Shrink Your Carbon Footprint with a Smart Thermostat

Make saving energy easy and fun.

You can stay warm (or cool) in your home, use less energy, and save money by replacing your old thermostat with an easy to use learning (smart) thermostat. The operative word here is easy.

With a little training from you, a smart thermostat will learn your household’s temperature preferences, adjust to changes in your schedules, and suggest settings to save energy.

For instance, during the winter a smart thermostat will learn what time to turn your furnace down at night while your household is sleeping. On a hot day, a smart thermostat will learn when to turn on your air conditioning so that your home cools down before your kids get home from school or you arrive home from work. If you sign up for an account and download the app, you can control your thermostat using your smartphone and get detailed information about your home heating and cooling energy use.

A smart thermostat is likely to cost you between $150-$250, plus sales tax and possibly shipping if you buy it online. You may be able to install it yourself or with the help of a friend, but if not, hiring an installer will add to the cost. Most manufacturers claim that a smart thermostat could reduce your home heating and cooling energy use by at least 10-15% and that the thermostat will pay for itself in energy savings in two years or less.

2015 Residential Energy Use Pie Chart
2015 Residential Energy Use Pie Chart – Source The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration

There are probably 100 million thermostats hanging out in hallways across the United States. Imagine if every household had a smart thermostat. We could be comfortable in our homes, save some money, and most importantly decrease our reliance on burning fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes. When millions of people make even a small change, it can really add up to make a significant positive impact.

That all sounds wonderful so smart thermostats should be flying off store shelves, right?

I am highly motivated to curtail my energy use and yet it took me five years to decide to buy a smart thermostat because I was evaluating the purchase using outdated cost/benefit thinking.

Is a Smart Thermostat a Good Investment?

I have been eyeing smart thermostats since 2012 when I wrote about them in the post Use Your Thermostat to Save Energy and Money. At that time, I did the math and decided that replacing our old thermostat with a smart thermostat did not pencil out, meaning it did not seem like a good investment.

My spouse and I both work out of our home office so since we are home during the workday we use energy all day. However, we live in a temperate climate where the average winter temperature during the day is in the 50s and we do not have air conditioning. If we managed to save 10% a year on our natural gas bill, I estimated it would take at least four years or more for the energy savings to equal the cost of the smart thermostat.

So, what changed my mind?

First, I had to admit to myself that I was never going to learn how to use our existing programmable thermostat and that manually turning it on and off and adjusting the temperature when I thought about it was not an energy saving practice.

Programmable Thermostat Inner Workings
The Incomprehensible Inner Workings of Our Old Programmable Thermostat

Once or twice during the ten years, we have lived in our current home, I opened the thermostat cover and looked inside with the intent of learning how to program it. The inner workings seemed complicated and difficult to use. I sighed and closed the cover feeling defeated. I know I could have tried to find the instruction guide online, but I never did.

Then there was the argument that our current thermostat was operational so it would be wasteful to get rid of it. Eventually, I realized that using more natural gas than we need to is much more wasteful especially considering that extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels is harming people and the planet. We need to get off burning fossil fuels sooner rather than later and decreasing our own use is a step in the right direction.

The seemingly long payback period made me hesitant to spend $200 on a new thermostat. My only excuse for that holding me back is that I spent a couple of decades working in corporate America where every product purchase was evaluated based on how long it would take to pay for itself in either sales revenue or cost savings. Every decision was made with an eye on the financial bottom line.

My narrow thinking kept me from buying a smart thermostat until near the end of last year when I was researching and then writing about why you should learn to read your natural gas and electricity bills. My purpose was to empower readers to understand their own energy use and be responsible for decreasing their fossil fuel use. While I was editing my posts, I realized that I could and should do more than I was doing to reduce our household energy use by purchasing a smart thermostat.

Smart Thermostat Installation

Fortunately, my spouse agreed that we should move the dial forward on our goal to reduce our home energy use by purchasing a smart thermostat.

Of course, there are many different makes and models of smart thermostats on the market in a variety of price ranges. We opted for a Nest Thermostat E for $169 because it has a cool looking design and seemed easy to install and to use (it was and it is).

The picture at the top of the post shows what comes in the box accompanied by an easy to follow instruction guide. My spouse installed the new thermostat, however, even though I am not mechanically inclined I think I could have done it.

An optional rectangular piece of plastic comes in the box so you can cover up the outline and screw holes left on your wall from your old thermostat. My spouse is very handy, so we decided to spackle and paint over the wall.

Sure, replacing our old thermostat with a smarter version is a small change but imagine if everyone did it. If we want to have a habitable planet to live on in the future, we had better expand our vision of what constitutes a good investment.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Nest Thermostat What Comes in the Box – Photo Credit Nest Corporation

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Energy Efficient LED Christmas Lights

LED Christmas lights are festive and good for the planet.

You can make your holiday traditions more environmentally friendly by switching to energy saving LED Christmas lights.

Typically, I do not advocate getting rid of things that still work to replace them with more energy efficient models. This is because making even simple products uses resources, energy, and people power so it seems wasteful to dispose of products until they reach the end of their useful life and are not repairable.

