It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that installing and using a programmable thermostat to customize and automate room temperature can save energy as well as money. In fact, 25 million households in the U.S. have already installed programmable thermostats in their homes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that only half of those homes actually program them, effectively rendering the potential efficiency of using them moot. It’s reminiscent of the old VCR forever blinking 12:00, except the consequences for homeowners – and even the planet – are greater.
I recently spoke with Geoff Godwin, Vice President of Marketing for Emerson Climate Technologies, the manufacturer of components for HVAC systems and producer of the White-Rogers line of programmable thermostats, about the advantages of using digitally programmable climate control, and how Emerson is seeking to expand the potential market and get that market to not only install the units, but to actually use them as well.
As most readers of Triple Pundit know, efficiency is the big white elephant in the room in terms of addressing dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention saving energy costs in hard economic times. It’s the low-hanging fruit, a strategy in which, according to a report released last fall by the American Physical society, the “opportunities are huge and the costs are small”.
A small, yet significant, aspect of this huge opportunity, says Godwin, is the installation and proper use of programmable thermostats.
An expanding market, a huge potential, and avoiding the dreaded “blinking 12:00”
According to Godwin, the heating and cooling for 100 million homes in the United States is currently controlled by thermostat. With 25 to 30 million of those homes already equipped with programmable climate technology, there’s an existing market of at least 75 million homes to move to programmable thermostats.
The average homeowner spends about $2,000 per year for energy, according to Godwin, and half of that cost is for heating and cooling. Using a properly programmed digital thermostat will save households 25% in energy costs. The potential total energy savings just through the proper use of programmable thermostats is staggering. If just a fraction of the homes in the U.S. were to upgrade to programmable thermostats and use them, the energy savings would amount to tens of billions of dollars.
As older, mercury-laden thermostats end their service life, digitally programmable thermostats will continue to expand into the general marketplace. In the next few years, Godwin sees 25% of new programmable thermostat installation coming from new construction, and 75% from replacements and add-ons. Still, with half of the units already installed in homes not being programmed, Godwin sees the problem not just as one of installing more units, but of making the units installed more user-friendly. After all, most of us have long ago abandoned our VCR’s, with “12:00” incessantly blinking in the display, for our TiVos, blu-rays, and DTR’s. We’re not about to let all the advantages of modern entertainment technology pass us by simply because we haven’t programmed them correctly.
Even if you’re a Dick Cheney-style supply-side freak and care not a whit about energy conservation, you still don’t want to simply throw money down the drain by not making the same effort with a programmable thermostat. So why are 50% of the people that own them doing just that?
“It’s all about the user interface”
Godwin says that many people, especially those with early-generation units, are simply afraid of mis-programming their thermostat and either wasting energy (leading to high energy bills) or somehow damaging their system. To risk belaboring the analogy, that’s likely the reason many people never bothered to fully program their old VCR’s. But as digital technology advances, so does the user interface that controls that technology. And this is key, says Godwin: “It’s all about the user interface”.
It may not be rocket science, but if the menu and controls are overly obtuse (yes, like the old VCR), then chances are many people won’t bother figuring it out – or are afraid that they can’t. Continued improvement of the user interface is a key objective for Emerson. Using a more intuitive menu structures and simply “more words” will help bridge the gap from an installed programmable thermostat to one that is actually programmed correctly.
Targeting an ignored and untapped market
A user interface that’s difficult to understand in your own language is nearly impossible in a language you don’t understand. There is an estimated 12 million Hispanic households in the United States, representing a growth rate at least twice as high as non-Hispanic households. Hispanics are expected to comprise up to 40% of new home purchases in the coming years. About five years ago, Emerson starting researching how they could best address the needs of the Spanish-language market.
Teaming up with Florida State University Center for Marketing Communication, for which Godwin now serves on its advisory board, Emerson sought conducted focus groups in Miami and Los Angeles and market research interviews with contractors. They realized a very simple thing: Spanish-speaking families should be able to use a programmable thermostat the speaks Spanish too.
The Blue Selecto thermostat speaks Spanish. The first device of it kind, Emerson released the Blue Selecto last year. Available nationwide and in parts of Canada and Mexico, Godwin says the international market is otherwise limited because of differing air conditioning standards.
Efficiency in small steps
As technology advances, and utilities implement demand response and smart metering programs, systems utilizing programmable and networked thermostat control will increasingly make efficiency one of the most cost-effective solutions to our energy challenges. Small steps can truly made a difference in helping the process along. Emerson’s Geoff Godwin stresses that by simply making their products easier to understand and operate – and having products in more than one language to address the needs of a growing market – programmable thermostats are one means of tapping into the great “pool of energy” just waiting to be tapped – efficiency.