Set Your Thermostat Right to Save Money and Energy
How Should I Set My Thermostat?
I have the good fortune of living in Seattle, which enjoys a fairly temperate climate. Even when I do need to use the heater in the winter, my electricity bill never gets too high. Others, however, are not as fortunate. Many people live in places with bitterly cold winters, blazingly hot summers, and expensive electricity, to boot. For them, constantly running the air conditioner and heater can easily push the monthly electric bill into the hundreds of dollars.
I feel your pain. I grew up in Las Vegas, a place where, if you didn't have air conditioning in the dead of a 115-degree summer day, you got cooked. Literally. The Las Vegas winters were surprisingly harsh, too, with temperatures often dropping into the 20s and 30s—a bitter cold for people accustomed to sizzling summers.
Over time, I learned how to manage my thermostat to achieve a comfortable indoor temperature while keeping my electric bill down.
The Ideal Winter Thermostat Setting
In the winter, set the thermostat to 60°F.
In cold weather, heaters pump warm air into the room until the machine's internal thermometer reaches the temperature you've selected. Then the machine switches off until the room's temperature falls a couple degrees, at which point it starts blasting warm air to reach the set temperature again. And back and forth it goes.
The higher you set the thermostat, the harder the heater will have to work—and the higher your electric bill will be as a result.
Setting the thermostat at 60 degrees typically keeps enough warm air in the room for comfort. This assumes, however, that you're willing to throw on a sweater or two, slip on some warm bedroom slippers, and make the occasional cup of tea or other hot drink of your choice. If you want to be able to lounge at home in a T-shirt and shorts in the winter, you're going to have to be willing to shell out more money to cover the resulting electric bills.
Should I Adjust the Thermostat Before Bed?
Yes! You can nudge the thermostat down a bit before going to bed for the night. You won't notice the cold while you're asleep as long as you have warm pajamas and sufficient blankets. It may also be worth investing in a down comforter; you may be surprised by how warm down will keep you.
Some people recommend shutting the heat completely off before bed. In some cases I would agree, but in certain climates this may not be good advice. If you live in a region where the temperatures drop precipitously low at night, e.g., down to the teens and below, shutting off the heat entirely can make the room temperature dangerously low. If you live in a place like this, please take care to wear layers at night and keep a heating source on.
The Ideal Summer Thermostat Setting
In the summer, set the thermostat to 78°F.
For most people, the normal comfort zone temperature sits around 72-73 degrees—but an air conditioner isn't a highly scientific machine. It works very similarly to a heater: It blasts cooling freon with air into the room until the machine's internal thermometer reaches the indicated temperature. Then the machine switches off until the room's temperature rises a couple degrees, at which point it starts blasting cool air again to return to the set temperature. And around and around it goes.
Where you set the thermostat affects how much cold air the air conditioner blows into the room and how much time it needs to spend doing so. The lower you set the thermostat in summer, the harder the machine has to work.
Setting the thermostat at 78 degrees typically keeps enough cool air in the room for comfort. Unless you have a very keen temperature sensitivity, you won't likely notice the difference between 73 degrees and 78 degrees. On the other hand, you will notice a big difference in your electric bill because your A/C will not run as frequently, nor will it have to run as long. And if you spend the day outside in the summer heat, a home temperature of 78 degrees will feel a lot better, by comparison.
Do Fans Help?
You bet! According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ceiling fans allow you to raise the thermostat temperature by as much as 4 degrees without any noticeable difference in comfort. In addition to ceiling fans, oscillating fans can be very helpful, as well.
On milder days, shut off the A/C, crack open the windows, use fans, and try to get by on just circulated air as long as you can. Often, the air feels hotter simply because it stagnates indoors and doesn't circulate.
Should I Leave My Air Conditioner or Heater On When I Leave the House?
If you're not home, turn the air conditioner or heater off... (although please see the "important considerations" section below).
Air conditioning is designed for your comfort, but what good is that comfort if you aren't home to enjoy it? Granted, coming home to a cold home in winter or a hot house in summer can feel miserable, but the unpleasantness is only temporary. As soon as you turn on the air conditioner or heater, the indoor temperature will improve within just a few minutes.
Switch on the thermostat once you get home, if you need it, and it won't take long for the house to reach the desired temperature. People who are out of the house for most of the day for work or school benefit most from this approach.
Cheat-Sheet: Borrow Somebody Else's A/C or Heat!
Since your A/C or heater will be turned off when you're not home (right?), look for free or inexpensive ways to spend time away from home during your free time. Visit a bookstore or a cafe. Check out a free concert or a lecture. Run those errands you've been putting off. Hang out with friends... anything to get out of the house. Remember to shut off your thermostat before you leave home, of course.
The one caveat I should mention, though, is that if you are driving to these places, try to organize your destinations and outings so that you're not driving too much. You don't want to start spending so much extra money on gas that it offsets your cost savings at home.
What About When I Go on Vacation?
If you are leaving the house for an extended period of time, the same reasoning applies. My advice is to turn off the air conditioner or the heater before leaving the house—although, once again, there are a few important considerations to take into account for doing so (see below).
Important Considerations Before Shutting Off the Thermostat Completely
Before you turn off the thermostat completely, you may need to consider a few important factors. Do you live in a region that gets extremely cold in the winter or extremely hot and humid in the summer? Do you have pets at home? Each of these situations presents its own concerns that should be assessed.
Winter: Should I Worry About My Pipes Freezing?
