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Posted on December 18, 2012

Can a Smart Thermostat Save You Money? Some PG&E Customers are Finding Out

By Jonathan Marshall

Long before the advent of smart meters, home energy displays and other high-tech devices, the humble thermostat was helping customers manage and save energy. By regulating heating and cooling, these devices now control about 9 percent of electric consumption and 37 percent of gas consumption in the California — in the residential sector alone.

PG&E is working with thermostat maker Honeywell and behavioral-software experts at Opower on a 12-month customer trial of smart thermostats.

But thermostats are going high-tech these days as well. New models offer all manner of programming features and options, wireless and Internet connectivity, integration with home energy displays, and even sophisticated software to learn customer preferences over time.

All great in theory, but some of those capabilities might be too much for busy customers to grasp. According to some studies, nearly half of customers put their programmable thermostats on “long-term hold” — set to one temperature, regardless of the day of time or if they are home.

Vendors, utilities, and energy-efficiency experts believe that customers will become more empowered to use their thermostat’s capabilities if they can take advantage of friendly smartphone apps that inform them of energy-saving opportunities and make it easy to adjust their settings as needed.

If you are going away for the weekend, or staying late at the office, wouldn’t it be nice to turn your heat on or off remotely with a few taps on your phone? With such control at your fingertips, the savings on your energy bill can really add up.

Excited by the potential to help customers stay on top of their energy use, PG&E is working with a partnership of venerable thermostat maker Honeywell and behavioral-software experts at Opower on a 12-month customer trial of smart thermostats. The goal is to gauge customer acceptance of and experience with the technology, as well as estimate the realistic energy savings for customers in PG&E’s diverse service territory.

Selected participants get a professionally installed Honeywell VisionPRO thermostat at no charge, and download a free smartphone app from Opower that allows customers to remotely control their heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The app provides energy-saving tips to customers to reduce heating and cooling costs by controlling their thermostat settings. Trial recruitment is currently under way in Fresno, Madera and Kern counties. Participants must own a home and have electric and gas accounts with PG&E, central heating and cooling, an iPhone or Android mobile phone, and broadband Internet access. Other criteria apply as well.

PG&E hopes that the smart thermostat solution will help customers who depend heavily on heating and cooling to save about 5 percent on their electricity and gas use.

PG&E won’t know the results of its trial for another year, but has garnered initial findings, which were published in a recent report. So far, customers generally seem enthusiastic and are pleased with the new thermostat solution. They gave an average score of 9.5 out of 10 for their experience with the Honeywell field installers, an 8.7 score for the enrollment process, and 8.3’s to the thermostat and smartphone app.

Most encouragingly, they found the app easy to use (8.5), agreed that the thermostat and software gave them greater control of energy usage (8.7), and would recommend them to a friend (8.7). Nearly eight out of 10 who responded said they thought they had reduced energy use as a result of the thermostat and messaging.

However, keep in mind that participants may be a more engaged than the average customer when it comes to energy management. This solution may not appeal to everyone, particularly those living in parts of California where extensive heating and cooling are not needed.

Still, these initial results are promising and suggest that the right mix of technology and tailored communications can help customers save while helping the environment by economizing on energy.

PG&E still has room for more customer participants in its Smart Thermostat trial in select areas. Please note that this offer is only available for a limited amount of time and not all eligible participants are chosen to receive a thermostat. For more information and to see if you are eligible to participate, visit

Email Jonathan Marshall at

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