FirstEnergy Corp. is offering a limited number of free programmable thermostats to customers in an effort to meet its state-mandated requirement to reduce demand for electricity on extremely hot days.
There’s a small catch, but one that FirstEnergy officials and an industry expert say won’t be too noticeable.
Under the “Easy Cool Rewards” program, customers get an installed Honeywell programmable thermostat valued at $250.
Any FirstEnergy customer is eligible as long as they have a working central air conditioner that is safely accessible and they are the account holder, said spokesman Chris Eck.
The Akron-based utility has been mailing letters to customers and people may also sign up online at www.energysaveohio-home.com or call 1-888-243-0992.
As part of the offer, the utility is allowed to cycle off and on a home’s air conditioner compressor for 15-minute intervals on summer days when the utility determines there is high demand. The air conditioner’s fan would continue circulating air throughout the home. The utility would be able to cycle the compressor off and on up to two 15-minute intervals during an hour, but not consecutively.
Cycling a compressor off and on helps maintain system reliability on the hottest days of the year, FirstEnergy says.
While cycling events can be initiated any time, they typically occur on weekdays between noon and 7 p.m. during summer months.
“Typically, there are at least two hours declared and while it can be more hours, it’s obviously not likely to equal or exceed the number of daylight hours,” Eck said.
“The program is designed so that customers see minimal temperature changes in their homes,” Eck said.
Harvey Sachs, senior analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, agrees.
Sachs said FirstEnergy’s program is fairly common among utilities, though most offer a credit off bills instead of a free programmable thermostat.
Cycling off air conditioner’s compressors “is a pretty common thing and helps prevent blackouts and things like that on the really high use days,” he said.
Addressing demand on peak days is a real issue, said Sachs. Shedding some electricity load for short periods of time works better than having utilities turn on expensive peaking units or plants when demand is high.
“It tends not to be noticeable. Everybody’s air conditioners are oversized,” Sachs said.
Sachs said the amount the room temperature will change during a 15-minute interval when the compressor is off is comparable to the natural swing when the air conditioner is cycling off during its normal routine. Two 15-minute cycles in an hour might be a little more noticeable than one interval, but Sachs said in a climate like Northeast Ohio instead of Florida, it should be OK.
“For the potential small sacrifice you might make, if enough of us do it, it avoids building more power plants and avoids pollution and keeps our rates from going up,” he said.
FirstEnergy’s current program, which was approved for this year by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, is different from a pilot program it offered in 2007. In that pilot, the customers agreed to let the utility periodically adjust the temperature of thermostats during peak times.
This program is less noticeable and more seamless to customers, Eck said.
Customers who have thermostats from the pilot program would need to get a new thermostat for this program.
A programmable thermostat can save people money by allowing residents to pre-set systems automatically to more efficiently heat and cool a home while residents are away or sleeping. Programmable thermostats can work well and save money, as long as the programs are used, said Sachs.
Having a technician install and show homeowners how to use the FirstEnergy-provided thermostat is a good thing, Sachs said.
Funding is limited for the program, so thermostats are in limited quantities. The costs of the program, including the thermostats, are recovered in all customer rates, according to state law. There are no additional fees to participate.
Thermostats are being installed now and the program will begin June 1. Customers can sign up for this summer and if the program gets renewed by the PUCO, they would be automatically re-enrolled, but they can opt out. If the program is not renewed, participants keep the thermostats.
Customers are allowed to “opt out” or override participation in one day’s cycling events per year by calling the hot line. That could be helpful if you have an event at your home and you don’t want the air conditioner to be cycling off and on, Eck said.