Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd spoke for a lot of people when he wrote of his newly installed programmable thermostat: "We're afraid to touch [it]."

His rant came shortly after he replaced his old mercury-filled manual unit, which had three settings—heat, cool, and off—and that he described as "round, the way God intended." His fancy new programmable thermostat can change the temperature in the house at least four times a day, but he can't figure out how to program the digital, rectangular box.

He's not alone. Industry research indicates that up to 70 percent of people who buy programmable thermostats to save energy find it difficult to set them, so they don't. Instead of reaping the $150 a year the EPA estimates a programmable thermostat can save a household on heat and air conditioning, most people use the digital devices just like their old, mechanical models, which keep the temperature the same all day and night unless the homeowner moves the dial. For builders offering the units as an energy-saving upgrade, this means many of their home buyers aren't seeing promised savings.

Thermostat manufacturers, with a push from the federal Energy Star program, aim to make things easier with features they say make programming for automatic operation during certain times of the day as easy as following the commands on common electronic devices like cell phones and iPods.

"Our goal is that the thermostat of the future won't require any owner's manual at all because they're so intuitive," says Steve Arnholt, systems leader for controls
and indoor air quality for Trane.

SET IT AND FORGET IT
Today's basic programmable thermostats allow two additional settings: a boost around the time the home's occupants return for the evening and a bit less air after they're tucked into bed for the night. Most retain these settings for the weekdays and allow a separate schedule for Saturday and Sunday; higher-end devices let
the homeowner preprogram different times and temperatures seven days a week. Some programmable thermostats default to a manufacturer-selected setback schedule if the homeowner doesn't customize one.

But the capabilities mean little if the homeowner finds the units too complicated to adjust. Some of the latest models incorporate userfriendly details, including oversized touchscreens that display easy-to-follow prompts, such as: "What do you want to do? Heat or cool?" or, "Copy yesterday's setting."

SmartWay Solutions is marketing a Talking Thermostat that features audio playback of indoor temperatures and settings, and "talks" the user through step-by-step directions for setup. Clairion's thermostats give users pre-programmed options for setback times and temperatures, and display the percentage of energy each option will save. Several manufacturers sell models that couple humidity control with temperature control so the user has to deal with only one device.

"Even the basic one is like your basic dishwasher," notes builder Amy Alderink, co-owner of Bosgraaf Homes in Holland, Mich. "It has about eight buttons you never use."

The bells and whistles aren't impressing the folks at Energy Star as much as the industry's attention to chronic consumer complaints about ease of use. In fact, the government was set to pull its coveted Energy Star designation from programmable thermostats until manufacturers and environmental groups convinced it to hold off for two years while they address the problem through consumer education and simplified controls. Energy Star graces most programmable thermostats even though the appliance itself does not save energy.

"It's not one of those products where you just plug it in and it just happens for you," notes Jill Abelson, communications manager for Energy Star products. Rather, the savings materializes only if the consumer activates the device's energy-saving features—and most don't do it.

"The hope is [that manufacturers will] come up with ... new designs that would more reliably affect energy savings and wouldn't rely on user behavior," adds Denise Durrett, an Energy Star communications specialist, who says the industry is eager to retain the designation.

INCREASING INTEREST
In the meantime, sales of programmable thermostats are steadily increasing. Business research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimates the market for digital, programmable thermostats has grown about 5 percent a year since 2003, twice the demand for non-programmable digital thermostats. And consumer concerns about programming difficulties are unlikely to be a barrier to future sales, says the group, which foresees a popularity surge for the devices as home energy costs rise.

That demand became evident to Alderink when buyers of her 150-home-a-year firm's energy-efficient properties questioned why programmable thermostats weren't a standard feature. They are now.

Likewise, Yorkville, Ill.-based McCue Builders began installing the thermostats in response to an interest among younger, technologically savvy buyers, says project manager Sean Michaels. Upgrading from a non-programmable digital thermostat to a programmable model, says Michaels, gives the custom builder a slight edge over its competitors. "It's not something they specifically think about when they're buying a $400,000 or $500,000 home," says Michaels, "but they think if we've added that quality item, then we've probably added other quality items they didn't even think about. It really helps us."

In Atlanta, Touchstone Homes enjoys a good reputation among consumers and trade partners in part because the builder is a "forerunner" when it comes to offering upgraded energy features in its standard package, says Bob Nichols, a Monroe, Ga., contractor who serves as president of the builder's trade council. Because most Touchstone homes include programmable thermostats as a standard feature, Nichols says, "[Touchstone] helps the consumer with their energy bills by putting better-quality products in their homes. If I were in the market, they would be the first ones I'd go to."

Before long, builders might not have the option of installing anything but programmable thermostats. California already requires builders to install basic programmable units in new homes and limits homeowners to programmable models when they upgrade. And by 2008, two-way communication between home thermostats and the state's utilities will allow electric companies to temporarily lower or shut off the thermostat to prevent blackouts on excessively hot days.

Major Milestones

The programmable thermostat turned 100 last year.

The Electric Heat Regulator Co. of Minneapolis introduced the first setback clock thermostat—the Jewell—in 1906. The Jewell allowed the user to set the temperature down at night and the clock set it back up in the morning. The Electric Heat Regulator Co. later became Honeywell, the leading manufacturer of thermostats.

