Energy Adviser: Smartphones tie to brainy thermostats

Published:

 

Think you're getting the most out of that programmable thermostat? According to the federal Energy Star program, properly programming a thermostat may save homeowners $180 on the average $2,200 annual energy bill. But incorrect settings can erode any savings quickly.

Research by the Department of Energy suggests programmable thermostats confound us. More than 33 million U.S. households have a programmable thermostat. Unfortunately, 14.5 million of these households don't set back their thermostat during the day and 11.6 million neglect setbacks at night.

Still others have difficulty setting them at all. This leads to costly energy settings like programming the thermostat to hold a temperature permanently or choosing the wrong times to adjust the heat to correspond with household behavior.

Thanks to WiFi networks, smartphones and tablets invading our homes, manufacturers are now developing home automation tools that connect to these consumer-friendly devices and give us control over heating, lighting and more.

Your alternatives come as a proprietary automation or do-it-yourself systems. Your choice depends on what you want to control and how much you want to spend.

"Many of our customers already have DSC security systems or have security concerns and want to add home automation control on top of that," said Brad Johnson, network administrator for Prairie Electric.

The DSC home automation averages $1,500 to $2,000, but can give the homeowner control over locking and unlocking doors, lighting, heating and home multimedia remotely via a smartphone.

At its Bridge Substation, Clark Public Utilities is experimenting with automated temperature control using a web-enabled system, DreamWatts Energy Management System from Makad Energy LLC. This system can be installed either by professionals or as a DIY project. It monitors the building temperature and communicates to a data center that alerts the occupant of any out-of-range temperatures or system failures.

One DreamWatts owner was able to troubleshoot and remotely fix a heating and ventilation failure thanks to our system, said Makad vice president Tawni Camarillo.

For remote control, the DreamWatts and DSC systems can run from a manufacturer-supplied hub or tap into your home WiFi network. Both are controllable from a webpage.

Nest Labs provides an iPhone-compatible thermostat. At $250, it's more expensive than others. But the company says installing and programming the Nest is remarkably simple. You can also have it professionally installed.

About the size and shape of a tuna can, this thermostat has no buttons. Instead it uses a chrome ring for manual programming. To dial in settings, you rotate its outer ring to find the appropriate menu and then gently push on the ring to make your selection.

What's unique about the Nest is that it learns by degrees your living behavior. Six built-in sensors note the comings and goings of household members. In about a week it adjusts the temperature for that behavioral flow.

The beauty of a web-linked thermostat is that you can change it on the fly. Suppose you leave work early and want a warmer or cooler home awaiting you. Just open the app on your smartphone and reset the temperature before leaving work.

Today's programmable thermostats may have many homeowners buffaloed. But that's changing. By connecting brainy and easy to program thermostats with smartphones, tablets and laptops, manufacturers may soon give us thermostatic geniuses ready to really start saving energy dollars -- almost without us thinking about it.Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.