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Programmable Thermostats

Technology Snapshot & Benefits:
Programmable thermostats work with your heating and cooling system to control temperatures throughout the day to maximize energy savings.  This entails automatically adjusting temperatures according to pre-set or established settings to keep the home comfortable when homeowners are there and saving energy when they are gone or sleeping.  This technology helps save energy because the closer your home's temperature is to its surroundings, the less energy will be spent on heating or cooling.  Programmable thermostats allow you to set different temperatures for different times of the day (typically waking, daytime, evening, and sleep) so that you are not heating or cooling an empty house when you are not there.  Temperatures will automatically adjust back to the comfortable temperatures established in your settings before you wake up or return home. 

Most programmable thermostats come pre-programmed for typical heating and cooling needs.  These settings can be easily adjusted to better suit your schedule.  Many also feature a manual override that allows you to temporarily adjust temperatures without interfering with later programmed settings.  Most models have a hold or vacation feature that allows you to adjust your home's temperatures when you are gone for extended periods of time.    

There are a few different types of programmable thermostats. When deciding which model to purchase, consider your family's schedule and when you need the most flexibility. 

1.     7-day: This model offers the most overall flexibility by allowing you to alter your settings separately for each day of the week.

2.     5-2 day: This model creates one setting for weekdays (Monday-Friday) and a different setting for weekends (Saturday and Sunday).

3.     5-1-1: This model allows you to create one setting for weekdays and two separate settings for Saturday and Sunday.

Estimated Cost Savings:
The initial cost of a programmable thermostat ranges anywhere from $25 to over $250.  Generally, standard models come in at the lower end of that range ($25-$80).  These models can usually accomplish most if not all desired settings.  Because most programmable thermostats can be self-installed, there is no required installation cost.  If you opt for a professional installation from an HVAC specialist, you can expect to pay between $100 and $400.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, installing a programmable thermostat and setting back temperatures 10-15% at least 8 hours a day, you can save an average of 10% off your heating and cooling bill every year, which provides a relatively quick payback period.  Click here for Energy Star's Programmable Thermostat Savings Calculator to see how much you could save.

In heating mode, turning the temperature up and down on heat pumps can cause malfunction.  Because of this, programmable thermostats do not work as well with heat pumps as they do with traditional furnaces.  Keep your heat pump on a moderate setting to help save energy. For more information on what a heat pump is and how it can save energy, click here.

Many electric resistance systems (i.e. electric baseboard heating) utilize 120-volt or 240-volt circuits.  There are not many programmable thermostats on the market that are compatible with this requirement. If you are looking to install a programmable thermostat with an electric resistance system, check packaging labels to make sure they are compatible or consider professional advice.

Steam heating and radiant floor heat have slow response times.  In other words, it takes longer for these heating systems to react to settings than traditional furnaces.  If you are installing a programmable thermostat with one of these systems, make sure you choose one that can track the performance of the heating system to know when to turn on and off to accommodate for the slower response time.   

Tips on Using a Programmable Thermostat:

  • Adjust the temperature down in the winter and up in the summer to help save energy.

  • Adjusting temperatures 10-15 degrees while you are gone for at least 8 hours helps maximize energy savings.

  • Do not adjust your settings to extremes (90 degrees for heat and 40 degrees for cool).  These extreme temperature settings will not result in quicker heating/cooling. 

  • If your home has multiple heating circuits, install a programmable thermostat for each zone.

  • Programmable thermostats are ideal for families or individuals who are out of the house for long periods of time during the day (i.e. for work or school).  Keep your schedule in mind when considering programmable thermostats.

Installation (Getting It Done):
Most programmable thermostats can easily be installed without professional assistance.  Follow packaging labels and directions to ensure it is done properly.  For best results, install the thermostat on an interior wall away from sources of heat and cooling (vents, doors, lamps, sunlight, etc.). Typically, programmable thermostats are installed in place of existing thermostats, so it is important to move any lamps or heat-generating appliances away from your current thermostat before installing a programmable one to allow it to function properly.  Turn off the electricity when installing to avoid electric shocks. If you have any questions or would like a professional installation, contact your local HVAC specialist.  Some thermostats contain a mercury tube, so be careful when installing the new one or removing an old one to avoid dangerous breakage.

Videos on This Topic:

Programmable Thermostats (4:18) - Sierra Club Green Homes - Programmable thermostats can be a great way to reduce heating and cooling costs as they regulate home heat by automatically changing temperatures at certain times of night or day as set by the homeowner.  In this video from Sierra Club Green Homes, watch as Owen Bailey gives a step-by-step guide to simple installation.

How to Use a Programmable Thermostat (4:50) - Energy Star - Find out what to look for when purchasing a thermostat and how to program them to best suit your family's comfort needs while reducing energy usage.

How to Install a Programmable Thermostat (2:47) - This Old House - In this video from This Old House, find out how to install a programmable thermostat into your home to start saving energy and money on heating and cooling costs today.

How to Program a Thermostat (5:12) - The Home Depot - By programming your thermostat to adjust according to your schedule, you can drastically reduce your energy usage by avoiding heating or cooling an empty house.  In this video, find out what to keep in mind when purchasing your thermostat and get some tips and tricks on how to program it to suit your needs.

More Information On This Topic:

Energy Star - Programmable Thermostats

Energy Star - Programmable Thermostat Tool

Energy Star - Installing a Programmable Thermostat

Energy Star - Tips and Guidelines for Programmable Thermostats

Energy Star - Guide to Efficient Heating and Cooling

Energy Star - Buying Guide

U.S. Department of Energy - Thermostats and Control Systems



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