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Timing The Temperature

We are trying to keep our utility bills low by setting the thermostat lower at night, but we hate waking up to cold bedrooms. Are the new smart thermostats easy to install and program for comfort?—Meg T.

Setting your thermostat lower at night during winter (higher during summer) will save a tremendous amount on your utility bills. It is a common misconception that it takes more energy to reheat or cool your house after a temperature setback or setup. Whenever your house temperature is closer to the outdoor temperature, less heat is lost or gained. This means your furnace or air conditioner has to run less overall and you save money.

If you have a heat pump, however, you’ll want to be sure to take the extra step of installing an outdoor thermostat, to avoid higher bills that could result from your auxiliary heat turning on longer than necessary.

Most new smart thermostats allow you to set different temperatures during four periods throughout the day and night. You can set the time periods to your family’s schedule. Just as it saves energy at night when the thermostat is set lower, it saves additional energy to have the thermostat set lower while you are at work or at school.

A crucial step for heat pump owners is to contact their electric co-op or heat pump vendor about installing an outdoor thermostat along with any smart thermostat. When a smart thermostat tells a heat pump to warm the house back to room temperature on a cold day, the temperature difference can cause the auxiliary heat to turn on to warm the house more quickly. The problem is the auxiliary heat is more expensive than heat pump heat, and it could defeat the purpose of saving money with the smart thermostat. An outdoor thermostat will sense the large difference between the indoor thermostat setting and the outdoor temperature, and let the heat pump bring the temperature up more gradually and economically.

Smart thermostats are available with several simple programming methods that even the digitally challenged person can handle. Some designs resemble a tiny touch-screen computer display. The entire programming process is menu-driven by touching its screen, so there is no complicated owner’s manual or multiuse buttons to contend with.

When shopping for a smart thermostat, you will see designations of 7, 5+2, or 5+1+1 on the packaging. These refer to the programming flexibility of the thermostat. A 7-day thermostat allows you to program a different temperature schedule for every day of the week. With the prices more reasonable now, this type is generally your best choice for future flexibility. A 5+2-day thermostat allows you to program one schedule for every weekday and another schedule for the weekend. A 5+1+1-day model is the same except you can set different Saturday and Sunday schedules.

Most thermostat wiring is safe low-voltage and color-coded, so the wiring instructions should be easy to follow for do-it-yourself installation. A heat pump thermostat has several more color-coded wires to attach. These are for the reversing valve (switching between heating and cooling) and the backup/emergency heating (often electric resistance heat.)

If you have a newer heat pump with a variable-speed blower, as I do in my own all-electric home, select a smart thermostat with a humidity control. During summer, when your house is comfortably cool, but too humid, the blower motor slows down so the air moves slowly over the cooling coils. This increases dehumidification for better comfort and efficiency.

Write for Utility Bills Update 425, a buyer’s guide of 11 smart thermostat manufacturers. Include $3.00, a business-size SASE, and Update number. Mail requests and questions to James Dulley, Kentucky Living, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244. Go to to instantly download.

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