Thermostats: getting with the ‘program’ can save money, energy

Conservation groups challenge homeowners to reduce their carbon footprints

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published February 26, 2014

 Programmable thermostats allow a homeowner to set the home’s temperature throughout the day.

Programmable thermostats allow a homeowner to set the home’s temperature throughout the day.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Heating and cooling account for roughly half of the home’s energy use, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In efforts to reduce the human carbon footprint and the largest energy expense in the home, the Detroit Zoological Society and Polar Bears International are encouraging homeowners to participate in a Thermostat Challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on International Polar Bear Day Feb. 27.

“We celebrate it as a worldwide day of challenge on climate change,” said Polar Bear International’s Director of Communications Barbara Nielsen. “By making every day a polar bear day by making it a habit, you’re taking a step towards removing your carbon footprint and helping to shift societal norms so we are greener as a society.”

Polar Bears International is a polar bear conservation group that is dedicated to saving polar bears through research, education and action. Their proposed Thermostat Challenge consists of adjusting the thermostat up or down by at least two degrees. Because Polar Bears International has followers from North America to Australia, increasing or decreasing your thermostat is based on where you live on the globe, Nielsen said.

According to the EPA, homeowners can save as much as 1 percent of their heating or cooling costs for each degree that a thermostat is adjusted — for an eight-hour period — during a season.

“Part of the strategy behind the challenge is you sort of start with one behavior and you begin looking at all of your behaviors, and there’s a lot of simple things we can do that start adding up,” Nielsen said.

Because human behavior affects animal habitats and the environment, Sarah Popp, environmental services manager for the Detroit Zoological Society, said that there isn’t one right way to tackle reducing energy in the home.

Popp, who uses a programmable thermostat, said that adjusting the thermostat is a simple yet impactful way to do something good for the environment without having to constantly think about it.

“How warm is it when you’re not at your house? Does your couch and all your furniture really need to stay at 68 or 72 (degrees)? A programmable thermostat is not a flashy way, but they make a really big difference,” Popp said.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s “green vision” includes a roadmap, or “Greenprint,” that outlines a plan to improve the zoo’s facility and educate the community. The Detroit Zoological Society’s education department also developed Shades of Green, a guide for reducing the ecological footprint in the home. Shades of Green offers suggestions like using rain barrels to collect water for irrigating lawns, hang-drying clothes and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

“Using compact fluorescent lights is a really easy way for people to … reduce energy consumption, and they’ve made so many improvements to them over the years,” Popp said.

According to DTE Energy’s website, the average electric bill for DTE customers is $100, but by living a sustainable life, Popp, who has checked off a majority of the Zoo’s approximately 80 energy-reducing suggestions, said her monthly electric bill for her 1,100-square-foot house is $40, and that’s without using Energy Star appliances.

“The idea is that there’s something for everyone, and there’s always room for improvement,” Popp said. “There isn’t one silver bullet ... but there’s many different things people can do.”

The Detroit Zoological Society promotes Meatless Mondays, which involves eliminating meat one day a week to reduce energy use and to better animal welfare.

“Meatless Mondays is something that’s good for the environment,” said Scott Carter, chief life science officer for the Detroit Zoological Society. “Often, people don’t think about what is required to produce the food we eat — how much energy goes into the food we eat, how much land and other resources goes into the food we eat.”

With approximately 1.3 million visitors a year, Carter said that informing visitors about Shades of Green and Meatless Mondays in the home has the potential to make a large impact on carbon emissions.

“I think most people believe that if we can change enough people’s behavior, we can reduce our impact. I don’t know that anyone thinks we can restore anything to pre-1950 … but I don’t think any of us believe that we should do nothing and let it continue to escalate,” Carter said.

Environments are changing, particularly polar environments, as a result of human energy use and carbon consumption, Carter said. In 2013, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions increased for the first time in three years, according to a report released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, which include coal, natural gas and petroleum, increased by 2 percent.

“Each of us as individuals, our impact is not negligible. Collectively, our impact could be huge,” Carter said.

For more information on the Thermostat Challenge, visit

To learn more about energy-conscious behaviors, contact Sarah Popp at (248) 541-5717, ext. 3138.