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Programmable thermostat gets a very chilly reception


Like many Marylanders, the recent heat wave sent me scurrying to the controls of the air conditioner. Early in the week, the weather switched from behaving like delightful April temperatures to a sweltering mid-August mode. I consoled myself with the thought that my home's cooling equipment was ready to spring into action. Or so I thought.

A new thermostat had been hooked up to my home's central air-conditioning system. But as I got acquainted with the device, it became apparent to me that chilling out was not going to be as simple as it once was.

My old thermostat had limited choices. I set the needle to a desired temperature and switched a lever to "cool." That was it.

This new thermostat was programmable. It had buttons, options, a clock and its own swinging door. As I struggled to punch the buttons answering its many probing questions, I got the feeling that it was my lifestyle, not the electronic memory of the device, that was being put in order.

The thermostat wanted to know how late I slept, what time I shuffled out the door to work, what time I got home, and finally when I went to bed. It wanted to know my favorite temperature at each segment of the day. Finally it wanted to know how I spent my weekend. For such a bland-looking little box, it asked a lot of intrusive questions.

Theoretically turning over all this information to a device on the wall might save me money. Armed with the data, the "brain" would turn the air conditioning on only when members of the household were home and awake, thereby cutting down the electricity bill.

Yet being interrogated by my thermostat made me uneasy. Take, for example, the matter of revealing to the device what time I get out of bed in the morning. It has been well established in America that the titans of industry, the go-getters of our culture, rise early and begin working on their wondrous accomplishments by dawn's early light. That isn't me.

I prefer to stay in bed as late as possible, say 15 minutes before my first scheduled duty. On those glorious mornings that I don't have anything pressing, I prefer to lie in the bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering about the meaning of life and whether those plaster cracks in the ceiling are getting larger.

Since the thermostat did not offer "last possible moment" as an option for when I rise, I tapped in 7 a.m., which is about the time my wife hits the floorboards, wide awake and ready to take on the world. It is good to have at least one person per household happy to greet the morning.

My best answer to those other thermostatic queries - what time I leave the house, what time I get home, what time I go to bed - was: "It depends." Sometimes I take the long route home, with a social stopover or two, and don't hit the door at home until after 8 p.m. Other days I make it home to see the 7 p.m. reruns of The Simpsons.

Speaking of reruns, on some dissolute nights, I stay up later than I should, eating popcorn and watching stupid stuff on television. It is bad enough to hear my mother's voice echoing inside my head telling me to "go to bed, go to bed" and end this revelry. But now I have a thermostat nagging me as well, turning off the air conditioner when it is past my bedtime, making me hot and bothered.

For these and other reasons, I had trouble coming up with answers to the thermostat's persistent inquiries. I couldn't commit to what I thought was the approved routine.

So on the first morning that the heat wave hit, I ignored the flashing demands for information from the device and went to work.

It got hotter and more humid during the day, and by the time I walked home that evening my shirt was soaking wet and pasted to my back.

Aided by my younger son, I began punching numbers on the thermostat's control pad, filling in the data fields.

At this point, I was so uncomfortable, I would answer any question posed by man or machine to get the cool air flowing.

I was also aided by advice I had received earlier in the day from Doug Porter, who heads Ace Metal, the company that installed the air-conditioning system and the new thermostat.

When I told him that I was having trouble telling the machine how I spent my time, he told me I should do what people have been doing for years when they report on their daily habits: I should lie.

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