The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star program has promoted programmable thermostats since 1995, estimating that consumers will save 10%-30% on their heating and cooling energy bills. Consumers who can accurately predict when they will be home, and who find it difficult to remember to set up their thermostat in the summer or set back their thermostat in the winter manually, can save energy with a programmable thermostat.

With sales of programmable thermostats doubling in the last ten years, and with more than 25 million programmable thermostats installed in homes, the potential energy savings are enormous. But it appears that those savings have remained largely unrealized.

Now Energy Star plans to stop certifying programmable thermostats. The results of this decision may be far-reaching. For example, programs such as Energy Star Homes, which recognizes homes that are especially energy efficient, will no longer be able to award points for programmable thermostats. Why stop certifying? Energy Star examined several studies covering a wide geography and a variety of climates, that compared the energy use of homes with programmable thermostats to the energy use of homes without them. It found that there was no statistical difference in savings between the two groups.

Jill Abelson, a communications manager at EPA, offers some insight. Her research shows that consumers find programmable thermostats too complicated, or they override the default savings mode on the thermostats. Once the default setting has been overridden, they forget to return to it.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has included programmable thermostats as a requirement in the California Title 24 building standards since the early 1980s. The commission is currently considering a requirement for programmable communicating thermostats in the next update of the standards.

Communicating thermostats connect the home to the power grid and can automatically set up thermostats a preprogrammed amount in the summer when the utility signals a critical peak emergency or pricing event. This will allow California utilities to reduce demand during peak demand periods, relieve the strain on overworked power grids, and reduce the use of expensive “peaker” power plants, which only start up during power shortages and tend to be older, dirtier power plants.

But how will consumers respond to losing some control over their thermostats? At least, having the utility turn up your thermostat during hot summer days when you are not home will save you some money.

To many people, this handing over control seems a little too big brother-ish. What do you think? And given the reality that soon you will have a thermostat in your home that connects you to the utility, are there other ways you can:

… while you maintain your autonomy?

Jim Gunshinan is Managing Editor of Home Energy Magazine. He holds an M.S. in Bioengineering from Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, and a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from University of Notre Dame.

Who controls your thermostat? 30 April,2013Jim Gunshinan

  • Hmm… Depending on how this is done, I’d think we might actually have a 3rd amendment issue. So far this has been a very rare problem (the case law on the 3rd amendment is microscopic) but it really does change once you enter the realm of agents of the state that are not flesh and blood but rather machines. If we’re going to have penumbras and emanations, might as well do it for the 3rd amendment too. There’s an important principle to defend (or maybe re-establish) that the home is a no-go area for the state in the normal course of affairs.

  • Joseph Somsel

    I just did an article on the subject:

    I think its a bad idea. First the state CREATES the problem by making it so difficult to build new power plants then increases its power over us by attempting to mitigate the power they created.

    Why not just build more nuclear power plants to run the grid and meet demand? We only had these problems under the regulated electric system when growth spurts increased demand faster than power plants could be built.

    Plus, the specifications for PCTs is so broad that opportunities for further invasion of your control abound. In other words, it’s just the beginning.

  • Yohan Smythe III

    What if you work odd hours and are home during the daytime and need it to be cooler while you are home??? Or elderly, retired, and cannot take it if they turn it up to 85 degrees?

    Mandated ?? NO!! Optional – yes. We currently have this is Florida for your hot water heater and pool pump – and you get a credit each month on your bill for participating.

    Doing this on air conditioning is a bad idea.

  • Pingback: Who Controls Your Thermostat? Part 2 | QUEST Community Science Blog - KQED()


Jim Gunshinan

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.

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