Everyone knows that water freezes at 32℉, but that doesn't mean that your pipes will freeze once the weather dips below that temperature. In colder climates, houses are generally built with insulated pipes to help protect them from the elements, and the pipes are often located in inner sections of the house to protect them even more. Paradoxically, it may be homes in milder climates that are at higher risk for pipes freezing during unexpected cold snaps because these homes are not typically built to withstand very low temperatures.
As a general rule, though, pipes should be safe from freezing as long as the outside temperature is above around 20℉. Of course, if you've had trouble with pipes freezing before, you will want to be particularly careful and take the necessary precautions.
Summer: What If My Area Experiences Very High Heat and Humidity?
If you live in a region with extremely hot and humid summers, it may not be advisable to turn off the air conditioner completely when you leave the house. Prolonged periods of high humidity can potentially lead to the growth of rot or mold in the home, problems with food spoilage in the pantry, and problems with temperature-sensitive appliances, like the refrigerator. For these reasons, it may be wise to keep the air conditioner on, even when you're not home. However, I'd suggest choosing a setting that requires the machine to work as little as possible, while still reducing the indoor humidity to an acceptable level.
What If I Have a Dog or a Cat at Home?
If you have a pet at home, you may need to take a different approach to how you set the thermostat. It's important to consider the comfort and safety of your furry companions when you leave the house, so turning off the air conditioner entirely in the summer or the heater in the winter may not be advised. Of course, it depends on how hot your house gets in the summer without air conditioning—or how cold it gets in the winter without heat. Pets who are older or who have health conditions may be particularly vulnerable to increased heat and cold. It's always a good idea to check with your vet about the best temperature range to keep your furry friends safe and comfortable.
You can save as much as 10% a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day from its normal setting.— U.S. Department of Energy
Tips for Energy Efficiency and Saving Money
Adjusting your thermostat by a few degrees can make a difference in your electric bills, but if you want to see even bigger savings, consider these tips for becoming more energy efficient.
- Window Coverings: Install curtains, blinds, or other window treatments that block or reduce sunlight. When you prevent heat from entering your house through the windows, the indoor temperature won't climb as high.
- Sealing: Make sure your home is well-sealed. Check the weatherstripping and caulk around doors, windows, and vents, and replace if necessary. A well-sealed home will stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
- Ceiling Fans: Install ceiling fans to increase the cooling effects of the air conditioner. Again, ceiling fans allow you to raise the thermostat temperature by as much as 4 degrees without any noticeable difference in comfort.
- Vents: Make sure your vents aren't blocked by furniture or curtains. Blocked vents force your heater has to work harder than it should. You should also periodically vacuum out dust or pet hair from the vents to keep them as clear as possible.
- Summertime Cooking: Avoid using the oven or stove during the hottest times of the day. The oven, in particular, generates a lot of heat that will take a long time to dissipate, and that's the last thing you need on a hot day. Grill outside, use the microwave, or prepare a no-cook meal. If you must, limit the use of the oven until later at night, after the heat of the day has passed.
- Unit Maintenance: In order for cooling and heating units to run efficiently, they need to be serviced and maintained regularly. Filters, coils, and fins should be cleared of dirt and debris so that air flow will not be obstructed.
- Energy-Efficient Models: If you have an older air conditioner or heating system at home, it's likely that it's not as energy efficient as it could be. Look for a unit that has the "Energy Star" certification, which indicates that it uses 15% less energy than a non-certified unit.
While this is by no means a comprehensive guide, these suggestions should help you maintain a comfortable temperature at home while also saving you money on your electric bill.
Works Cited and Further Reading
- "8 Ways to Save Money on Heating and AC Energy Costs." angieslist.com. Retrieved on November 19, 2018.
- "Freezing and Bursting Pipes." disastersafety.org. Retrieved on November 19, 2018.
- Harmon, Dan. "Choosing, Installing and Wiring a Home Thermostat." dengarden.com. Retrieved on November 19, 2018.
- U.S. Department of Energy. "Spring and Summer Energy-Saving Tips." energy.gov. Retrieved on November 19, 2018.
- U.S. Department of Energy. "Theremostats." energy.gov. Retrieved on November 19, 2018.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
If it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and my house is 72 inside, and I know it will get warmer, and I turn the A/C on, should I set it at 74 or 77?
It depends on what temperature you desire for the interior of your home, as well as any concerns about electricity costs. Obviously, if cost is a concern, and 77 doesn't feel uncomfortable, then set the thermostat at 77. If that feels a little muggy or warm, then go ahead and set it at 74, cost permitting. Keep an eye on your energy bill!
Does it use more electricity to leave the thermostat set at 82 or 78 degrees?
It depends on your objective: Are you cooling your home or heating it? If attempting to keep your home cool during hot weather, then setting it to 78 may use more energy. Meanwhile, if trying to keep your home warm during cooler weather, 82 is going to use up more energy.
If a room is 80 degrees Fahrenheit, does it make a difference if I set the thermostat at 60 or 70 for an hour?
It probably would not make a huge difference at just one hour. The thermostat will automatically run until its internal temperature passes the temperature mark you've indicated, and it probably won't work strongly enough to get the room temperature to 70 within an hour, let alone 60. You could probably set it at either setting and get the same result, using the same amount of energy.
The only concern would be if you forgot to turn it off after an hour and set it to 60. You could end up using a lot of electricity, and end up with an uncomfortably cold home!