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Green Living: Install a Programmable Thermostat

If your HVAC system uses one of the old manual thermostats, installing a programmable thermostat can both make your home more comfortable and save lots of money in the process. Experts estimate savings of as much as 15% on energy costs. While installation is relatively easy, it is important to follow the directions. The first is to turn off the power to the unit. This can be done by turning off the furnace switch located next to the furnace, or by turning off the circuit breaker for the furnace. Whichever method you choose, make certain the power is off before proceeding.

 Typical programmable thermostatThe most popular programmable thermostats are digital, which offer the most features in terms of multiple setback settings, overrides, and adjustments for daylight savings time. If your heating system is a heat pump, electrical resistance, or boiler system, you’ll have fewer options in choosing a programmable thermostat. Check with a heating supply company to see what is available for your system.

When programming your thermostat, consider the times when you normally go to sleep and wake up. If you prefer to sleep at a cooler temperature during the winter, you might want to start the temperature setback a bit ahead of the time you actually go to bed; you probably won't notice the house cooling off as you prepare for bed. Also consider the schedules of everyone in the household; is there a time during the day when the house is unoccupied for four hours or more? If so, it makes sense to adjust the temperature during those periods.


Removing the old thermostat is usually as simple as popping off the cover and removing the screws that attach it to the wall. Generally, you will find 4 color-coded wires attached to the thermostat. While the wire used in installation sometimes varies, the terminals where the wires attach are marked with letters denoting the location of the proper colored wires, generally Red, White, Yellow, and Green. If the color of your wires varies from the color noted on the screw posts, simply make a note of which color was attached to which post.

Loosen the screws that hold the wires in place. Be careful not to allow the wires to fall back into the wall cavity, as this could pose a more serious problem. Once the wires are removed, you can pull them through the old thermostat and set it aside.

Programmable thermostat with cover removedA programmable thermostat should be installed per the manufacturer’s recommendations, which will usually be as follows: Pull the wires through the appropriate opening and press the thermostat against the wall to see how it relates to the old location. You may need to cut a slot in the drywall to allow the wire to be moved so that the new thermostat covers both the hole and any unpainted areas.

There will be 2 or more screws that secure the thermostat to the wall. It’s best not to screw into drywall only, as the thermostat will loosen over time. If there is no wood backing, mark the location of the screws on the drywall and install plastic anchors to hold the screws. Once the thermostat is secured, connect the wires following the color code as discussed above. Then install the batteries, follow the set-up instructions, and you’re ready to begin saving money and energy.

Caution: Many older model thermostats contain mercury, a material dangerous to both the environment and to your health. Don’t throw yours in the trash. Many recycling centers or municipal waste disposal operations will dispose of these thermostats. You can also call local heating supply companies to see if they recycle them or can recommend companies that do.


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