A Homeowner’s Guide to Programmable Thermostats

Published on: December 20, 2013

Controlling heating and cooling costs involves a number of steps, and programmable thermostats offer one of simplest and most effective ways to achieve energy savings. The technology that these thermostats employ has progressed over the years, and now they’re both easier and more powerful than ever.

If you’re away from home routinely, you can benefit from a thermostat that does the remembering for you. It’s so easy to forget to change the temperature when you leave or sleep, particularly in the winter when it’s all right to turn the thermostat down at night, especially if you enjoy sleeping in a cooler home environment. Each degree you turn your furnace down can save from 3-5 percent on your heating costs. Meanwhile, when you leave in the summer, turning the thermostat up will lower your cooling bills.

Programmable thermostats are available with a number of settings based on how you use your home. They include these types:

  • 7-day models. These thermostats work well if you have people coming home at different times of day on a weekly basis. They allow four different temperature settings throughout the day, helping you manage temperatures automatically based on the occupancy of your home.
  • 5-2 day models. These are good if you’re routinely away for five days a week and home for two days.
  • 5-1-1 day models. This type works well if you’re gone for five days and have a different schedule for each day you’re home.
  • Smart thermostats. The technology in this type of thermostat offers you the most flexibility for saving energy. They sense when your home is occupied and adjust the temperatures for you. You can also access this type of thermostat with a smart phone or the Internet, so that you can make changes at any time. Some of these thermostats even tell you how well your HVAC system is running and can signal some problems with it. Some also have timers that tell you when it’s time to check your air filter and change it if necessary. A clean filter improves the efficiency of your HVAC system and prolongs its life.

Heat Pump Programmable Thermostats

Besides the different programming options, if you use a heat pump, you’ll want to choose an intelligent recovery thermostat that operates somewhat differently than a thermostat for a central air conditioner and a furnace. Most air-source heat pumps use a supplemental electric heating element that turns on in the winter when your system drops below its balance point. This is the temperature at which the heat pump can’t harvest enough heat from the outdoor air to comfortably warm your home.

The heating element uses much more electricity to heat than the heast pump does, and the intelligent recovery unit senses when the system is at or near the balance point. Instead of going by the temperature you’ve selected for heating at any given time, the thermostat will turn on the heat pump, overriding the supplemental coil. This saves energy, since most heat pumps provide three times the heat per unit of energy they consume, compared to the supplemental coil, which gives one unit of heat per unit of energy used.

Using a Programmable Thermostat

Unless you’re skilled with wiring, it’s likely you’ll need the assistance of an HVAC professional to install the thermostat. The technician will place the thermostat away from appliances, sunshine and drafts. They will ask you how you want it programmed and walk you through the process and the settings. If you use a smart thermostat, it will program itself for you over the course of a few days based on your occupancy patterns.

If you choose regular programmable thermostats without adaptive technology (still the majority on the market), set the thermostat to turn the temperature up or down, depending on the season, when you’ll be away. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that you set the thermostat to the temperature you want a short time before you arrive home or awaken.

Some homeowners will overcompensate with the thermostat and turn it up higher or lower than it needs to be, thinking that the system will heat or cool the home more rapidly if it’s set to temperature extremes. However, setting the thermostat to 80 degrees F won’t heat a home any faster than if you left the arrival setting at 72 degrees. Any delays in the arrival time will mean that the indoor temperature will be warmer than it needs to be and energy consumption will be much higher.

Programmable thermostats also have an override feature so if someone comes home unexpectedly, they can cancel that day’s programming, although too frequent use of this feature can raise your heating and cooling costs. Another feature to utilize is the vacation setting when you’re going to be away from home for an extended period.

Other features you might want on the thermostat include keyboard locks to control the temperature you’ve set, so someone can’t raise or lower it without your authorization. Large digital displays make the thermostat easier to read, and remotes let you change the unit from a distance. Touch screens are easy to use and programmable thermostats that use batteries make it simpler to install them in an older home.

More Energy Savings

Depending on the layout and size of your home, you may be able to cut your energy bills by matching programmable thermostats with a zoning system for your home. Zoning systems are suitable for these types of homes:

  • Two-story homes or homes with finished basements
  • Sprawling homes
  • Spaces with vaulted or raised ceiling plates
  • Those with expansive windows in one or more rooms
  • Spaces that receive more sunshine than others
  • Homes that have areas not frequently used.

Each zone uses its own thermostat and the ductwork leading to the zone has a damper that opens and closes based on the conditioning needs in that zone. The air handler adjusts its running speed and airflow based on the number of zones calling for conditioning. The thermostats hook up to a central control panel that triggers the air handler for the zones that need heating and cooling.

If your bedrooms are upstairs and not used during the day, you can set the programmable thermostat to a temperature that won’t require conditioning when the space isn’t being used. If you have a kitchen or living area on the west side of your home, it will have different conditioning requirements than the eastern part of your home. The sun in our region is intensely warm in the summer, and with a zoned system, you won’t have to heat or cool your entire home to be comfortable in one portion of it. 

It’s also better to zone a home than close off rooms you’re not using. Doing that can increase the likelihood of ductwork leaks, which drive up the cost of conditioning a home and reduce indoor air quality, especially if you use any vented gas appliances. Leaks can pull carbon monoxide into your home, creating a dangerous situation.

Zoning systems can be installed with a new HVAC system or retrofit into existing forced-air systems. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that homeowners can save up to 30 percent with such a system, a significant amount that will defray the cost of the installation over time. Your actual savings depend on the size of your home, its layout, and the temperatures you choose when you’re away and at home.

To learn more about programmable thermostats, please contact us to find a contractor in your part of the U.S. Southeast.