Thermostat Interface and Usability: A Survey

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This report investigates the history of thermostats to better understand the context and legacy regarding the development of this important tool, as well as thermostats’ relationships to heating, cooling, and other environmental controls. We analyze the architecture, interfaces, and modes of interaction used by different types of thermostats. For over sixty years, home thermostats have translated occupants’ temperature preferences into heating and cooling system operations. In this position of an intermediary, the millions of residential thermostats control almost half of household energy use, which corresponds to about 10percent of the nation’s total energy use. Thermostats are currently undergoing rapid development in response to emerging technologies, new consumer and utility demands, and declining manufacturing costs. Energy-efficient homes require more careful balancing of comfort, energy consumption, and health. At the same time, new capabilities will be added to thermostats, including scheduling, control of humidity and ventilation, responsiveness to dynamic electricity prices, and the ability to join communication networks inside homes. Recent studies have found that as many as 50% of residential programmable thermostats are in permanent”hold” status. Other evaluations found that homes with programmable thermostats consumed more energy than those relying on manual thermostats. Occupants find thermostats cryptic and baffling to operate because manufacturers often rely on obscure, and sometimes even contradictory, terms, symbols, procedures, and icons. It appears that many people are unable to fully exploit even the basic features in today’s programmable thermostats, such as setting heating and cooling schedules. It is important that people can easily, reliably, and confidently operate thermostats in their homes so as to remain comfortable while minimizing energy use.

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