Heating Contractors Battle for your Digital Thermostat
You may not have noticed it, but there has been a sticker war occurring in your basement between competing HVAC contractors. It has long been common practice for contractors to leave a sticker on your furnace after completing a service call with their company's name and contact information. When a different contractor comes along, his sticker covers the old one. Some contractors use particularly large stickers to prevent competitors from completely covering their marketing info.
Well, the sticker war is leaving the basement and hitting your thermostat.
As thermostats have evolved from the roundish, golden half-baseballs into ever more intelligent, useful and programmable pieces of technology with LED screens, they are also becoming marketing vehicles for HVAC contractors.
"Contractors have found that putting their contact information on or etched into the thermostat can be very effective," says Erich Schroeder, Marketing Product Manager for Hunter Fan Co, which manufactures and sells thermostats among other products. "The thermostat is really the only part of the HVAC system the consumer sees on a regular basis, and thus it's the first place they go when the heat or AC doesn't seem to be working."
According to Jack Gill, a licensed mechanical contractor, as well as other contractors we spoke with, there are a number of higher end brands -- such as Honeywell's line of Prestige thermostats -- that will allow a contractor to set a "run-time" for the furnace in order to gauge when a filter change or other maintenance is necesary. Once this time has elapsed, the LED screen on the thermostat will display a message, such as "Needs Service," along with the contractor's name and contact information, which he has also programmed into the thermostat.
While this may seem like a handy and rather innocuous thing to do, there is the risk that a less than ethical contractor may try to take advantage of you. For example, if the run-time is improperly set, you might change the filter too often, which means you are spending more than you have to on maintenance. In addition, there is the possibility that if a contractor has set the timer for too brief a period, he may use the extra visits to sell more services which you may or may not need.
Gill advises homeowners to make sure the contractor follows the furnace manufacturer's guidelines, which should also take into account whether you have pets, live in an urban area, have carpets, and other factors that will shorten the life of the filter. He also recommends that you ask the contractor to show you the old filter -- something he should do anyway -- so you can see how dirty it is. Essentially, you should trust, but verify.
As thermostats become smarter, they will be capable of monitoring in real-time the performance of the furnace and providing regular data feeds to help the homeowner better manage the functioning of the heating system. Additionally, smart thermostats will stand in as little billboards that allow for more marketing information to be passed from contractor to consumer.
"As thermostats evolve into more wireless-type devices that send and receive signals to and from home energy monitors via the Internet and 'Smart Grid,' this will become more common," says Schroeder. "That, however, is a number of years away. For now, a less expensive way [for a contractor to include information on the thermostat] is simply to print the contractor's name on the thermostat housing, which is what we do."
The bottom line is that programmable thermostats may cost a bit more, but they more than likely will save money in the long run by helping to better manage your heating system (as much as $150 annually by some estimates). Just be aware that you may be bringing the newest version of the sticker wars out of your basement and into your bedroom (or hallway, or wherever your thermostat is located!).