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use and yet it took me five years to decide to buy a smart thermostat because I was evaluating the purchase using outdated cost/benefit thinking.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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Environmentally Friendly Christmas Tree Tradition

It is time for a new Christmas tree tradition for the 21st century.

Regardless of whether you are a real Christmas tree aficionado or an artificial tree enthusiast, you can make your Christmas tree tradition more eco-friendly.

Celebrating the holidays with a decorated Christmas tree in your home is a well-established custom in the United States dating back to the late 19th century. Our family is one of the 95 million American families who will be displaying a Christmas tree in their home this year.

Christmas trees have been a highlight of the holiday season for me ever since I was a little kid, but after living in a Monterey pine forest for a few years I began worrying about the environmental impact of Christmas trees, both real and artificial.

In 2014, I decided to conduct some research to try to determine if a real or artificial tree was a better choice from an environmental perspective. If you are interested you can read about my findings in the post, Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree? Nothing I learned induced me to switch from a real tree to an artificial tree or to give up Christmas trees altogether, but I committed myself to making our Christmas tree tradition more environmentally friendly.

You, too, can green your Christmas tree tradition. Below are some eco-friendly tips for real and artificial trees and a suggestion for a new tradition.

Green Tips for Artificial Christmas Trees

  • If you are serious about greening your Christmas tree tradition, avoid buying a trendy tree that you will be sick of in a few years and will want to replace. Buy a tree that you can see yourself enjoying for at least ten years and hopefully more.
  • It is hard to judge looks or quality online so go to a store with artificial Christmas trees on display.
  • Select a tree that looks well built and resilient enough to survive putting up and taking down year after year.
  • If you are buying a tree with lights already installed, opt for energy-efficient LED Christmas lights. If not, recycle your incandescent lights (even minis) and replace them with LED lights.
  • After the holidays, carefully pack up your tree and put it in a safe storage space. Artificial trees cannot be recycled so your goal should be to keep it out of a landfill as long as possible.

Green Tips for Real Christmas Trees

One non-environmental factor that makes real Christmas trees attractive to me is that they grow on farms in the United States providing jobs for Americans, while most artificial tree manufacturing occurs overseas.

  • Buy a sturdy tree stand built to last for decades and store it in a place where you can find it next year.
  • Organic Christmas trees are still rare in many areas, but if you can find one buy it.
  • Do not have your tree flocked. First, why buy a real tree if you are just going to cover it with synthetic material and second, flocked trees cannot be recycled.
  • If you still have incandescent Christmas tree lights, recycle them and purchase LED lights.
  • After the holidays, make sure you recycle your tree. Many towns offer curbside pick up or places where you can drop off your tree. The trees are chipped to create mulch and you may be able to pick up free mulch for your own yard or garden. Another option is to cut up the tree to fit in your green recycling bin if you have one.

Start a New Christmas Tree Tradition – Buy One, Plant Two

In 2014, after looking into the environmental impact of real and artificial Christmas trees, I decided to begin a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree and encouraged readers to join me. I proposed that each year we buy a real or artificial Christmas tree or put up an existing artificial tree, we plant a new tree or get someone to plant one on our behalf in our yard, a park, or a forest.

That year, we planted a tiny cypress tree seedling that we had rescued from a street median. Three years later, the cypress tree is about 9 feet tall and flourishing.

Last year, I raised the ante on my tree planting to buy one, plant two. We selected two Big Sur Coast Redwood tree seedlings at the local nursery and planted them in our yard.

The redwood trees are still alive but they only grew about an inch. In hindsight, it seems like perhaps they needed more shade, water, and fog. Nevertheless, the trees have made it to the one-year mark so I am hopeful that they are established enough to live here for a couple hundred years.

This year I decided to obtain some expert advice about what type of trees to plant. At the December meeting of the California Native Plant Society in San Luis Obispo, CA, I cornered two botanists (in a nice way) and asked them for recommendations.

As a non-botanist, I was grateful that they did not start bandying about scientific names and took my question seriously. They both mentioned Toyon as one of their first two suggestions.

Interestingly, to me at least, the Saturday before the meeting, my spouse and I had gone on a native plant walk (it was a grueling uphill hike) and Toyon was the first plant pointed out on the trail.

Decorated Real Christmas Tree December 2017My spouse and I conferred about the botanists’ suggestions and determined that Toyon was the right choice for this year.

Our local nursery in Cambria only had two Toyons in stock. One was short and bushy and the other was several feet tall with a scattering of leaves. We opted to purchase both of them and then selected a Christmas tree, which is now beautifying our living room.

In the interest of giving the Toyons the best possible start on life in our yard, I decided to do a little research before we planted them. I learned that scientific name for Toyon is Heteromeles arbutifolia (I dare you to try saying that aloud) and it is called Christmas Berry and California Holly, which apparently inspired the name for the city of Hollywood. I read that Toyons are shrubs which can grow up to 30 feet tall and are supposedly easy to grow and deer resistant.

After mulling over several locations, we selected a spot that gets a little shade from a nearby Monterey pine tree. We planted the Toyons near each other, spread some mulch, and gave them some water. The deer that visit our yard do not strictly adhere to deer resistant plant guidelines so as a safety precaution we encircled our Toyons with fencing, which we will remove once the Toyons get big enough to hold their own with the deer.

Readers, I hope you will join me and expand your Christmas tree tradition to include planting two trees. If you do not have a yard to plant trees in, then consider making a donation (cash or labor) to a local tree planting program. Type “tree planting program” and the name of your town into your Internet search window to find local and regional opportunities for tree planting at parks, open spaces, nature preserves, schools, and nearby state or national parks.

Imagine if every one of the 95 million families displaying a Christmas tree this year each planted two trees. Soon, 190 million trees would be providing shade, filtering water, generating oxygen, furnishing wildlife habitat, and just being beautiful. Now, that is what I call a green gift.

Merry Christmas!

Featured Image at Top: Red Christmas Ornament with White Snowflakes Hanging on a Christmas Tree Branch – Photo Credit iStock/JurgaR

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