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Editorial: Folk Labels and Home Energy

February 29, 2012
March/April 2012
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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You’ve almost certainly seen them: a yellow Post-it on the thermostat or a brief note scribbled near the water heater controls, or perhaps a dog-eared card taped to the clothes washer. These are reminders to ourselves (or visitors) about how to operate the device. We call them “folk labels” so as to distinguish them from “official labels,” such as the EnergyGuide, UL, Energy Star, or other information provided by the manufacturer.

We have observed many unusual folk labels in homes and offices around the world. Thermostats seem to be the most frequent targets of folk labels (at least, regarding their operation). For example, many hotels find it necessary to supplement the regular interface with a folk label like “for heat turn red switch to ‘heat’.” Some of the labels are actually amusing. A hotel in Korea used little pictures of chili peppers to designate “more heat” on the room thermostats because South Asian visitors understand that more easily than fractured English or Korean explanations. Sometimes the folk label is needed because the controls are completely opaque. One of our favorites was “To override motion sensor, flick switch rapidly 5 times.”

Folk labels are just as important to auditors and other professionals as they are to the occupants. They are signals of problematic operation and a clue that energy is being wasted. Thus an energy auditor should be especially attentive when encountering folk labels. Do the occupants truly understand how to operate that thermostat, or is the folk label describing an energy-inefficient work-around? The designers of appliance controls should also track the appearance of folk labels on their products. In many cases, a folk label is evidence of a design failure. We noticed that some commercial lighting controls get folk labeled because they lack essential information like “off” or “this is a light switch”!

As appliances get smarter and control more aspects of their own operation, the interface with users becomes more—not less—important. A frustrated user will disable the most energy-efficient settings in order to get the desired results without reading the manual or spending ten minutes relearning the procedure. There is something truly ironic when folk labels are needed to operate “smart” thermostats, lighting systems, or appliances.

I would like to ask your help in assembling more examples of folk labels. Send us your photographs (or even sketches). Please e-mail your pictures and any background information to akmeier [at] homeenergy [dot] org. We will create a library so that we can all view and learn from them.

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