The Problem with Programmable Thermostats

Ecobee smart control thermostat

The Problem with Programmable Thermostats

Most commercial buildings use some form of time of day control for the heating and cooling systems.  Larger buildings are often equipped with centralized building management systems (BMS); however, the vast majority of buildings that are not large enough to justify these often costly systems must rely upon programmable thermostats.

Programmable Thermostats come with a very wide variety of features, ease-of-use and functionality.  Their price range varies, starting anywhere from $50 for a simple unit to $500 for “fully loaded” models.  Almost all of them are able to accept unique programs for each day of the week.  Some thermostats even allow for extraordinary events such as holidays.

The newest generation of programmable thermostats are called “smart thermostats” and include features such as electric meter communicability, remote access control via a computer or cell phone, and in some cases they may even learn and adapt to occupancy profiles.  Although growing in popularity, smart thermostats represent only a very small fraction of the installed base in commercial buildings.  Many of the more popular ones still have somewhat limited applicability to commercial HVAC systems.

So what’s the problem with programmable thermostats?  It’s basically this: rarely are they properly programmed or fully utilized.  Almost universally, their utilization isn’t optimized. There are a variety of reasons for this, so let’s explore a few.

If you have ever had teenagers living in your house, you know how maddening it can be to find lights illuminating an empty room, doors ajar, computers and televisions left on and even windows open while your heater or air conditioner is running.  This isn’t because they are bad people; it’s just that the month’s utility bill doesn’t come from their allowance.

The same problems usually exist in commercial buildings.  The occupants most directly affected by the HVAC systems don’t see them, and are very rarely the ones to pay the bills.  Those of us who are “comfort professionals” can attest that there are many varying opinions as to what the “right” temperature is.

We certainly all have seen this: an occupant sneaks by the thermostat, cranking the temperature up to where only inhabitants near the equator might find it comfortable.  A few minutes later, another staggers over, and before mass dehydration sets in, drops the temperature to where the windows begin to frost.

This causes building owners and managers to resort to imprison thermostats in silly looking cages, which often exacerbates the frustration that occupants feel over their comfort control. Some occupants become very creative, and find clever ways to trick and open these thermostat covers, or trick the thermostat’s thermometer.  So, at minimum, there is often a conflict between the interests of the occupants, and those who foot the bill.

Let’s examine another major—yet simple—reason why programmable thermostats don’t work well to save energy: the person with the vested interest in the energy costs isn’t the one programming the thermostats.  Well-intentioned owners, managers and maintenance staff usually will input a basic program at the time of installation, but rarely is there someone to regularly review these programs, which is necessary to tweak them to reflect the current schedule and usage of the building.  As the saying goes, “out of sight out of mind.”

Unfortunately, many programmable controls aren’t intuitive to use, let alone program. Documentation gets misplaced, and the previously trained operators forget, get transferred, or simply aren’t available.  Service providers typically don’t have access to the key person who can make decide on the necessary programming parameters of daily, weekly and annual schedules, let alone what the “appropriate” temperature levels are.

When I write my memoirs, there will be at least one large—and very amusing—chapter devoted to the many “thermostat wars;” creative approaches to tricking controls (i.e. car keys, lighters and bags of ice) and occasional outlandish requests for set points or systems performance, “Madam, we sympathize over your hot flashes, but please understand, your air conditioning systems isn’t designed to hold your office at 55 degrees; the industry considers that refrigeration.”

It’s extraordinarily uncomfortable for the service provider and or installer, such as us, to be asked to install a “dummy thermostat.”  Simply, these are thermostats that are placed for the occupants to fiddle with, yet don’t control anything except, often their perceptions.  Thankfully we very rarely get these requests.

