Monday, September 28, 2009

Programmable thermostats stirring up heat. Really.

You wouldn't think the subject of programmable thermostats would spark a passionate argument, but there's one going on right now at Green Building Advisor, where Martin Holladay included the devices in his list of the 10 most useless energy-related products.

Well, actually, he says, "these devices aren’t really useless — they’re just unnecessary and insufficient." The point he's making is that buying a programmable thermostat will do absolutely nothing to curb your energy use. You have to program the thing.

Holladay argues that a plain old thermostat is just as good - all you have to do is remember to turn it down when you leave for work and back up when you come home. (He neglects down when you go to bed and back up when you get up.) And he states flatly that the vast majority of people who buy the programmable variety don't actually program them.

He's getting a lot of grief in the comments on the piece. Now possibly, this is simply the programmable-thermostat lobby getting excited. But I'm wondering about his basic premise.

I mean, come on....if you're worried enough about the environment (or your energy bills) to remember to go to the trouble of adjusting your thermostat several times a day, how could you not welcome a gizmo that turns the heat up automatically 15 minutes before you get up in the morning, and warms your house before you arrive home from a cold commute? Our house has steam heat, and one of winter's luxuries is to lie cuddled under the blankets, listening to the sound of heat rising in the pipes.

And how do we know that people don't program their thermostats? True, you can find articles all over the web saying that something like 70-80% of the people who buy them don't set them up. But how do these writers know that? None of them actually cites a source.

So, a few years back, while writing an article about saving energy, I decided to track that number down. I spent a whole day at it. I called energy experts, I searched websites, I even called up the country's biggest maker of programmable thermostats. Nowhere could I find an actual study - or an actual expert - with any hard information about the habits of programmable thermostat buyers.

Which is, when you think about it, not surprising. After all, does it make sense that millions of people would pay good money for a gadget designed to save them even more money, and then not use it? Does the majority of those buying a DVR (a much harder machine to set up) leave it sitting useless on a shelft?

Is this just an urban myth?

Or - even worse - have we now said so often that programming thermostats is difficult, that we've managed to make the myth come true?






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2 Comments:

Blogger martin said...

Ann,
Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm writing to comment on your point, "Nowhere could I find an actual study - or an actual expert - with any hard information about the habits of programmable thermostat buyers. Which is, when you think about it, not surprising. After all, does it make sense that millions of people would pay good money for a gadget designed to save them even more money, and then not use it?"

While your statement may be literally true, we can certainly infer the behavior of programmable thermostat owners from the data collected by researchers.

Danny Parker of the Florida Solar Energy Center studied programmable thermostats in 1999-2000. As reported by Energy Design Update, "Within our project, we had 19 homes with programmable thermostats that showed evidence of increased consumption and peak demand," Parker says. This is just the opposite of what the HERS rating and Energy Star Home Program now estimate. Parker says that he measured interior temperatures and space-cooling demand profiles at 15-minute intervals and found that people with manual thermostats were "much more likely to set up their thermostats than those with programmable models — just the opposite of conventional wisdom."

Craig Conner, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, conducted his study in 2000. He wrote, “Our analysis of thermostat-related behavior was based on measured data from about 150 electrically heated, single-family homes located in the Pacific Northwest. … Interestingly, there was little difference on average between the setback behavior of people who own programmable thermostats and those who don’t. In both groups there are people who set their thermostats back almost every day and people who almost never do so. On average, both groups set their thermostats back about half the time. In other words, homeowners with programmable thermostats don’t set back any more often than owners of manual thermostats. Thus, we concur with researchers Scott Pigg and Monica Nevius at the Wisconsin Energy Center: the attitude of the occupants has everything to do with the way that thermostats are operated. The presence or absence of a programmable thermostat doesn’t have much effect on setback behavior.”

So, people who buy programmable thermostats do use them, and do perform setbacks -- but not any more or less than people with old-fashioned manual thermostats.

September 28, 2009 at 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Steve Hindman said...

Having played with a few programmable thermostats, AND having parents in their mid-60s, I would say that there are probably quite a few programmable thermostats out there that have not yet been programmed. I think the upcoming deployment of smart grid software and networked thermostats will allow automated temperature setback from the utility side and/or easy to use consumer interfaces for programming the setback schedules.

September 30, 2009 at 5:32 PM  

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