Learn to Program Your Thermostat to Save Money

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Programmable Thermostats: Do They Save Money?

The EPA no longer grants EnergyStar status to programmable thermostats. But is the problem the technology, or the people using it?

Programmable thermostats can save you money. But, for the most part, they don't, an unfortunate shortcoming which led the Environmental Protection Agency to end its Energy Star certification program for programmable thermostats in 2009. The biggest issues with programmable thermostats have nothing to do with the thermostats themselves. The causes of failure generally fall on the human side of the equation. Specifically, the human nature side, which manifests itself a few different ways.

It's Not You. It's Me.

Believe it or not, thermostat design isn't the sexiest of fields. Programmable thermostats are typically designed by technical, nerdy types who don't relate easily to folks who don't wear lab coats. This often comes across in both the (utterly non-intuitive) interface and the (this looks like English, so why can't I understand it?) instructions of the products they produce. Faced with the difficulty of programming their thermostats, many people…give up. Several studies have found that half of all programmable thermostat owners only use the manual controls. This is like using a desktop printer as a pedestal for your typewriter.

Programmable Thermostat 101

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a correctly-used programmable thermostat can save you an average of 10% off your heating and cooling bill every year. Correct use includes choosing the right model for your needs.
There are four types of programmable thermostats. To decide which one is best for you, think about your schedule and how often you are regularly away from home for extended periods of time.

  • 7-day models are best if your schedule tends to change day to day. They offer the most flexibility, and let you set different programs for each day—usually with four possible temperature periods per day.
  • 5+2-day modelsuse the same schedule every weekday, and another schedule for weekends.
  • 5-1-1 models are best if you tend to keep one schedule Monday through Friday and have different schedules on Saturday and Sunday.
  • 1-week: These thermostats are the least flexible, so consequently they're the easiest to program and typically the least expensive to purchase.

Programmable thermostats are available in both low-voltage and line-voltage models. They cost between $35 and $500, depending on their features. Simple models can be installed by homeowners, but sophisticated thermostats can have multiple wire connections and complicated settings, and professional installation is recommended.
If you opt for a professional installation, expect to pay between $100 and $400.

This Isn't Rocket Science

The problems with programmable thermostats actually have very little to do with the devices themselves. They can work. They should work. They do work—if used correctly. For most people, the best way to get the most out of their programmable thermostat is to have it installed and programmed by a trained professional, such as an electrician or HVCC technician.

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