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The Ins and Outs of Programmable Thermostats

Programmable thermostats are a time-proven way to lower energy costs year-round, especially households where people have different schedules or come and go at different hours. Lowering or raising the temperature, depending on the season, will save energy, and there's little point in keeping your home as comfortable when it's not occupied or as you sleep during the winter. Today's thermostats are easier to use than ever and take the responsibility off you to manage the thermal aspect of home's HVAC system.

Most of these thermostats allow for four different temperature settings each day. They may offer helpful features like when to check the air filter, have alerts about a system malfunction or use touch screen programming. Most have hold/vacation features to override the current programming and some have lockout features. 

Models

The three basic models of these thermostats are defined by their programming configurations. They accommodate these schedules:

  • 7-day models - These offer the most flexibility for daily programming. They offer four different settings throughout each 24-hour period. If you have children or family members who have flexible schedules, it's likely you'll benefit from this type.
  • 5-2 day models - This type works well for households who keep routine schedules for five days a week and have two days at home consecutively. 
  • 5-1-1 day models - Similar to a 5-2 day models, these help families who are gone for five days in a row and keep a different daily schedule on weekends. 

Using Programmable Thermostats With Heat Pumps

If you have a heat pump, choose a model that's an adaptive recovery thermostat, also called an intelligent recovery thermostat. Heat pumps operate differently in the heating cycle than gas furnaces do. A standard programmable thermostat won't allow for the additional time it'll take your home to warm back up when temperatures fall into the 30s or lower, which doesn't affect a gas furnace.

An adaptive recovery unit on the other hand, calculates the amount of time it's going to take for the heat pump to heat your home to its desired temperature. Instead of turning on at a set time, the pump will gradually warm your home throughout the day or night so that the temperature's where you want it when you return or wake up.

Without such a thermostat, the heat pump will turn the auxiliary heating coil on to boost the heating. The coil uses about three times the energy than the heat pump does, so instead of conserving energy by keeping the temperature low, the heat pump will actually use more energy, defeating the purpose turning the temperature down when you're away or sleeping.

In the cooling mode, the adaptive recovery thermostat works the same as a thermostat for homes with central air conditioning and gas furnaces. Since standard heat pumps don't use anything but the heat in outdoor air to warm your home, it's important to avoid triggering the heating coil. 

Installation

The easiest programmable thermostats to install are the battery-operated units and those with just two wires. If your replacement has colored wires that are dissimilar to the one you're replacing, you may want to ask your HVAC contractor to help you. Before the job is done, the HVAC contractor will verify its accurate operation and walk you through its operation and options. 

Another reason to reach out to a pro is if you're replacing an older mercury-style thermostat. These need to be handled carefully and require careful disposal. The mercury used in these thermostats is toxic to handle. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment reports that each of these thermostats contains three grams of mercury, which may not seem like much. Nationally, it adds up to 9.6 tons of mercury. The type of mercury used in these thermostats converts to methyl mercury, which is highly toxic to the brain development of infants and children, and is a measurable cause of birth defects. 

Using for Maximum Savings

  • Adjust the temperature for the longest period you'll be away during the day. Then set the thermostat so that the system kicks on shortly before you arrive home, so you're home is comfortable.
  • Don't overly warm or cool your home in anticipation of your return. Setting it to a much higher or lower temperature won't heat or cool your home any faster. If you turn the temperature up to 90 or down to 60 in the summer for your return or morning rising, you're wasting energy. If you're delayed, the system will keep running and you'll have higher energy bills as a result.
  • Don't overuse the override function. This holds the temperature where you want it until the next cycle, which is often the next day. Programmable thermostats won't go into energy savings mode during the sleeping hours, costing you more energy. 

Smart Thermostats

These devices are equipped with the same programming capability that other kinds of programmable thermostats, but they also offer you the flexibility to make changes online or from a smartphone. If you're the kind of person who likes to stay on top of your energy costs and want more control remotely, then such a thermostat may be for you. They're generally more intuitive, learn your living habits over time and can make automatic adjustments if someone returns home unexpectedly.

More Ways to Increase Comfort and Savings

Programmable thermostats work perfectly with home zoning systems, one of the latest developments in energy savings equipment designed to improve comfort and savings. These systems use dampers in the ducts to control the flow of conditioned air to each zone. Homes that are likely candidates:

  • Two-story homes - Heat rises in the winter, and the upstairs can get quite warm in the winter. Heat sinking through your attic into the second floor in the summer also warms these rooms. With a zoning system, you can set the programmable thermostats to a comfortable level upstairs without interfering with the main floor.
  • Homes with areas you don't always use - If you have a space in your home you don't use often, the zoning system can safely reduce the conditioned air going to that space. Some homeowners block off unused rooms by shutting the registers and doors, which can have a damaging effect on the HVAC system and its ductwork. With a zoning system, you'll avoid building air pressure in the ducts throughout the rest of your home and adjust the thermostat for the times when you do use that space. Guest, hobby and media rooms are good candidates for such a system.
  • Homes with uneven solar exposure - Having a wing of your home that receives significant sunlight or none at all can cause big temperature differences. A zoning system will compensate for temperatures without affecting the rest of the home. A large bank of windows in one room or high ceilings can be more comfortable with a zoning system.

Each zone requires its own thermostat that sends a message to the control center when it needs conditioning. In an unzoned home, the thermostat sends the message to the heating or cooling system when to turn on and off based on the temperature of the air near the thermostat. Installing a zoning system does require the services of an HVAC contractor, but in most cases, they're an affordable solution to uncomfortable spaces indoors and high conditioning costs. 

To learn more about programmable thermostats and their benefits, contact Comfort24-7.com to find a licensed HVAC contractor in your area. We provide HVAC services for Chicagoland, northwestern Indiana and southwestern Michigan homeowners. 

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