By 1913, Honeywell's Model 57 featured two clocks—one to set the temperature down, and the other to bring it back up. It was most popular in commercial buildings.

In 1960, the firm's T732 Day-Night Round thermostat featured a wind-up timer for semi-automatic night setback.

Twenty-six years later, Honeywell introduced a programmable thermostat that featured high-tech electronic circuitry for push-button programming.

In 2004, Honeywell and others unveiled touchscreens that displayed icons or other instructions to help users program their thermostats.

Today, some manufacturers are marketing thermostats that homeowners can program via their telephones or the Internet when they are away from home.

The next generation of programmable thermostats will communicate with electric companies, which will be able to control a home's temperature on excessively hot days when heavy use of air conditioning strains the utility's ability to fill demand.

BUILDING PRODUCTS

Smartway Solutions. Owners of the Talking Thermostat can hear audio playback of indoor temperature and temperature setting, as well as step-by-step audio directions when choosing programmable settings. Contractors can record a custom message for users to hear and can program their number to appear when the help button is pressed. Other features include reminders of when to change the filter, replace the batteries, and call for maintenance. 504-733-5888. www.smartwaysolutions.com.

Honeywell. The VisionPRO IAQ allows homeowners to manage temperature, humidification, dehumidification, ventiliation, and air filtration from one control. This thermostat can connect with a zone panel to control everything from one central point or can connect to a zoning system that works with dampers in the home's ductwork. 800-328-5111. www.honeywell.com.

HAI. The Omnistat-Z programmable thermostat has built-in Z-Wave transceivers, which allows it to communicate wirelessly with the maker's home controller to coordinate with other household automation functions such as security settings, time of day, and room occupancy. The Omnistat-Z RC-80 is designed for conventional single-stage heating and cooling HVAC systems. 800-229-7256. www.homeauto.com

Proliphix. The NT20e thermostat allows homeowners to monitor and adjust temperature settings via the Internet, and to receive e-mail or text message alerts of high or low temperatures. The NT20e also can monitor two remotely wired thermal sensors, which can be used to check zone thermal averaging or outside temperatures. 866-475-8464. www.proliphix.com.

Clairion. The THC-2000 thermostat's "save" display shows users the percentage savings associated with the settings they choose, eliminating confusion about how far they need to set back or set up their thermostats to achieve their savings targets, the maker says. Other features include 5-1-1 programming for weekday and Saturday and Sunday settings, temporary and permanent program override, and filter and energy usage counters. 800-633-9007. www.clairion.com.

Aprilaire. The Model 8570 programmable thermostat is designed for use with all HVAC equipment, including single-stage heating and cooling and multistage heat pumps with dual fuel. It has menu-driven programming for easy setup, lets customers know when their other air quality accessories need service, and can be programmed to display the contractor's name and phone number. 888-257-8801. www.aprilaire.com.

White-Rodgers. The newest product in the 80 series line, the 80 series Blue is a touchscreen thermostat with a 4-inch display screen. It features a variable override setting that allows for temperature adjustment during the current program period, as well as auto changeover, which enables the thermostat to transition between heating and cooling. 800-284-2925. www.white-rodgers.com.

Carrier. Six interchangeable faceplates and Edge Expansion Port (EXP) technology are the latest features for the Edge line of thermostats. EXP acts as a digital memory card that owners can use to program the thermostat on their computers. The Edge thermostat has one of the thinnest profiles at 8/10 inch, and its two-wire setup is an industry first, the maker says. 800-227-7437. www.carrier.com.

Braeburn. The Premier model 5300 Universal Auto Changeover Thermostat features seven-day and 5-2 day programming or non-programmable modes, menu-driven installation and setup, multi-level keypad lockout to prevent accidental temperature or settings adjustment, and a programmable independent fan control. The unit can be hard-wired or battery-operated. 866-268-5599. www.braeburnonline.com.

Innovation By Design. Users of the FlowZone can access the controller from the Internet or a PDA to monitor and manage their HVAC system from remote locations. The unit's main display provides single-point temperature control for each custom zone. 949-468-0818. www.innovation-by-design.com.

Trane. The 800 series touchscreen thermostat stores programming functions in its permanent memory, and the vacation program holds the programmed temperature for up to 256 days. This thermostat allows for seven-day programming, 24-hour programming, or manual operation, and it has an auto changeover function. Other features include a filter reminder key and real-time clock. 903-581-3660. www.trane.com.

Cadet. For contractors who don't want to wire a thermostat, the Smartbase acts as an onboard baseboard thermostat with the maker's F series 208/240-volt electric baseboard heaters. Energy Star-rated, the Smartbase has precise comfort control, digital temperature sensing, and 5-1-1 programming. It includes push-button controls and a digital display screen. 360-693-2505. www.cadetco.com.

Danfoss. The TP7000 features seven-day programming, allowing each day to be set differently, and 5-2 day programming, for weekday/weekend settings. It includes chrono-proportional control that ensures optimum comfort with minimal fuel consumption, the company says, and an optional Optimum start control that calculates the latest time the heating can be turned up to achieve the programmed temperature at the set time. 905-285-2050. www.danfoss.com.