End The Thermostat Wars: Zone In, Drop Out, Save Money


High Fuel Prices And A $1,500 Tax Credit Ignite Interest In Alternative Heating Sources. Image credit:Buffalo News, Money To Burn

Central heating is pretty much the US norm for standalone family residences. There are exceptions in far southern homes or in three season cottages and cabins, where space heaters suffice. Otherwise, the presence of a space heater - I include wood and pellet stoves in this category - is often viewed as a symptom of poor construction, leaky windows, poverty, or infirmity. Yet remarkably, store shelves are full of plug-in space heaters; and wood stoves are selling at a record clip. Why? Builders commonly cut costs by installing a single thermostat, making an entire home a central heating "zone." Consequently, Americans often heat empty rooms for an average household size of three persons (2.59, per the US Census of 2000) while sharing an average of 2,330 square feet. What can the "one zoner" can do to lower the heating bill and avoid family members fighting over the thermostat settings?Expensive, high-tech solutions.
If you own a home, break it up into as many individual thermostat-controlled zones as your budget allows. If you have a separate wing or highly trafficked family room at ground level, with garage access, be sure to have that area as a separate heating zone.

Learn how to properly use multiple set-point programmable thermostats; and teach other family members why they are important. More on this below.

In winter, turn the temperature setting way down in bedroom zone: have it kick up to "room temperature" before, and while retiring, to bed and again on awakening.

For the office cave.
If someone has a regularly-used upstairs or isolated ground floor office, this is where a single room zone makes sense - a zone within a zone, so to speak. Especially if the home worker tends to go on late into the night (like bloggers have been known to do), and assuming the office has a functioning door.

Wood burning has a tax advantage; but can mess with your zone settings.
A fireplace or wood stove or pellet stove are all forms space heater: albeit ones that require a fair amount of investment, personal involvement, and hard work. According to the Buffalo News article (link under graphic), wood and pellet stoves are selling like hotcakes these days, in part because of a substantial tax credit. Wood burning allows you to turn the central heating system thermostat way down, or even off if you are "in the right zone." If wood-burner heated air floats upstairs, it will likely shut off the thermostat for that zone, should it be at the top of the stairs. That makes for cold bed-rooms. You gotta have a plan people.

Technological underpinnings of thermostat wars.
My furnace maintenance guy tells me that he sometimes responds to customers asking him to 'reset the thermostat for winter.' Or 'for summer'. Some of us are just that technophobic, or myopic, or dumb. I see this anecdote as a metaphor for the larger issue of keeping thermostats in working order and representing a family's comfort and energy management consensus.

The fog and price of thermostat wars
A complex, expensive thermostat which handles variable schedules can get really messed up if people change the settings without discussing it with other family members. It's as important to have a consensus on the settings as it is to have a simple interface for making changes on the fly. Unfortunately, the really good ones still cost a few hundred bucks. Way past the budget of most folks who would be concerned with saving ten bucks here and ten there.

Low-tech solutions.
If the home is two-story, keep upstairs doors closed to keep heat in the downstairs living quarters, where you paid to have it.

Small, old-fashioned thermostats with only one "on" and one "off" setting per 24 hour cycle can do fine in an office or family room where you need lots of flexibility; and they are real cheap. Anyone can adjust them quickly with out messing up a "program."

Beyond that, you can close the blower vent or turn the radiator down in un-used rooms (making sure it won't get so cold along an external wall as to freeze plumbing).

Steal your eyes back from the interior decorator and makeover crew..
This is the "drop out" part mentioned in the title. Mass produced homes, put up over the last 20 years in the USA, were commonly designed as though it was a goal to prevent effective zone heating. It's cheaper for the builder to go with with fewer doors and reduced material costs from lower interior wall surface areas. Mysteriously, consumers seem to like it like just like that, mindless of the energy use penalty. This shared builder-consumer preference of wide open spaces and high ceilings reminds me of the oft heard claim from Detroit that "we only built the cars that consumers wanted" (energy inefficient designs mostly). Mega-cars, mega-buildings - a close parallel.

This preference has bled over into existing housing stock, thanks to fashion fads touted on cable TV and in home and garden magazines. Home "make over" consultants have had a couple of decades to brainwash us into wanting large open areas: constantly calling for tearing out walls or "opening this area up" so the "colors will work with this or that" kind of happy talk.

Architects of a century ago gave us the book. TV producers teach us to chew on the covers. When will it end? Judging by the decor mavens I see on TV these days, not anytime soon.

More posts on thermostats.
Do You Play "Thermostat Chicken"?
USB-Heated Fingerless Gloves Keep the Thermostat Turned Down ...
Ecobee Smart Thermostat Lets You Dip Your Toes into Smart Home Integration

Tags: Housing Industry

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