How Tech Can (and Can’t) Help You Fight Soaring Energy Bills

The Department of Energy and utilities such as PG&E and Consolidated Edison recommend setting the thermostat to 68 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. So I programmed the nest for 68 throughout the day.

When the $ 370 bill came a month later, I realized that the thumb rule was terrible for my two-bedroom home, built with insulation in the 1960’s and considered the next idea. Once the house reached 68 degrees, it could not maintain that temperature for long, so after about 20 minutes the furnace was turned on again.

This is to say that saving energy with tech requires a bit of independent thinking. While dropping the thermostat all day at 68 may make sense for small apartments in well-insulated buildings, this is general advice that may not benefit many homes, said Ben Brown, Google’s product manager for Nest Thermostat.

Instead, ask yourself a few questions. What is the size of your house? What do you know about insulation? How long does it take to heat a certain degree? And most importantly, at what temperature will you and your family feel comfortable?

In November, I decided to try to make the nest work better with my house this winter. After tinkering with Nest’s setting and studying my energy expenditure every day for a month, I concluded that this is the best schedule for my home:

  • 6:30 a.m .: Raise the temperature to 66 when it’s time to get out of bed.

  • 8 a.m .: Set the temperature to 60 so that the temperature drops continuously throughout the day. This made the house a little colder but tolerable wearing a sweater.

  • 8 p.m .: Increase the temperature to 66, as it cools at night (and after PG&E’s peak-pricing period).

  • 11 pm: Set the temperature to 57 for bedtime.

During this experiment, Nest Thermostat also gave me a “head-up” warning that my furnace was turning on and off every few minutes, which meant something was wrong. I hired an HVAC professional who diagnosed and fixed the problem: the gas pressure was too high, causing the furnace to overheat and shut down automatically.

This solution, combined with a programmed heating schedule, led to a significant reduction in my bill.

In December, after completing my gas experiment, I turned my attention to electricity. The results were less significant.

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