You’ve almost certainly seen them: a yellow Post-it on the thermostat or a brief note scribbled near the water heater controls, or perhaps a dog-eared card taped to the clothes washer. These are reminders to ourselves (or visitors) about how to operate the device. We call them “folk labels” so as to distinguish them from “official labels,” such as the EnergyGuide, UL, Energy Star, or other information provided by the manufacturer.

We have observed many unusual folk labels in homes and offices around the world. Thermostats seem to be the most frequent targets of folk labels (at least, regarding their operation). For example, many hotels find it necessary to supplement the regular interface with a folk label like “for heat turn red switch to ‘heat’.” Some of the labels are actually amusing. A hotel in Korea used little pictures of chili peppers to designate “more heat” on the room thermostats because South Asian visitors understand that more easily than fractured English or Korean explanations. Sometimes the folk label is needed because the controls are completely opaque. One of our favorites was “To override motion sensor, flick switch rapidly 5 times.”

Folk labels are just as important to auditors and other professionals as they are to the occupants. They are signals of problematic operation and a clue that energy is being wasted. Thus an energy auditor should be especially attentive when encountering folk labels. Do the occupants truly understand how to operate that thermostat, or is the folk label describing an energy-inefficient work-around? The designers of appliance controls should also track the appearance of folk labels on their products. In many cases, a folk label is evidence of a design failure. We noticed that some commercial lighting controls get folk labeled because they lack essential information like “off” or “this is a light switch”!

As appliances get smarter and control more aspects of their own operation, the interface with users becomes more—not less—important. A frustrated user will disable the most energy-efficient settings in order to get the desired results without reading the manual or spending ten minutes relearning the procedure. There is something truly ironic when folk labels are needed to operate “smart” thermostats, lighting systems, or appliances.

I would like to ask your help in assembling more examples of folk labels. Send us your photographs (or even sketches). Please e-mail your pictures and any background information to akmeier [at] homeenergy [dot] org. We will create a library so that we can all view and learn from them.

- Alan Meier

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Comment by Rana Belshe on March 12, 2012 at 8:53pm

Another kind of 'control' & folk label...

Comment by tedkidd on March 9, 2012 at 10:46am

Awesome post!  Although I would disagree with this:  

As appliances get smarter and control more aspects of their own operation, the interface with users becomes more—not less—important. A frustrated user will disable the most energy-efficient settings in order to get the desired results without reading the manual or spending ten minutes relearning the procedure.

It presumes WE know how to operate buildings in a manner that saves energy.  Is it possible that our own presumptions and unquantified bias's are in the way too?  

I think what truly saves energy is a setup that guarantees occupants will NEVER touch the interface.  The equipment today is much smarter than we are, and is now designed to deliver load matching energy replacement super efficiently UNLESS it sees input from the occupant, in which case all bets are off.  Efficient delivery takes a back seat as alarm bells sound and the system re-prioritizes to delivering comfort as quickly as possible.   

Some people decline weatherization recommendations, electing just to replace equipment.  In this case load is basically unchanged, right?  When reviewing annual consumption I can't make heads of tails of why so much energy was saved the natural next step is to question the occupants.  

The response that the dwelling is so much more comfortable that they no longer adjust the thermostat 3 times a day leads to what conclusion?  I can only conclude savings must be from much more efficient energy replacement resulting from equipment being allowed to chase efficiency rather than constantly chasing comfort.  

I'm finding that delivering comfort prevents frustrated users from interacting with the interface.  Make the house comfortable and allow the equipment to maximize efficiency.  

Comment by Evan Mills on March 3, 2012 at 3:09am

This one isn't directly applicable, but there may be some useful cross-pollination potential.

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