Practical Savings: Programmable Thermostats

Want another simple way to cut your expenses? This one is super simple – get a programmable thermostat… And use it!

Before my wife and were married and living together she lived in a 1200 sq. ft. town home built in the 1980’s with a programmable thermostat and updated gas furnace. I lived in a 1600 sq. ft. duplex built in 1905 with no insulation in the walls and an old manual thermostat. Not only that, but I worked remotely from my apartment and she commuted. And yet our heating bills were the same!

The difference was that I adjusted my thermostat by hand down at night and up in the morning. She left her thermostat on manual and kept it in the 70’s day and night. Oh yeah, and her thermostat was busted: it’d keep causing the furnace to shut on and off in very short cycles.

So, while you may already have a programmable thermostat you should make sure you’re using it properly and also that it isn’t malfunctioning.

Buying a Programmable Thermostat

For those of you who have an old school thermostat – you know the kind, they’re usually round and you twist to set the temperature – you’ll have to grab a new one. You can find them all over the place and most of them are pretty similar. You’re looking for one that will meet your needs, but they typically only vary in the number of times the temperature can swing per day, and in how many days you can program uniquely. The base models will usually have at least two times per day to set a target temperature, and will usually break out weekends versus weekdays. Given that you’re already used to just turning a knob to set your desired temperature and not to programming a schedule, you may want to give Nest a deeper look.

Installing a Programmable Thermostat

Each thermostat comes with it’s own directions, but they don’t really vary that much. There are some great guides up at DIY Network, Lowes and Home Depot. It more or less consists of pulling the old one off, unscrewing it’s base, screwing in the new base, and connecting the wires to the new one.

Setting up a Programmable Thermostat

You’ll want to consult the instruction manual for details here, but the general gist is that you want to make sure it’s set to “Auto”, not “Manual”. Next you’ll want to set up different target temperatures for morning, mid-day, evening, and night time. Set the times to match up with your standard schedule: turn the heat down just before you leave for work and back up 20-30 minutes before you’re back.

Going Old School: Windows

Personally, I “supplement” our programmed thermostat by using the old school “open windows at night, close them in the morning” routine. Once summer winds down or spring starts up there can be a pretty big temperature difference between night and day, so we can often let cool air in overnight and “trap” it for a large part of the day to avoid having to use much A/C at all.

Alternative: Nest

Nest is a fancy thermostat you may have heard about or seen on display (I know my local Lowe’s has a special area set aside for it). The basic idea here is that most people don’t actually program their thermostats and we live in a wired world. So instead you treat it more like an old school thermostat and turn the knob to your desired temperature and it learns your preferences over time and automatically creates it’s own program. It also does some interesting things like looking up forecasts and trying to use A/C fans to keep the temperature lower rather than kicking on the whole unit; or trying to discover when no one is home and turning the heat/AC down on its own.

The company was founded by a former Apple iPod engineer and has quite a following in the tech world, so you can often find some nice writeups about people’s experiences and savings, such as how much Nest can save you.

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