The pitch for a programmable thermostat has been almost predictable for a while. Sellers have touted them as energy-saving devices for homeowners - set your thermostats accordingly for when people are home, when they're away and when they're sleeping. When used properly, homeowners can save up to $180 annually on energy bills.

Certain programmable thermostats used to carry the well-recognized Energy Star logo, part of a program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for energy savings. But Energy Star decided in 2009 to drop the programmable thermostats from its program; beginning in 2010, manufacturers were no longer allowed to label new ones with this logo. Energy Star program officials said that while there may be savings with the thermostats, there was no guarantee. In other words, if people don't set their thermostats correctly or program them at all, then they wouldn't save.

While Energy Star is no longer available for thermostats, Energy Aware has emerged to take its place. Launched in June by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Energy Aware is a new certification and labeling program for high-performance, programmable thermostats for residential use. According to NEMA, the program's intent is to assist distributors, contractors, installers and homeowners in choosing programmable thermostat models that will best meet individual and family needs to manage and reduce energy usage while maintaining comfortable indoor temperatures.

NEMA worked with HARDI's Controls Council to develop a Memorandum of Understanding for HARDI to promote and endorse the Energy Aware program. The Controls Council ratified the memorandum and, in December, the HARDI board of trustees formally approved the agreement.

Paul Neustadt, chair of the Controls Council and president of Downer's Grove, IL-based Neuco Inc., says members of the council had some constructive comments about the program but agreed that the industry needed a third-party endorsement about the energy savings that come with the thermostats.

Energy Aware fills that void, he says, and it will be a popular selling point for distributors and contractors alike. "Energy Star was very recognizable," he acknowledges. "The challenge will be to raise the profile of Energy Aware with consumers and contractors and bring them up to speed. It will behoove the wholesaler to promote it to their contractor customers."

Manufacturers of programmable thermostats were the driving force behind Energy Aware, says William Hoyt, industry director for NEMA. "Manufacturers wanted a credible standards organization, and they came to us and said, 'Let's put our heads together and see what kind of program we can come up with.'"

Braeburn, Honeywell and White-Rodgers, all manufacturers of energy-saving programmable thermostats, are working with NEMA as supporters of the Energy Aware program.

They got to work at the end of 2009 to create a program that would provide some real data points to drive home the energy savings of the thermostats. “We were very careful in the steps that we took to put the program together,” Hoyt says. This included developing an operations manual for testing, creating the logo and license agreements to allow nonqualified NEMA members to become part of the program.

Those involved in Energy Aware's creation also saw this as an opportunity to address some of the weaknesses of the Energy Star program. In the new program, an ISO-certified laboratory must test and certify manufacturers' products.

"So it's a two-step qualification process," Hoyt says. Energy Aware also requires continual testing of products - a third of a manufacturer's products that qualify for Energy Aware certification face annual testing to remain in the program. All products that carry the Energy Aware label will be tested within a three-year period after initial certification.

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Participating companies must certify that their products meet the applicable energy-efficiency standards of NEMA's DC 3, Annex A-2010 Energy Efficiency Requirements for Programmable Thermostats. These requirements exceed Energy Star requirements.

Among the key features of an Energy Aware thermostat is an automatic setback at eight-hour intervals with a minimum differential of two degrees. With other programmable thermostats, home- owners often install them and forget to program them. Neustadt says that he's been in the homes of friends who have told him just that: They understand that programming their thermostats will save on their energy costs, but they've never gotten around to doing it. In their minds, it is too complicated.

With pre-programmed setpoint times and temperatures that come “out of the box” plus the ease of programming, Energy Aware-certified thermostats are designed to alleviate those concerns among homeowners. The Energy Aware thermostats also are designed to be more user friendly in other ways.

Among the features of Energy Aware thermostats are:

  • Greater flexibility in programming to match users' schedules. Energy Star had a minimum 5-2 (weekday/weekend) schedule; Energy Aware allows for 5-2, 5-1-1 or 7-day independent programming.

  • Installers can match the control to the equipment type, which ensures correct cycling. This results in reduced droop and minimizes the overshoot of room temperatures.

  • Backlighting is required to improve users' ability to see the screen and understand what the program is doing.

  • Visual indicator is required to show that auxiliary heat is running. This allows the user to make adjustments to minimize its use.

  • Visual indicator is required to show when the battery is in use and alert the user that the programmed schedule may be eliminated if the battery runs out.

  • Hold indicator is required. This makes the user aware that the hold may be reducing their energy savings.

  • A 1.5°F maximum differential. This prevents users from feeling discomfort, which could lead them to change the temperature setting, and ultimately spend more on energy.

  • Static temperature accuracy of plus or minus 1°F. If readings do not match the actual temperature, the setback schedule will not provide the full savings or the users may feel uncomfortable and override the program.

In addition to working with HARDI, NEMA is reaching out to other industry associations to spread the word and increase awareness of the program. Hoyt says 2011 will be a big year for the Energy Aware program as programmable thermostats (with the new logo) hit the shelves of distributors and retail stores. “We're excited about 2011,” he says.

The design of the Energy Aware logo was carefully created to serve as a trigger for energy savings among consumers in the same vein as Energy Star. "We think it's easily recognizable," Hoyt says, adding that it is of similar size as the old logo.

NEMA and its manufacturing partners have a website (getenergyaware.com) that explains the program and provides product information about Energy Aware products. Programmable thermostats from Braeburn, Honeywell and White-Rodgers are featured on the Energy Aware website with links directly to the manufacturers' websites.

Neustadt says the distributors that he's talked to are enthusiastic about Energy Aware. "Setbacks are what I call low-hanging fruit for saving money. It's easy," he says. "For wholesalers, I think it's very important to have something."


Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at michael.maynard@lycos.com.