Americans could save a fortune this winter — if they only understood their thermostats


Americans could save a fortune this winter — if they only understood their thermostats

As Americans experience the start of winter — in some cases, an extreme winter — it’s time to get out the sidewalk salt and clean the furnace. And, usually, to turn up the heat.

However, too few of us realize just how much energy and money we’re wasting by using that terrifying and confusing device on the wall — the thermostat — in a just plain incorrect or flawed way.

Residential thermostats account for a staggering nine percent of all U.S. energy use. No wonder that according to the Department of Energy, leaving your thermostat set too high can lead to a much higher power bill — and conversely, setting it back when you’re away or asleep can lead to major savings. “You can save 5 percent to 15 percent a year on your heating bill — a savings of as much as 1 percent for each degree if the setback period is eight hours long,” reports the agency.

Given figures like these, energy gurus have long offered some seemingly simple advice: Get yourself a programmable thermostat, which lets you enter multiple timed heat settings, and so ought to make lowering your thermostat at the right time a cinch. It sounds like an energy saving dream — right?

Wrong. Much research suggests that many people just don’t understand how to use their thermostats — programmable or otherwise. Indeed, it has been estimated that only about 30 percent of homes actually have thermostats that can be programmed, despite the fact that this technology has been around for more than three decades. “Residential energy use (and savings) still depends largely on the settings of manual thermostats by the owners,” notes a recent study.

And even among the programmable thermostat owners, there’s reason to think that many or even most people aren’t using them correctly. A 2003 study conducted by thermostat-maker Carrier found that just 47 percent of programmable thermostats were actually in the “program” mode — in which, you know, they can actually be programmed.

Fifty three percent were in “hold” mode, which “functionally transforms the programmable thermostat into a manual thermostat.” The situation is so bad that in 2009, the EPA’s EnergyStar program suspended its program for programmable thermostats, noting that “while EPA recognizes the potential for programmable thermostats to save significant amounts of energy, there continue to be questions concerning the net energy savings and environmental benefits” that consumers were achieving with them.

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