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Programmable thermostats still need to get with the program

Consumer Reports News: April 01, 2011 12:53 PM

Programmable thermostats can save you by money by automatically adjusting your home's temperature when you're away or asleep. But as Consumer Reports found back in October 2007, the devices often have confusing controls that could end up increasing your energy use, not lowering it. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency suspended its Energy Star label for programmable thermostats, citing the same potential for consumer confusion and lost savings.

That might have been a wake up call for manufacturers. But a new study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reveals that programmable thermostats still make it too difficult for consumers to save energy. Among the findings: half of the homes surveyed had their thermostats set to long-term hold, which basically overrides any pre-programmed temperature adjustments. Another 20 percent of homeowners had the wrong time of day set on their thermostats' internal clocks, which also erases or reduces energy savings.

The study is based on a fairly small sample of 100 or so homes. "[But] if these numbers are anywhere near the same on a national scale, it's clear that millions of homes are not getting the benefits of energy savings that are possible from a fully programmed, functioning thermostat," says Alan Meier, senior scientist in LBL's energy analysis department, which headed the study.

Meier is right, though some programmable thermostats are easier to use than others. The top-rated model from our initial report, the Lux Smart Temp Touch Screen TX9000TS, is available on Amazon for $60. Our product testers found it's especially easy to read and program, plus its clear prompt makes its override mode easier to see than most, eliminating the long-term hold issues noted by LBL.

Several other recommended models from our report are also still available. If you're considering a switch, make sure the device is compatible with your heating or cooling system. And don't expect plug-and-play installation. Even the friendliest thermostat still requires you to set the time, date, and the system it will control.

Hopefully, all programmable thermostats will get easier to use, and the LBL's findings should keep the pressure on manufacturers to make improvements. But with a little patience and smart shopping, you can see energy savings today with a programmable thermostat.

Daniel DiClerico

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