Some­thing else we can’t pro­gram: Ther­mostats

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - BY CHRIS MOONEY chris.mooney@wash­post.com

With Amer­i­cans crank­ing up their air con­di­tion­ing to bear the sum­mer heat, it’s time to talk about those con­fus­ing lit­tle de­vices on the walls of your home: ther­mostats.

Air con­di­tion­ing is the third­largest source of power con­sump­tion at home. (Heat­ing ranks first.) So sim­ple changes in ther­mo­stat use — low­er­ing the air con­di­tion­ing when you’re away at work, for ex­am­ple— could add up to sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings. A pro­gram­mable ther­mo­stat could, in the­ory, make that au­to­matic and ef­fort­less.

But it turns out that many of us don’t have a clue what we’re do­ing with these de­vices. A study in the jour­nal Energy Re­search and So­cial Science cap­tures just how widely pro­gram­mable ther­mostats are mis­used. The au­thors used a novel method­ol­ogy — hav­ing re­search sub­jects upload photos of their ther­mostats.

“The re­sponses to this sur­vey paint a re­mark­able pic­ture of a tech­nol­ogy that is widely mis­un­der­stood by its users,” note the study au­thors, led by Marco Pri­toni of the Western Cool­ing Ef­fi­ciency Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis.

Of 192 peo­ple sur­veyed, 42 per­cent of re­spon­dents said their ther­mostats were pro­gram­mable, rather than man­ual; 14 per­cent of those with pro­gram­mable ther­mostats said they “do not know where the set­tings are,” while another 25 per­cent said they “know where the set­tings are but do not know how to change them.”

The photos showed more prob­lems. “About one third of the ther­mostats were in ‘per­ma­nent hold’ mode; this mode in­ter­rupts all the pro­grams and turns the pro­gram­mable ther­mo­stat into a man­ual ther­mo­stat,” the au­thors noted.

Other prob­lems in­cluded ther­mostats whose time and date set­tings were way off — mak­ing it hard to pro­gram timed be­hav­ior.

Mean­while, peo­ple also demon­strated broad mis­con­cep­tions about how ther­mostats — and in­door tem­per­a­tures— work. About a third be­lieved in the myth that “turn­ing down the ther­mo­stat at night or when peo­ple are not at home used more energy than keep­ing the house at the same tem­per­a­ture all the time.”

This re­search sug­gests that the mak­ers of a new wave of “smart” ther­mostats, like Google’s Nest, have a wide open­ing. A ther­mo­stat that learns a per­son’s rou­tines, and uses sub­tle cues to help them save energy, may be able to ac­com­plish more than pro­gram­mable ther­mostats that many peo­ple have trou­ble op­er­at­ing. Also Nest has be­gun im­ple­ment­ing so­phis­ti­cated “de­mand re­sponse” pro­grams that could fur­ther save energy — and users’ money — by au­to­mat­i­cally us­ing less power at times of peak de­mand on the grid.

The prob­lem, Pri­toni says, is that these newer ther­mostats are not yet present in most homes: “I’m not sure that we’re go­ing to see a global ef­fect of the new tech­nolo­gies un­til they be­come the ma­jor­ity.”

GE­ORGE FREY/GETTY IM­AGES

“Smart” de­vices such as Google’s Nest may solve users’ in­abil­ity to pro­gram their ther­mostats.

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