That said, I think that the energy savings that LED Christmas lights can achieve is worth getting rid of operable incandescent Christmas lights and replacing them with LED lights.

Currently, in the United States, we generate 65% of our electricity by burning fossil fuels (34% natural gas, 30% coal, and 1% petroleum). You and I can help reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing our electricity use. With a population of over 326 million people, even small changes made by Americans can make a positive impact.

In this post, I will attempt to convince you to make the switch to LED Christmas lights and then provide some shopping tips.

Christmas Light Energy Efficiency – Incandescent vs. LED

In the 19th century and before, the only way to light a Christmas tree was with candles, which probably caused quite a few house fires. Fortunately, in 1882, Thomas Edison’s friend and business partner, Edward H. Johnson, created the first string of electric Christmas tree lights, which were safer than candles although back then electricity was not as safe as it is today. As electricity safety improved and it became more affordable, Christmas lights became popular outdoors, too.

During the past hundred years or so, incandescent Christmas lights have undergone technical advancement and design enhancement. They provide a pleasant warm light, but also convert a lot of their energy into heat instead of light. You can still buy incandescent Christmas lights but LED lights use up to 80% less energy, do not generate heat, and last about 25 times longer, thus making them the eco-friendly choice.

There is a wide variety of Christmas lights on the market today and making apples to apples comparisons can be a bit tricky. For instance, strings of classic C9 incandescent bulbs usually contain 25 bulbs, while most incandescent mini and LED light strings contain either 50 or 100 bulbs. Convoluting matters further, is that there is no regulation for the type and number of strings you may put on and in your home, a protocol for how many hours a day you may run your lights or an official definition of how many days constitutes the holiday season.

However, I think we can still do some comparisons that will illustrate why LEDs are by far the energy efficient choice.

In the following scenario, our fictitious family will decorate with six strings of Christmas lights (3 for their tree and 3 for their house) that they will run for 5 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 21 days. Electric companies charge by the kilowatt-hour (kWh) so that is what we will use for our comparisons. Keep in mind that the average U.S. household uses about 10,766 kWh of electricity per year, which rounded off is 897 kWh per month.

Christmas Light String of 25 Multi-Colored C9 Incandescent Bulbs175-Watt String of 25 Multi-Colored C9 Incandescent Lights

175 watts per string x 6 strings = 1,050 watts x 5 hours/day x 7 days/week x 21 days = 771,750 watts/1,000 = 771.8 kWh of electricity consumed over a 3 week period.

Christmas Light String of 50 Multi-Colored Mini Incandescent Bulbs24-Watt String of 50 Multi-Colored Mini Incandescent Lights

24 watts per string x 6 = 144 watts x 5 hours/day x 7 days/week x 21 days = 105,840/1,000 = 105.8 kWh of electricity consumed over a 3 week period.

Christmas Light String of 50 Multi-Colored Faceted C3 LED Bulbs4.2-Watt String of 50 Multi-Colored C3 LED Lights

4.2 watts per string x 6 = 25.2 watts x 5 hours/day x 7 days/week x 21 days = 18,522/1,000 = 18.5 kWh of electricity consumed over a 3 week period.

Now, let us put this in perspective.

If you were to decorate with the C9 incandescent Christmas lights and run them for three weeks, your household would consume a whopping 86% of the total electricity an average family uses in one month for just lighting up your home and Christmas tree. The mini incandescent lights would consume 11.8% and the LED lights 2%.

Using the same scenario, if just 10 million families swapped their old C9 incandescent lights for LEDs, the energy savings could power 618,614 homes for an entire year.

Are you ready to make the switch to LED Christmas lights? If you are, below are a few shopping tips.

Shopping for LED Christmas Lights

LED Christmas lights use a completely different lighting technology so do not expect them to look exactly like your old incandescent lights. LED Christmas lights are made in a dizzying array of shapes, colors, sizes, styles, and with or without effects so a little pre-planning will make shopping easier and you are more likely to purchase lights that you can and will enjoy for years to come.

  • Doing some online research and reading reviews will help you get an idea of what is available and how various LED Christmas light strings have performed for the people who already bought them.
  • Shop at a store with LED Christmas light displays. That way, you can see what they look like on and in action before you buy them.
  • Many stores will recycle your old Christmas lights so make the effort to remember to bring your old lights with you when you go to the store.
  • Be selective because these lights are going to be lighting up your home and Christmas trees for many years, even decades, so think twice about the shape, style, and effects. Multi-functional light strings may seem cool in the store but turn into a hassle when you get home and cannot figure out how to get them to stay on the effect you like or you have to cycle through eight choices every time you turn them on.
  • Generally, you get what you pay for so do not grab the cheapest lights you can find.

This year give yourself and the planet the gift of energy savings by recycling your incandescent Christmas lights and decorating with LED lights.

Merry Christmas!

Featured Image at Top: Out of Focus Colored Christmas Lights on a Blue Background – Photo Credit iStock/aaron007

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