Some of the newest smart thermostats are relatively inexpensive and accept basic time-of-day programming, yet will automatically reduce HVAC system operation when there is no activity observed.  We call these occupancy based smart thermostats. They allow the occupant to easily adjust the temperature and override a setback program (i.e. working late or on weekends) while still allowing the building manager to pre-program set point limits to reasonable levels.  They can be networked via innovative wireless networks, have remote accessibility, can be connected to the HVAC unit with wireless connections, track energy utilization and consumption, and even look attractive.

A lack of maintenance, faulty installation and poor designs are often the cause of discomfort within a building.  Thorough and comprehensive maintenance will identify and eliminate many of these maladies, but the newest generations of occupancy-based smart thermostats are useful tools in minimizing wasteful operation and delivering optimal occupant comfort. Most of them compile and display information about current and historical usage enabling owners and occupants to make more informed decisions about system usage. Allegedly it was this type of occupant activity and usage that attracted Google to recently buy Nest for a whopping $3.2 Billion.

Call one of our personal energy conservation and comfort specialists here at Thayer today for an evaluation of your building.  Additionally, send us your favorite picture of an antiquated, “user-modified,” interesting, worst location and/or downright wacky thermostat for a chance to win a free iPad Mini!



Dan Thayer, P. E

President, Thayer Corporation




The Importance of Knowing Your Building’s “MPG”

The Importance of Knowing Your Building’s “MPG”

Building Benchmarking is like finding your car's MPG.

Energy usage benchmarking is an invaluable tool that is lowering energy costs and increasing value for thousands of buildings around the country.  The most well-known and utilized program is the Energy Star Program run by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The program provides an accurate comparison to both industry averages as well as “best in class” spaces that earn the Energy Star credential.  It works is by entering 13 months of all-energy usage along with other critical details about your building/space into a sophisticated cloud-based computer program.  Your building is then compared to thousands of other buildings that are similar.  The Energy Star Program has been in existence for decades and claims to have a database of over 40% of all commercial spaces in the U.S.  These comparison buildings and spaces are for similar building types and usages in similar climates.  The program yields a report, rich in data that is helpful to review with a trained professional.

According to a recent study conducted by the EPA, modern buildings that were benchmarked consistently reduced their energy use by 2.4 percent per year, and saved an average of 7 percent just by virtue of the comparison alone not accounting for improvements made as a result of the knowledge.  Buildings that started out performing the most poorly saved the most.

A good way to think of benchmarking is like finding your building’s “MPG,” just like you would with a vehicle.  Poor MPG can be indicative of problems with a car, but unless you know what’s normal for that vehicle, then you may not necessarily see that there are any issues.  Managing the energy efficiency of your building is important to its value, longevity and your business performance. You might benefit from knowing how efficiency and/or usage improvements can affect your bottom line. Previously unidentified problems can also be detected just like your doctor taking your blood pressure annually comparing it to your historical norms and other healthy standards.

Credentialing that can come from achieving the Energy Star Certification can significantly improve your core business as well.  This certification is for those “best in class” buildings that are in the top 25% percentile of peer buildings.  Nowhere is this more important than in the hospitality industry and commercially leased spaces.  The Maine Department of Tourism has a Green Lodging Certification Program. Owners have found that this certification consistently leads to higher booking levels and guest loyalty.  Similarly landlords with better bonafide “Green” credentials are able to attract and retain better tenants, have lower vacancy rates and consistently receive higher rents prices.  Given credible means of comparison consumers are able to make more informed decisions just like trading up to autos with a higher MPG.

There are many benefits to benchmarking that include, but are not limited to, identifying potential for reducing owning and operating costs, uncovering possibly undetected issues with HVAC and electrical systems and credentialing such as the Energy Star certification.

If you would like to know how your building(s) compare call us today and ask a trained energy expert about benchmarking. It always the best place to start if you are considering improvements. It is a simple, effective, and advantageous place to start. If your building qualifies, we provide this valued service at no cost to you.

Call In The Experts™ today.   Ask for me if you wish. I’ll let you know what the potential is for benchmarking your building.


Dan Thayer, P.E., CEM