March/April 2007 Editorial: Surprising Turnabout at Energy Star

Posted by Alan Meier on March 10, 2007
March/April 2007 Editorial: Surprising Turnabout at Energy Star
For the first time, Energy Star is decertifying an entire category of product—the programmable thermostat—because it doesn’t reliably save energy (see “Energy Star Changes Approach to Programmable Thermostats,” p. 10). Field studies in diverse climates demonstrated that homes with programmable thermostats used no less—and often more— energy than similar homes without the smart thermostats.  As a result, the programmable thermostat will no longer receive the kind of Energy Star endorsements and promotions enjoyed by efficient furnaces, TVs, and refrigerators.  

Here’s a technology that should—and does—save energy when consumers know how, and remember, to use it.  A programmable thermostat fails to deliver energy savings because the user has not been sufficiently taken into account.  Indecipherable controls, baffling commands required for programming, and inadequate feedback deter even the most sophisticated consumers from effectively using the programmable thermostat. Pity the elderly who can’t read the small print, the foreigners who can’t understand the inscrutable terms, and all of us who never learned to program a VCR.  Can one honestly expect these groups to operate a programmable thermostat effectively?

Happily, Energy Star isn’t abandoning the programmable thermostat; instead, it’s trying to adopt a new approach of endorsing a behavior rather than the specific technology.  This is a radical change for a program that has been solidly based in technical solutions to energy savings and climate change. I support this idea because policymakers must eventually address behavior if they truly want to reduce energy use.  These thermostats are a reasonable first target and a good place to prepare for bigger targets (such as cars).

At the same time, we need to rethink the programmable thermostat concept. If Energy Star decides in the future to recertify programmable thermostats, it could, for example, insist on a standard user interface (similar to what drivers expect in all cars regarding placement of the gas pedal, brake, and so on).  And why does a consumer need to set the thermostat’s clock when a chip can get the time from a radio signal broadcast throughout the country? (My wristwatch does this.)  In short, Energy Star can insist that the technology be user-friendly.

Decertification could have repercussions far beyond Energy Star. What about all the utility programs, rebates, and tax credits that (at least implicitly) based their specifications on Energy Star’s endorsement?  Will these also be modified?  Stay tuned.

Like the CFL, the programmable thermostat is a kind of standard-bearer for energy conservation.  That’s why Energy Star should be commended for acknowledging its error and trying to get it right.

Add a new blog comment!

Enter your comments in the box below:

(Please note that all blog entries and comments are subject to review prior to posting.)


<< Back to blogs

While we will do our best to monitor all comments and blog posts for accuracy and relevancy, Home Energy is not responsible for content posted by our readers or third parties. Home Energy reserves the right to edit or remove comments or blog posts that do not meet our community guidelines.

SPONSORED CONTENT What is Home Performance? Learn about the largest association dedicated to home performance and weatherization contractors. Learn more! Watch Video