No matter what type of heating system you have, one of the keys to its operation is the thermostat. Most people don’t give much thought to that little box on the wall, other than to set it and forget it — but the right thermostat can hold the key to both energy savings and improved comfort.

At the lower end of the cost spectrum, simple slide-setting thermostats can be surprisingly inaccurate. It’s something of a guess as to what temperature you are actually setting, since you are relying on the estimated position of a little slide marker set between two numbers. What you think is a setting of 68 degrees may in fact be several degrees higher then that, which wastes energy. And on a cold morning when you inch the slide up a little for additional heat, it’s too easy to head off to work and forget to move it back, resulting in a heating system that runs all day when no one is there to enjoy it.

The answer to both of those problems is the programmable thermostat. Programmable thermostats are electronic, and utilize advanced heat sensing circuitry that is much more sensitive and accurate. A digital readout shows 68 degrees exactly, without guesswork, and that 68 degrees that you ask for will be much closer to 68 degrees in reality.

Of even greater importance is the ability to set multiple temperatures for different times of the day and different days of the week. The typical setback thermostat offers four control settings:

“Wake” which is the temperature you want to have the house reach before you wake up in the morning; “Leave,” which sets the temperature back to a cooler setting when you leave for work and the house is unoccupied; “Return,” which raises the temperature back up prior to your arrival home from work in the evening; and “Sleep,” which lowers the temperature back down again for when you go to bed. 

Digital input controls let you easily set both the temperature and the time of day for each of the four settings. For example, you may want the temperature at 65 degrees when you awake at 6 a.m. Program that in, and the thermostat’s circuitry will activate the heating system in advance of that “wake” time to have the house at or near that temperature at that time. If you would like the house to stay at an energy efficient 55 degrees while you’re at work between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and also when you’re asleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but come up to 68 degrees while you’re home in the evenings between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., program the “leave” and “sleep” settings with those times and temperatures. The thermostat will drop the temperature at 8 a.m., raise it back up prior to 5 p.m. so you come home to a warm house, then drop it back down again at 10 p.m.

Like to stay up a little later on the weekends, and maybe sleep in a little later as well? Most setback thermostats offer individualized settings for “weekdays” – Monday through Friday – and “weekends” – Saturday and Sunday – which let you set different wake, leave, return and sleep settings for those groups of days.

Does your work week not fit the normal Monday through Friday routine? Do you only work half a day on Tuesday and Thursday, or have a child that gets home from school at 3 p.m. two days a week? Then select one of the many programmable thermostats that offer individual settings for each day of the week.

Programming the thermostat is simple. First, lay out the times and temperatures for the different days of the week on a piece of paper. Then, following the instructions included with the thermostat, you set the current time of day and the current day of the week, then enter each of the desired times and temperatures for each of the four settings. The whole process typically requires only about 15 to 20 minutes when the thermostat is first installed, and a battery backup holds all those settings in memory in the event of a power outage.

In addition to the programmed settings, there are additional control buttons that allow you to override the program and raise or lower the temperature temporarily, all without altering the stored program. This is a real advantage if you want to warm the house up a little more on a cold day, or if you want to temporarily hold a consistent lower temperature while you’re away on vacation. The thermostat will hold that temporary setting for as long as you wish, then a single push of the “restore program” button will instantly return it to the original programmed times and temperatures.

If your system has cooling capabilities as well as heating, there are programmable thermostats that have both heating and cooling modes. Switching the thermostat to the cooling mode will offer you the same four time and temperature setting options for the air conditioning side of the system.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at


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