having a air conditioner that is pretty old.
Owen | 10.02.15 @ 16:16
Helps lower costs and can control from phone.
Meredith L | 10.02.15 @ 16:41
There are some really "smart" programmable thermostats out there. Just turning it down a few degrees will definitely save money in the long run. Trust me, I come from cold, cold climate and I couldn't believe the difference a good thermometer (and a sweater) made on my gas bill.
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