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Can More “Usable” Thermostats Save More Energy in Small Buildings?

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“Usability” expresses how well a product’s design fits users’ needs: Does it do the job intended? And is it easy and comfortable to use? In a world of proliferating gadgets, people need dependable products that combine clarity, comfort, and functionality.

 The key business benefits of usability are:
---Less re-engineering and development cost, because the original design works well
---Increased speed to market, because the design aims are clear
---Shorter sales cycles, as the product is easy to sell
---Lower production costs, because extraneous features are eliminated
---Greater value to customers, through ease of installation and maintenance

In buildings, a lack of usability in energy-related equipment can mean underperformance and energy waste. Building operators may not even notice the waste because the equipment interface is difficult for them to decipher, does not present the information they need, or requires use of multiple components that they cannot access. Common usability challenges in building controls include difficulty recalibrating setpoints, complexity in setting an optimal range for sensors, alerts that do not diagnose real problems (or only diagnose disasters), and displays that require non-intuitive navigation to calculate energy consumption. Many such issues stem from equipment focused solely on serving its most basic purpose – delivering human comfort safely – instead of delivering comfort while also optimizing resources.

Building equipment can now go beyond the basic function and optimize energy consumption.  Diagnostics can identify real issues, doing away with false alarms and building credibility in the system.  Displays can show energy performance trending over time, looking beyond “right now.” Energy management dashboards can give context to energy and equipment data and guide priorities for improvement projects.

This study reviews the human factors of usability in programmable thermostats used in small commercial buildings. The research shows that many users find such thermostats difficult to use correctly – possibly compromising energy savings.  Five programmable thermostats were tested to compare usability, and a wide variation between them pointed the way to more user-friendly designs.
For more information on this report click here.