Everybody likes the idea of saving energy costs, but even the most dedicated penny-pinchers may find their eyes glazing over when the talk turns to R values, degree-days and British thermal units.
But suppose there were a simple device that you could put in your home that would monitor your heating and cooling, adjust it to fit the way you live, save energy -- and even, in some cases, save you big bucks. Suppose it was also inexpensive, easy to install, and once it's set up, utterly forgettable. That's one you'd want to know about, right?
According to a major manufacturer, however many people may know about it, only 20 percent of the households in this area have actually installed this device, which can save as much as 22 percent of home energy costs over the course of a year. That means 80 percent of households are not getting the benefits of this energy saving.
The device is a programmable thermostat, which reduces energy use at times when you don't need it, such as at night, or during the day when the house is empty.
"It makes a lot of sense for people who work," said JoAnne Liebeler, a home-improvement expert who was co-host of the PBS program "Hometime," and who is now a spokesman for Honeywell Home Systems. If you can turn the heat or air-conditioning down twice, during the night and during the day, "that's how you're going to save the maximum amount," Ms. Liebeler said.
Honeywell said the savings from using the programmable thermostats are based on setbacks that are 5 degrees higher in the summer, and 10 degrees lower in winter. That is, if you normally set your air-conditioning to come on at 70, but set it back to 75 for one or two periods a day, and normally set your heat at 75, but set it back to 65 once or twice a day, you can save between 12 and 22 percent of your energy costs. (Savings also depend on the weather and the construction of your house.)
Programmable thermostat prices start at about $50; the most elaborate Honeywell model is about $90. Savings from using one of the devices can amount to $100 to $200 a year, according to Honeywell. Other manufacturers, including Hunter, make similar devices.
Ms. Liebeler was in Glen Burnie last week to demonstrate an interactive video kiosk that can help people figure out how much they'll save by using a programmable thermostat.
The company "wants to give people a crash course in programmable thermostats," Ms. Liebeler said, so they developed a CD-ROM program that allows people to customize information to their needs.
Honeywell hopes to put the kiosks in all home-improvement centers that carry its products. Customers can find out what the thermostats do, how much energy they might save, and how to install and program the devices. (It's not as difficult as programming a VCR.) There are now kiosks at Home Depot in Glen Burnie and Hechinger in Columbia.
You can, of course, "program" your old-fashioned manual thermostat for energy savings: Turn it up when you get up in the morning, down when you leave for work, up when you get home, and down when you go to bed. The point is to reduce the amount of "run time" in the heating or cooling unit -- that is, the amount of time the furnace or air-conditioner is actually running.
A thermostat, programmable or not, is not an accelerator. Turning up the heat doesn't make the house get warmer faster, it just makes the run time longer. And that's what costs money. If you can reduce the run time by 10, 20 or even 50 percent, that's how much energy you'll save.
Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. recommends a standard winter thermostat setting of 68 degrees. For every degree below 73 you set the thermostat, you will save 4 percent in energy costs. That is, if you set it back to 64 degrees at night, you'll save 16 percent of your nighttime energy costs. For summer, BG&E; recommends a setting of 78 degrees; for every degree above 72 you set the thermostat, you'll save 7 percent in energy costs.
BG&E; doesn't recommend manual setbacks with a heat pump, because when you turn the heat back up, it will cause the emergency heating to kick in, wiping out any savings from the setback. A programmable thermostat, which works by gradually raising the temperature, will not cause the back-up heat to come on.
If you do want to check out the Honeywell kiosks, take along some statistics. You'll need to know how many months a year you use heat, and how many months you use cooling, and what your current average utility bills are for the heating and cooling seasons. And it wouldn't hurt to take along a child. They get the hang of the multimedia system real quickly.