Something else we can’t program: Thermostats
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.”
“Smart” devices such as Google’s Nest may solve users’ inability to program their thermostats.