Which Communicating Thermostats are Consumers Most Likely to Use?

With the Google buyout of NEST thermostats, attention has turned from the “smart meter” to the thermostat as a focal point of residential energy efficiency. (Read this recent editorial by Alan Meier.) But several years ago Energy Star decided to no longer certify programmable thermostats, since several studies showed that people at home did not take advantage of the thermostat’s programming possibilities. One reason why people didn’t program the thermostats was that programming the devices was too complicated.

Now it is common for thermostats to be programmable and communicating, which means most new thermostats allow the homeowner, utility, or third-party to access the thermostat remotely. Think of people turning up or down their thermostats from their iPhones while riding the subway.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) wanted to take a closer look at several of these thermostats to see how efficiently customers use them, what their preferences are, and how users perceive the usefulness of these devices. SMUD commissioned Herter Energy Research Solutions to do a three-day lab study involving 163 users, 26–28 users  each of 12 different thermostats.

Which thermostats received the top scores and what features do utility customers look for in a communicating thermostat? You can download for free a copy of the Herter Energy study, “SMUD’s Communicating Thermostat Usability Study” here to find the answers.

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Comment by Robert Cameron on March 14, 2014 at 2:46am

There is a bit more to just the communicating thermostat then meets the eye.. You need to think about the purchase price of the NEST stat by google.  Based upon the purchase price and the amount of thermostats sold annually If google was in it for selling stats, they would loose their shirt.  As it will take them over 12 years just to break even on the sale price.  Now think about how the goggle platform works.  Every time you use your computer to look something up you create a cookie which is tracked. And every time after your done and you go onto a web site, even Facebook, what shows up on the side bar? The same things that you searched for.  Well with the NEST stat it has a built in cookie that is tracked by the manufacture.  So now you wonder what is that all about?  Well think about this.  It means google knows when your waking, sleeping, leaving the house and returning.  It knows if your keeping your house cooler then average perhaps in an attempt to save more money, or warmer because your always cold.  With the Nest stat it also knows when you walk by it. As for those who have not installed them, or seen them up close and personal as I, they wake up and turn on so you can read the dial. 

So what all that means is they are tracking your habits, This will enable them to learn about you and what your living environment is about.  In future models you will begin to see other features that sense moisture, dirty filters all the other things many other manufactures already provide. And because this thermostat has your IP address it knows all about you. And when you being to log onto your computer, those pesky pop ups and ads you see on the sides of pages, will begin to slowly be things that perhaps you just may be interested in buying, such as a new coffee maker as they know when you wake, Perhaps an alarm system seeing your stat is off for 10 hours a day.  This is what the future brings. And companies such as Google who really is not in the HVAC business is in the future of retail sales. 

Also for those who have not put them in and programed them.  I have been in the HVAC and home performance business for more then 30 years.  The NEST and this is not a plug for them, is one of the easiest, quickest, and most friendly thermostat to install and program. I have installed hundreds of them over the years, all brands and makes.  Only thing I do not like is they are sold retail and even though I am a certified nest installer, big woop by the way. I pay the same price as my customer so they know what they cost. No markup on materials so I make much less then the other trade only available wireless units sold at the wholesaler.  

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on March 12, 2014 at 12:40pm

Just made a correction: "SMUD commissioned Herter Energy Solutions to do a three-day lab study involving 163 users, 26–28 users each of 12 different thermostats." The original version did not mention the total number of 163 participants in the study.

Also, an update from Karen Herter of Herter Energy Research Solutions: 

"... as for energy savings, I'm finishing up the evaluation for a couple of field studies that made use of the Ecofactor and Nest thermostats. The results are done, but I'm not sure if/when SMUD will make them publicly available."

Look here or in Home Energy for the latest results.

Comment by Steven Lewis on March 11, 2014 at 8:36pm

Yes they can, maybe.   I know that I use mine in program mode and when the program does not fit my schedule due to changes in work patterns or just life having its way with me.  I can access the Tstat and change the temps where it would have (on schedule) raised the heating temp.  

Like everything, it is how it is used.  Everything works well until you put people in the mix.  BY giving the customer more control, they are more involved and will hopefully make more informed decisions concerning their comfort and energy concerns.

You are actually missing the main reason to have one.  THEY ARE COOL!!!   you may not be able to control your life, work or kids but you can control your home.  At least that one part of it.

Comment by Bob Blanchette on March 11, 2014 at 7:19pm

PCT's when set correctly save a substantial amount on power bills when combined with TOU pricing.


Comment by Joseph S. Lopes on March 11, 2014 at 2:48pm

A good article on this is at http://money.msn.com/saving-money-tips/post.aspx?post=1453ea21-3702..., which points out that you CAN save if you use programmable thermostats the right way, which is often not the case.  The article includes a reference to the FPL study I managed where programmers used more than non-programmers.  The link in the article to the 2010 ACEEE Paper we wrote is broken, but you can see the paper at http://www.aceee.org/files/proceedings/2010/start.htm and find Lopes in the Author index.  In that study, we did not compare programmable communicating t-stat (PCT) users to non PCT users but programmers to non-programmers with the same units.  The non-programmers' manual settings resulted in less overall energy for cooling (by 12%) but this is likely a function of climate (South Florida) and absence of TOU rates, which would have saved customers money if with higher overall usage.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on March 11, 2014 at 1:40pm

Good question Colin. Anybody want to weigh in? Joseph? Steven? Eric? Carlos? Bob? In your experience, do communicating/programmable thermostats save energy? 

Comment by Colin Genge on March 10, 2014 at 6:42pm

Great article on usability of thermostats but is there any new information that they save energy?

Comment by Joseph S. Lopes on March 10, 2014 at 2:33pm

Jim, I am just finishing up the M&V study for Austin and will suggest we submit something for Home Energy.  We tried to get an ACEEE paper but were declined.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on March 10, 2014 at 2:30pm

Very interesting Joseph. Maybe you could write something up for Home Energy about the Austin Energy program and any early results?

Comment by Joseph S. Lopes on March 10, 2014 at 2:16pm

I've been involved with Carrier Comfort Choice thermostats for over 12 years in my role as evaluation consultant for Direct Load Control Programs for several major utilities.  One of the studies involved Florida Power & Light, where we found that thermostat programmers used more energy than non-programmers because they set their overnight temperatures cooler.  We presented the results at the 2010 ACEEE Conference.  So, it worked very well for load control, but confirmed the problem cited by EPA that just having a PCT does not guarantee savings, although customers would have saved if they were on a TOU rate.  We reported these findings to EPA as they were about to rescind the Energy Star labeling and they were happy to have real data to support their decision.  The newer options for smartphone, as well as web, remote monitoring and control definitely help, since thermostats are still hard to program at the unit, despite recent improvements.  Austin Energy recently started a program to enroll WiFi thermostats in their load control program (I am their M&V consultant) and the results are expected to much better than the one-way versions without remote programming capability.

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