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Summary:

Turns out programmable thermostats in our homes are almost as much of a nightmare to figure out as confounding DVRs. According to a recently-published study from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, a significant portion of users of programmable thermostats are incorrectly using them.

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Turns out programmable thermostats in our homes are almost as much of a nightmare to figure out as confounding DVRs, and confusing TV remote controls. But on top of the hassle, when used incorrectly the energy savings aspects of programmable thermostats are negated. According to a recently-published study from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, a significant portion of users of programmable thermostats are incorrectly using them.

There is “widespread misunderstanding of thermostat operation,” according to the study Usability of Residential Thermostats: Preliminary Investigations, led by senior scientist in the Energy Analysis Department of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Alan Meier. The majority of users operated programmable thermostats manually (ie not programming them) and almost 90 percent of survey participants said they rarely or never adjusted the thermostat to set a program.

Beyond not programming the thermostats, 15 percent of the participants in one study displayed the wrong times on their thermostats and 33 percent of the participants had set their programmable thermostats to a “long term hold,” overriding the programmable aspect. Not surprisingly survey respondents would say one thing, but after submitting photos of the thermostats, their thermostats told another story.

The data is disturbing on a couple levels. If consumers aren’t interested enough to even learn the basics of how to save energy via an already installed programmable thermostat, it’s going to be a long road ahead for any energy-saving consumer-facing technology. A variety of companies have built businesses around soliciting consumer participation in energy reduction measures. (Learn more about some of these companies at Green:Net 2011 on April 21 in San Francisco).

Another big question is why aren’t thermostat makers designing devices that are much more simple and easy to use. Decades of research in the consumer electronics and mobile industries has gone into designing cell phones, gadgets and music players that are enticing consumers. Thermostat makers need to learn from what’s working.

Thirdly, thermostats could likely become more complex, with the addition of Internet connections, that will pull data back to a website. Thermostat makers need to figure out the problem before more complexity is inserted into the equation.

It’s a very important — though very boring — problem. Because it’s so dry is probably one of the problems for consumers: they’re just not paying attention. Another reason for the problem is that a lot of thermostats are installed by previous owners, or a landlord or the home developer, with little input or education available for the user.

At the end of the day, it’s a big deal. Thermostats control over 8 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. and programmable thermostats represent 40 percent of thermostats in existing homes and 100 percent of thermostats in new homes. It’s the lowest of the low hanging fruit in energy efficiency.

Image courtesy of CERTs.

  1. Technology must be designed for end users. Many times we design things that are easy to understand to us (engineers), but are impossible to understand to normal end users.
    Tech much feel natural. This is one of the reasons why Apple, for instance, is so successful.
    Users interactivity is becoming more and more important. Even more than the features of the tech products itself.

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  2. I’d even argue that a significant portion is user guides. When I first started working, technical writers had English degrees. Period. Their sole purpose was to translate the engineers’ instructions into something the average end user could understand.

    As technology has progressed, I’ve seen more and more technical writing positions shift to requiring engineering degrees, which is the wrong direction to go in. As Guillermo notes, what’s easy for engineers to understand isn’t easy for your average homeowner to understand. I’d wager a good portion of the problem is in the translation.

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  3. well there’s a big journalism FAIL here: “Decades of research in the consumer electronics and mobile industries has gone into designing cell phones, gadgets and music players that are enticing consumers” neglects to mention how most people are unable to use these devices either.

    Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of the C++ programming language, famously stated that he had always hoped that someday his new Object-oriented paradigm of computer software design would make computers easier to use than a telephone, and although he got his wish, he never dreamed it would be because we would make cellphones more intractable to comprehend and control than our computers.

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  4. I’m not sure whether this is a case of the need for the KISS principle or simple indifference on the part of most consumers. How can we show them how easy it would be to save $100+ every year?
    Utilities can do more. For example, we signed up for our utility’s air conditioner shut off program. But they never asked about whether we needed help with our programmable thermostat or if we could use some CFLs. Changes like this could really change the perception (and reality) of how utilities deliver value to consumers.

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