Can Programmable Thermostats Lower Heating Bills?

By Kristen Rodman, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
November 22, 2013; 7:03 AM ET
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An average household spends $2,100 annually on utility bills, and with the expectation that bills will rise this winter, electric and energy companies have taken matters into their own hands with the creation of wireless programmable thermostats.

This advanced thermostat is released just in time, as more than 90 percent of homes in the United States will have higher heating bills this winter season, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

With energy use predicted to pick up this month for areas from the Appalachians to the Midwest, and into the northern Rockies due to wintry conditions, these thermostats could save consumers money and energy.

According to the government-backed program, Energy Star, these thermostats when used properly could save consumers approximately $180 in energy costs every year.

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How Programmable Thermostats Work:
Like any thermostat, the system regulates the temperature within a house or business through turning on or off the air conditioning or heating systems. However, the big difference is that these recently developed programmable thermostats can be controlled from any location, as long as the user has the application on their desktop or mobile phone.

With the ability to control them remotely, these wireless thermostats bring forth numerous benefits to customers.

Heating and cooling costs combined make up 45 percent of annual utility bills for the typical household, according to Energy Star.

However, with these thermostats, costs could potentially be reduced.

"The new generation of web-enabled thermostats offer promise for better comfort and more energy savings compared to early programmable thermostats," Principal Researcher for the Energy Center of Wisconsin Scott Pigg said.

The components of these contemporary thermostats allow users to program their thermostat to match their daily schedule.

"You can access them from anywhere in the world," Director of Product Marketing and Software Services for Honeywell, Brad Paine said. "You can make adjustments on the fly."

These thermostats and their corresponding applications let consumers view current temperature and humidity levels within their home or business, switch between heating and cooling modes, adjust temperatures, view energy history and set up various programming modes for vacation time or hours in which the residence is empty.

This Jan. 23, 2007, file photo shows programmable thermostats on display during a news conference at the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner, FILE)

The mobile and desktop applications that go along with the thermostats also send customers various alerts for everything from temperature changes in their home to when to change a filter.

"Alerting is a big advantage," Paine said.

The company Honeywell has even developed a new wifi thermostat that is voice activated and allows buyers to interact hands-free with the device.

Additionally, the devices and applications can provide viewers with localized weather data for their area, some provided by AccuWeather.

The Options:
While these programmable wifi thermostats can become pretty pricey, there are various options available under any budget.

Prices range from $100 to $500, depending on installation, thermostat features and companies.

Two of the leading companies in the field are Honeywell and Nest Energy, both of which offer mobile applications, various day settings and a multitude of other features.

Other companies such as LockState, Ecobee and Homeworks Worldwide also offer the thermostat product.

Do They Actually Save Money?
"They can save several hundred dollars," Global Public Relations Manager for Honeywell Tammy Benker Swanson said.

The amount of money that can be saved is mostly based upon geographic location. However, fueling prices range by location dependent upon local weather, energy efficiency and the sheer size of the area being heated or cooled.

Despite claims that these thermostats save customers money, some studies suggest that this is only true in some cases.

A study conducted by the Energy Center of Wisconsin in 1999 found that the average self-reported thermostat setting does not vary substantially by the type of thermostat used.

The results of the study showed that the difference between those who set points from a programmable thermostat versus a manual thermostat were only 0.1 of a degree.

"It's more about the people who are controlling the thermostat then the technology," Principal Researcher for the Energy Center of Wisconsin Scott Pigg said.

However, the last finding of the study showed correlation supporting that a respondent's attitudes toward energy conservation and efficiency may affect their heating bill.

"People that are very conservation-oriented set back their thermostat a lot and they save a lot of money," Pigg said. "Other people put a premium on their comfort and they get their comfort but they pay for it."

Despite the research, Pigg agrees that these modern thermostats could potentially do a better job of keeping people comfortable while helping them save money on their heating and cooling bills.

"The new generation of web-enabled thermostats offer promise for better comfort and more energy savings compared to early programmable thermostats," Pigg said.

Full U.S. Winter Forecast

Regardless of the types of thermostats, the price of natural gas is expected to increase by 13 percent for those using it as their primary heating source, according to the EIA.

As snow and Arctic air have already blanketed portions of the East, the Ohio Valley, the Plains and the West, natural gas prices could grow immensely due to high demand. The coldest air of the season so far is set to blast across much of the U.S. by late this week.

See the tips below for ways to save on your heating bills this winter.

How to Save Money on Your Heating Bill:

1. Program the thermostat to lower heat by 8 percent when away from home or asleep.

2. Keep blinds, shades and draperies open during the day to allow sunshine in to warm up the room.

3. Properly seal and insulate the attic, exterior walls, floors, basements and crawl spaces.

4. Install a weather stop to prevent cold air from coming in and warm air from escaping.

5. Use exhaust fans in the bathroom and kitchen as little as possible.

6. Replace screens with storm windows during the winter.

7. Change air filters at least every three months to prevent dust and dirt buildup.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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