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You’re using your smart or programmable thermostats wrong. Here’s how to save money, the environment

By Rebecca Thiele, IPB News | Published on in Environment, Technology, Weather
Smart thermostats like this Ecobee could save you money, but only if you're willing to program them — and sacrifice some comfort. (Rebecca Thiele/IPB News)

Smart and programmable thermostats are both supposed to help people save energy — which is good for the environment and your wallet. But even though half of all U.S. households have these thermostats, only a third use them to control the temperature.

That’s according to a recent survey from the Energy Information Administration. It found about 40 percent of Midwesterners never change the temperature on their thermostat. Roughly half keep the temperature at 73 degrees or below on summer days when no one is home.

Jennifer Amann is a senior fellow with the nonprofit American Council for Energy Efficient Economy. She said unlike smart thermostats, studies have shown programmable ones are difficult to use — and they don’t all work the same way.

“A lot of folks have them. They may not use them because they just, you know, are frustrated by how difficult it is to understand the interfaces. Maybe they don’t have the directions anymore,” Amann said.

Amann recommends calling the manufacturer to get those directions or seeing if your utility has a rebate for a smart thermostat.

Even a smart thermostat might not save you money if you’re not willing to sacrifice a little comfort.

Amann suggests thinking about times during the day when you’re usually not at home. Set the temperature to be warmer in the summer during those times and colder in the winter than what you normally would.

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She said it’s also good to think about the times of the day when you and your family can live with a less-than-ideal temperature.

“You might even be able to do it without their knowledge and see, you know, can you go a degree or two here and there? And if everybody’s comfortable, say, ‘Hey, nobody seemed to notice,'” she said.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management suggests setting the thermostat to 75 degrees or higher on summer days when the air quality is poor.

Amann said some people with smart thermostats might be able to sign up for what’s called “demand response.” That’s where your utility can turn your thermostat down during times when the cooling demand is high enough to cause brownouts or blackouts — usually for a discount.

Though Amann said it’s not for everyone — it might not be safe for people who need electricity to power medical devices to sign up.

Amann said things like sealing leaks in your home, dressing for the weather and running ceiling fans can help keep you save energy — no matter what kind of thermostat you have.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.