Spending $200 or more to replace that older, still functioning thermostat with a new whiz-bang “smart” variety might seem like a waste of money, but it can be one of the best small investments a homeowner can make, given the potential for energy and cost savings down the line.
The coolest of the bunch of new smart thermostats, the Nest, was created by former Apple employees who had been instrumental in designing the original iPod and iPhone years earlier. This simple looking round thermostat is reminiscent of old-school thermostats that one would manually adjust by turning the temperature dial. But the auto-awake feature that turns on the bright blue digital display when someone walks nearby gives the Nest away as an ultra-modern piece of high tech gadgetry.
The Nest’s software “learns” the habits in a given space by logging when inhabitants tend to be home and awake and noting when they tend to turn up or down the heat–and then sets a heating/cooling schedule accordingly. Owners can also program the Nest, which connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi, to heat up or cool down the house at a set schedule or go into “away” mode from any web browser or smart phone.
While the Nest is likely the best known smart thermostat available–especially since Google acquired the company behind it in early 2014–several other manufacturers (including Honeywell, ecobee, Hunter, Radio Thermostat, Trane and Lux) have Wi-Fi-enabled smart thermostats available now as well. While only some of them have the auto-sensing and “learning” capabilities of the Nest, those without that feature also cost less.
And merely programming in a weekly schedule to any smart thermostat will be the main source of cost and energy savings. People who were diligent about turning their old thermostats up and down throughout the day might not see any substantial savings with a smart thermostat, but most of us aren’t so diligent–especially when it comes to turning the heat down at night when we are sleeping.
Many smart thermostat owners report savings of between $10 and $30 per month on their heating/cooling bills–and research has shown that such an upgrade can save upwards of 10 percent of the total energy consumed by a given household. Smart thermostats range in price from $50 to $250, so upgrading could pay for itself within a year or two at most, with long-term savings racking up month-by-month after that.
Many utilities now offer free or discounted smart thermostats to customers. Getting in on such a program is a great way to reduce energy costs without the up-front expense of installing a smart thermostat independently. According to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), incentives to install smart thermostats are available through utilities in 45 states.
New York’s Con Edison, California’s PG&E and Texas’ CPS Energy are just a few of the larger utilities offering such incentives. Those that do upgrade certainly won’t be alone. Navigant Research reports that the number of smart thermostats in operation around the world will jump from 1.4 million currently installed to some 32 million by 2020. These kinds of numbers will help utilities meet or exceed energy efficiency goals regardless of other upgrades on the power plant side of their businesses. Likewise, the efficiency boost also can play a key role in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and our emissions of greenhouse gases.
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Dear EarthTalk: How is it that climate change is responsible for killing whitebark pine trees and thus impacting mountain ecosystems? —
Dale Livingstone, Salem, OR Whitebark pine trees are a “keystone” species in high-altitude ecosystems across the American West, meaning they play an important role in maintaining the natural structure of many of our most iconic mountain regions. Wildlife from grizzly bears to songbirds are dependent on whitebark pine seeds for nourishment, while forest stands of the trees stabilize and shade the snowpack in winter, which helps reducing avalanches and helps extend snowmelt flows into the dry summer months.
“This slow melting process not only keeps rivers cool for trout and other aquatic wildlife but also helps maintain sufficient water resources for the people living in the arid American West,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading U.S. environmental group.
Given how important the iconic tree is to Western mountain ecosystems, it’s no wonder that NRDC and other green groups are distressed by its recent decline due to changing environmental conditions. “White pine blister rust, a lethal disease accidentally brought to the continent on imported seedlings, has wiped out roughly 50 percent of the whitebark pine in the Rocky Mountains since its arrival in the early 20th century,” reports NRDC.
“In some areas such as Glacier National Park, it has killed 85 to 95 percent of the whitebark pine. Infected trees can take a long time to die, but the disease can also cause their cone production to drop significantly, affecting grizzlies and other wildlife.”
And now a newer threat, expanding populations of mountain pine beetles, is exacerbating the effects of blister rust. These small insects bore into mature pine trees, killing them by eating critical tissue under the bark. “Cool year-round temperatures and freezing winters once kept this beetle confined to low-elevation forests, where native lodgepole pines evolved natural defenses against beetles,” reports NRDC. “Global warming, however, has allowed the mountain pine beetle to expand its range into high-elevation forests, where the whitebark pine is virtually defenseless against this newcomer and its explosive attacks.”
NRDC fears that this one-two punch–beetles attacking mature whitebark pines and blister rust killing smaller ones–could have a devastating impact on high-altitude forests across the American West.
In late 2008 the group petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect the tree under the Endangered Species Act. A year and a half later the agency indicated that the tree might be worthy of endangered species status, although the case is still under review.
“Endangered Species Act protections could help federal agencies focus their whitebark efforts and could bring increased resources for research, conservation, and restoration efforts,” adds NRDC.
Everyday people who live in or near whitebark pine territory can help the cause by taking photographs and writing down observations about the changing health of high-altitude forests and the prevalence of Clark’s nutcrackers, red squirrels and grizzly bears, each of which depends on the trees for sustenance.
The Whitebark Pine Citizen Scientists Network, a project sponsored by NRDC and TreeFight.org, coordinates this research and synthesizes the findings to give researchers and policymakers more information so they can make sensible land management and species protection decisions.