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The Secret to Programming Your Thermostat the Right Way for Each Season

Before you get started, you’ll need to pick a programmable thermostat you’ll actually use. Here’s how.

Programmable wall thermostat at 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Image: Tetra Images/getty

Programming a thermostat can seem daunting. That observation was not made by a frustrated homeowner but by John Galeotafiore, who oversees testing of thermostats and other home products for "Consumer Reports." The challenge can result in programming mistakes or even avoidance of programming altogether.

But programming really isn't that hard, and it’s definitely worth doing because it can save at least 10% a year on heating and cooling costs.

The U.S. Department of Energy says you can achieve that 10% by turning your thermostat back seven to 10 degrees Fahrenheit from its normal setting for eight hours a day -- for example, while you're sleeping.

The first step is to pick the thermostat that best suits your scheduling needs so you can “set it and forget it,” an approach the DOE advocates to get the most savings.

Pick the Right Thermostat

There are four types of programmable thermostats, each with a distinctive scheduling style:

7-day programming. Best for individuals or families with erratic schedules, since this is the most flexible option. It lets you program a different heating/cooling schedule for each day of the week. 

5-1-1 programming. One heating/cooling schedule for the week, plus you can schedule a different heating/cooling plan for Saturday and Sunday. 

5-2 programming. Same as 5-1-1 programming, except Saturday and Sunday will have the same heating/cooling plan. 

1-week programming. You can set only one heating/cooling plan that will be repeated daily for the entire week.

You’ll need a program for both the cooler months and the warmer months.

TIP: Before buying a programmable thermostat, identify the type of equipment used to heat and cool your home so you can check for compatibility. For example, do you have central heating and cooling, or just a furnace or baseboard heating? Otherwise, you may not reap the rewards of energy savings and may risk harming your heating and cooling equipment.

Related: More Ways to Take Back Your Energy Bills

Change the Factory Settings

Most programmable thermostats have a preprogrammed setting that’s supposed to be for the typical American family. But what family is typical these days? You need to adjust the thermostat’s settings so it syncs up with the life you and your family lead instead of some pretend family.

Programmable thermostats typically use either daily or weekday/weekend schedules, and almost all smart thermostats offer daily schedules. Once you know what kind of schedule your thermostat uses, jot down the times your family generally wakes up, leaves home, returns home, and goes to bed each day of the week so that you can use it when you program your thermostat. suggests the following settings as an energy-saving rule of thumb:

Winter months:

  • For the hours you’re home and awake, program the temp to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Program the setting seven to 10 degrees lower than your usual setting for the hours you’re asleep or out of the house.

Summer months:

  • For the hours you’re home, program air conditioning to a temperature that's comfortable for your household but within your utility budget. You’ll save about 3% on your utility bill for every degree you raise the set temperature for your central air, says the DOE. "Consumer Reports" recommends experimenting by increasing the temperature 1 degree at a time to see how it affects your household's comfort level and budget.
  • For the days you don’t need cooling, manually shut off the AC. Keep in mind, it will kick back on if the house gets too warm.
  • Program it to be warmer than usual when you're out of the house.

TIP: With a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat, you can control your home’s temperature while on the go. That way, you’re not wasting energy if you’re running late or forgot to create a new program before going on vacation.

FYI: A furnace does NOT have to work harder to warm a house after the temperature has been set low during the day.

Use a Wi-Fi Thermostat to Make It Super Easy

Want something that’s simpler? Newer more high-tech models have simplified the process:

The Nest Learning Thermostat: It learns what temperature you like and builds a schedule around yours. Independent studies showed it saved people an average of 10% to 12% on heating bills and 15% on cooling bills. Since it's Wi-Fi, it can be controlled remotely. Price: $169.

Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat: With seven-day programming, the Wi-Fi Smart Color Thermostat allows you to create a custom temperature schedule for every day of the week. When schedules change, you can temporarily update the settings and easily restore your usual program. Price: $130.

FYI: To see if your programmable thermostat contains mercury, check with the manufacturer. If you decide to dispose of a thermostat that contains mercury, find a thermostat recycling site near you by contacting Thermostat Recycling Corp. (Not sure why mercury is so bad? Here’s the skinny: It’s toxic, and it never breaks down. When it enters the waste stream, it permanently damages the ecosystem.)


Deirdre Sullivan bio photo
Deirdre Sullivan

Deirdre Sullivan is an NYC-based writer who's obsessed with maximizing every inch of her urban dwelling. She's a former fashionista who has worked for Lucky Magazine and InStyle. She recently traded her high heels and Fashion Week pass for a drill and bandsaw. Follow Deirdre on Twitter, and Pinterest.