Smarter One Thermostat at a Time

The world has gotten “smarter,” and so has your thermostat. We have already seen a flurry of media around “smart” thermostats, and that will continue to balloon to “smart” homes. When I mentioned the idea of this blog to an industry peer, he was surprised that I would take a crack at explaining what some might consider the obvious.

I told my friend that despite being in the industry for years, I only recently realized that the public — and yes, some regulators in our energy and environment industry — were unfamiliar with the capabilities and the differences between a programmable thermostat and a smart one. That was an immediate red flag for a definition and a blog topic.

A programmable thermostat allows you to set the temperature for days or weeks, even if you’re absent. We most commonly associate it with setting a daytime and nighttime temperature without having to touch it again.

A smart thermostat can do all of this and more. We associate them with home automation and having a Wi-Fi and internet connection. They are intuitive and “learn” from your programming.

A public relations consultant told me how astonished he was to see a CBS Sunday Morning segment on television that centered on the NEST, which is a smart thermostat. “I couldn’t believe the show would focus a segment on a thermostat,” he said. “It was a public relations coup.”

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised, because the segment (and those who pitched the idea) answer the two most important questions when trying to influence the media:  Why should I care, and why should I care now? The segment suggested— why should I care — because it was a technological advancement with far greater capability than what the viewer probably had at home. It answered the “why should I care now” aspect by combining three elements: it was available now, it was affordable now and it was really cool, right now. There was the implication that this new type of thermostat was a trend that had a practical component to it.

Of course, the real story is more complicated, but in my world — recovering mercury containing thermostats — it was a classic case of positive unintended consequences. At TRC, we presumed that many of those people who would buy a smart thermostat would have a contractor handle the replacement. When those contractors saw a mercury containing thermostat, they would follow protocol and place it in the TRC pipeline for safe disposal.

A little perspective might be useful. I’m fond of telling friends that we didn’t go from a Ford Pinto to a Mercedes overnight. It evolves over time, sometimes quickly, other times gradually. But all of us have seen luxury items attached with special features that eventually trickle down to the commonplace. Initially only luxury cars had push-button windows. The rest of us had to be content with rolling down the window manually. When’s the last time you rolled down a car window manually?

We can say the same for smart thermostats. The growth will continue at an exciting pace. In 2014, there were only 2.5 million homes with smart thermostats in North American, according to Statista. They project that number will climb to 33 million by 2020, an increase of 1,220 percent.

Contractors will presumably handle the changeouts for those existing thermostats, and the ones that contain mercury will hopefully end up in a TRC bucket for proper disposal.

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