Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons

In today’s energy conscious society, that focuses on maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing energy costs, the programmable thermostat continues its reign as a significant (potentially large) energy saving device throughout society, in residential and industrial settings.

It will become even more so, as the phase-in of green energy sources progress, and people grow more comfortable and proficient at operating digital computer devices like these.  They can reduce overconsumption of heating and cooling fuels, by automatically controlling when the temperature is set to warmer and cooler values.  Once programmed, the climate controller makes these adjustments according to the entered schedule, and the operator need not worry about turning the furnace up and down when he gets home at night and leaves for work in the morning.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF Smart Thermostat, front view, showing full-color screen in action.
Honeywell RTH9580WF Smart Thermostat, front view, showing full-color screen in action.

Pros, Advantages, Benefits, and Features

Save energy.  The primary reason for this innovation by companies like Honeywell, Lux, American Standard, et al, is to promote more efficient energy usage, not only save dollars on the average residential fuel bills, but to cut down carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, and to conserve the fossil fuels themselves (oil, coal, and gas).  They do this by supporting automated temperature adjustments, for when no one is home.  Your house need not be kept as warm in the winter time, or as cool in the summer time when you’re not there.  Less air conditioned or less heated environments may be okay while you sleep as well.  Some energy suppliers also provide incentives for time-shifting energy consumption, encouraging less usage during the day, and more usage at night.  These thermostats can be set to conform to these incentive plans, further augmenting your energy savings.

Programmability.  With the advent of digital clock thermostats during the last decade of the twentieth century, a plethora of new and imaginative climate control features became practical.  Before this time, when microprocessor technology based climate control devices arrived in the mainstream, most affordable thermostats were little more than manually settable temperature sensing switches.  When you set them, they stayed at the same temperature, until you set them again.  If you forgot to turn them down before going on vacation, your furnace / central air would run as normal, as though you were still at home, wasting lots of energy to heat / cool an unoccupied living space.  But programmable thermostats overcome this limitation of manual thermostats, by offering unattended, scheduled setting of environmental temps.

Increases comfort.  Because these digital devices offer, by default, a smaller temperature differential (the temperature that the unit turns off the furnace, minus the turn on temperature).  Many current models have a 1 degree temperature differential, which means that, for example, when set to maintain room temperature at 70 degrees, the furnace comes on when that falls to 69.5 degrees, and turns off when it rises to 70.5 degrees.  Older, mechanically-based thermostats typically had a three to five degree differential.  The result was that occupants would begin feeling noticeably chilled before the furnace would kick on, and noticeably hot and sweaty, before the furnace would shut down.  Programmable thermostats however, minimize these temperature swings with their tight differentials.  Many models allow you to adjust the temperature differential as well.

Can be monitored and controlled remotely.  The Internet enabled thermostats can be accessed and manipulated from anywhere else on the Internet via smart phone, tablet, laptop, or other computer.  These allow not only setting of the current temperature as well as scheduling future temperature changes, but you can also see what the current temperature in your home is, as well as check the proper operation of your climate control system.

Keep track of furnace maintenance needs.   Most thermostats beyond the bare-bones basic models these days,  count how many hours the furnace has run since the last time the filter was changed, the media pad in central humidifiers was replaced, and how long it’s been since the last maintenance check by a qualified technician.  Alerts (either via beeps, texts, or emails) can then be issued after settable times, to let you know that it’s time to change the filter or have your furnace checked.  With older manual thermostats, you had to remember when to call the tech.  Programmable units offload this work from you, and simply notify you when the work should be done.

Cons, Disadvantages, Limitations, and Problems

Cost more to buy.  The conventional, non programmable thermostats typically cost less than thirty dollars, while the programmable digital versions, even introductory models, typically run more than fifty dollars, and many of them cost well over a hundred thirty dollars.  However, climate control via computer scheduling can quickly return the initial investment, in significantly lower energy bills.

Thermostat programming can be complex.  Many complain that programmable thermostats are difficult to learn how to use.  Indeed, many families that live in homes equipped with them, do not actually use the scheduling temperature adjustments feature, because they cannot, or will not learn how to do it.  However, with the latest graphical LCD touchscreen displays that come bundled in modern set back thermostats, operation can be accomplished by most anyone who takes a little time to learn how to work the unit.

New technologies can intimidate.  Many resist learning how to use devices like these, because they’re afraid of breaking something, or they simply wish not to “waste the time,” reading through the manual.  If only they knew however, just how easy to set up today’s digital thermostats have become.  Most now, you don’t even have to program initially, because they come from the manufacturer, with preset programs; programs that work well in the typical household.  Then, once your comfortable with working the on-screen menus, you can tailor the operations to your specific energy usage patterns and needs.

Correct usage is essential for the highest energy savings.  Often, switching to a programmable thermostat saves little or no energy; particularly if incorrectly installed, set, or programmed.  As noted, a slight learning curve exists with these devices, as compared to manual thermostats, and to realize maximum savings, you must traverse that curve, and come to understand how the unit works, and then, how to set it for best benefit.  The potential savings, it seems, may have ben inflated somewhat.


We’ve owned several programmable thermostats over the decades, and though precisely measuring the actual energy use reductions has been impossible in our various houses and apartments, the climate control systems do seem to run, over all, for fewer hours each month, when controlled by a programmable thermostat.   Usability of the units has never been a problem here; though a big reason why there has not been greater savings for many, is that they simply never learned how to optimize the programs for their particular furnace type, type of house, and exterior climate.  But even if you never learn how to best program it, the remote control features via the Internet make these thermostats a techie’s dream toy.  They’re fun to play with and check what’s going on at home with the furnace when you’re 3,000 miles away.  We like the digital precision of today’s computerized thermostats, and one thing is for sure: The limited temperature swings certainly do promote a more consistent comfort level throughout the home.  These features alone, make the programmable thermostat well worth the investment; the energy savings for us, are icing on the cake.  We recommend them thus.

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Revision History

  • 2015-11-25: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2014-11-22: Initially published this article.