Energy Adviser: Program thermostat to help save energy, cash

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Turning your heat down a notch is a surefire way to avoid wasting energy and money. A programmable thermostat takes care of that for you.

“You can set it and forget it,” said DuWayne Dunham, an energy counselor for Clark Public Utilities. “There isn’t the chance that some nights you will forget to set the thermostat back, and consistency is key for seeing your bill go down.”

A programmable thermostat lets you choose separate temperature settings for when you wake up, leave for work, return home and go to bed. According to the federal Energy Star program, using a programmable thermostat correctly can save a homeowner $180 on the average $2,200 annual energy bill.

To reap those savings, you have to reduce the heating and cooling in your home during the times when you don’t need as much, according to Energy Star. For heating, set your thermostat to less than 70 degrees for the times you are home, and at least 8 degrees lower than that for when you are away or sleeping. For cooling, set the thermostat to no lower than 78 degrees for when you are home, at least 7 degrees warmer for when you are away and 4 degrees higher for when you are sleeping.

Those reductions will shave your costs. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that programmable thermostats save 1 percent on the heating portion of your energy bills for each degree the temperature is set back for eight hours.

The savings is most pronounced for households with heat pumps. For this type of heat, look for a programmable thermostat with a feature called intelligent or smart recovery. This type of thermostat will gradually change the temperature using only the heat pump. That avoids sudden changes that switch on auxiliary heat, which indicates the furnace is doing the heating at a much higher cost.

“A programmable thermostat provides the greatest benefit for customers who have heat pump systems because when it’s set correctly, it keeps the furnace — which is less energy efficient — from taking over,” Dunham said. “For someone who has a gas or electric furnace, a programmable thermostat doesn’t provide savings over turning down the thermostat manually. It’s more a matter of convenience.”

But there’s a lot to say for convenience — and comfort.

“It’s nice in the morning. If you have a programmable thermostat, you can wake up to a warm home,” Dunham said.

Installation options

Ready to swap out your dial for a programmable thermostat? You can probably find a unit for $100 at a big-box hardware store, but it’s the sort of thing that’s best professionally installed, especially if you have a heat pump, Dunham said. For the unit and installation, expect to pay between $300 and $500. Some thermostats have a workweek and weekend setting, but look for ones that enable you to program each day separately, especially if your schedule doesn’t fit a traditional workweek, Dunham said.

A hold feature is nice, said Chris McKinney, a residential service manager at Entek Corp. If you crank up the heat because you feel cold, and then forget about it, the thermostat will return to the usual temperature settings.

If you are someone who wants to look to the future, you might want to consider one that’s Web-enabled or controlled by a smartphone, Dunham said. Then, if you get stuck at work and won’t be home when the heat kicks on, you can turn down the temperature from wherever you are.

A system like that would run about $500 to $1,000 installed, McKinney said.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.