Cooling (and Heating) Lesson #1: Programmable Thermostat Selection

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In this post I will cover the logistics of selecting and choosing to install a programmable thermostat. If you live in a place with air-conditioning and/or heating a programmable thermostat can save you buckets of money and reduce your carbon footprint by a whole lot. I will devote a future post to quantifying these savings, but with summer upon us the installation cannot wait. In my own house, I installed a programmable thermostat and the thermostat paid for itself (in electricity savings) in the first month.

A programmable thermostat is a simple to install replacement for your old thermostat that allows your heating and air-conditioning (HVAC) to automatically accommodate your schedule. It prevents your HVAC system from working really hard when no one is home to enjoy the comfort. It does this by allowing you to program time spans when you don’t need the house to be comfortable, like when you are at work.

If you already have one of these, good work. Now you just need to program it! Studies have revealed that 70-90% of installed programmable thermostats are not programmed. This won’t save any energy.

Can I install one of these things myself?
A “tinkerer” capable of hooking up a home entertainment system will find the installation of a programmable thermostats to be pretty easy. I would not recommend it to technophobic folks. Your need of a handyman depends on your own comfort with wires and the complexity of your existing system. In my experience, the phone support from the thermostat manufacturer made the process pretty easy to do myself with even a complex system (total install took less than 30 min and nothing more than a screw driver). Since you will cut off the power at the breaker box and since thermostats are very low power, the risk of electric shock is very low.*

Which one should I get?
Short Answer: I am pretty happy with these two models carried by Lowes: Hunter 44360 (simple and intuitive, here’s a link) and Hunter 44860 (more complex and cool looking, here’s a link). Honeywell and others offer similar models that tend to cost a little more.

Long Answer:

1- How much customization do you need? If you get a programmable thermostat from Home Deport or Lowes you will be confronted by LOTS of choices. You can simplify the decision making process by answering the customization question first. This will tell you if you need a thermostat that you can program differently for every day of the week (“7 day”), or if it is ok to have a weekday schedule and a weekend schedule (“5+2”), or if you need a weekday schedule and separate sat and sun schedules (“5+1+1”. Personally I like maximum flexibility so I spent the extra $10 or so on a thermostat that allows me to have a different schedule for every day. These 7 day thermostats can be just as easy to program as the more limited “5+…” versions, but it also means that there will be more buttons.

2- Make sure you get something that is Energy Star compliant. This should be advertised on the packaging. That way if you decide to try and get your house Energy Star certified one day, you might be one step closer.

3- An energy monitor feature is a nice bonus. This will allow you, at the press of a button, to see how many hours your system was running over the last day, week, and month. It is a great way to get some quick feedback. When you can see that this week your system only ran a couple hours, it makes you feel good and tells you that you’re saving money.

4- At a bare minimum use default Energy Star settings on the thermostat. Most of these thermostats will come with a default Energy Star mode. You can start there and then tweak the schedule and temperature settings to increase comfort and/or increase savings.
5- “Home Today” button is a nice feature as is “Away” or “Vacation.” The 44860 model I mentioned will allow you to program the length of your vacation which means that you can come back to a cozy house. These features are only as useful as the likelihood of your using them!

6- If you happen to know whether you have multi-stage heating or cooling, make sure you get a thermostat that accommodates. The two I recommended will work with most systems (the 44860 being the most accommodating and most likely to be overkill).

7- If you are really into technology, you can get thermostats that allow you to do things like call from your cell phone to tell your house to warm up or use a portable thermostat that ensures the room you are in is the desired temperature. I have not used any of these products though and you would probably have to order them online.

Here’s a thermostat installation video for a super simple system to get you motivated.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Your old thermostat may have lots of mercury inside. Handle it with care and dispose of it properly. You should be able to find local disposal options here.
  • Getting the settings right on your new thermostat might take a couple of tries, so be prepared to set the thermostat and then tweak it. Keep in mind that the closer the settings are to the outside temperature, the more energy you will save.

* Disclaimer: I am neither an electrician nor an HVAC repair person. Please do not take my recommendations as an excuse to electrocute yourself.

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