Following Energy Star guidelines for thermostat control can help bring winter savings

While a number of news articles have recently been touting the energy-saving capabilities of programmable thermostats, manual options may be the best bet for those who are living on a tight budget amidst the current U.S. economic woes.

For example, these models can often be cheaper to purchase and easier to operate. In addition, due to their simple and time-tested design, they may be less likely to break or malfunction so that costs don't add up down the line.

However, in order to get the most out of these devices, those who choose to purchase manual thermostats this winter may want to follow some recommendations from Energy Star, the collaboration between the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency that looks to recommend products and services that can save Americans money.

This trusted source provides a handy suggestion tool online that consumers can use to cut their spending, and while it's geared toward programmable models, with a little dedication and commitment, those who want to purchase more affordable models can achieve the same savings.

For instance, Energy Star's experts recommend that when Americans wake up, they set their thermostats to at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. By 8 a.m. or before the kids are off to school and parents begin their morning commute, these thermostats should be set back by at least 8 degrees, according to Energy Star.

In the evening, the government recommends that homeowners return their thermostats to the previous setting, before once again lowering the temperature setting by at least 8 degrees before bed. While all this maneuvering can sound difficult with a manual thermostat, with a little dedication, consumers could increase their savings in the short- and long-term.

Cold has Alaska residents reaching for their thermostats

While many areas of the country are seeing relatively mild winters this year, some cities and towns aren't as lucky. (As I write this, I'm looking at rain that could very easily be feet of snow in another winter). But, while some of us are basking in the ability to walk around glove-free, this unusual warm spell isn't reaching areas as far north as Sitka, Alaska, where the state's fourth largest city is setting records for energy use.

According to a report by The Associated Press that was passed on to me by a reader, the single-digit temperatures in Sitka led to a record demand for electricity on January 24. The city's electricity department recorded a total of 24 megawatts on that day, which broke a previous record set in 2005.

Some estimates indicate that windchills have brought the temperature below zero in areas of the city. This may be unwelcome to local residents, who generally enjoy a low of around 32 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year, weather experts say. 

However, the big concern for many law enforcement officials isn't the fact that residents have their manual thermostats set high, it's that essential services may be affected by the cold.

"Usually they freeze up during a cold spell and next week, when they start thawing, is generally when we see most of the pipe problems," Sitka's fire chief Dave Miller told KCAW, a community radio station in the area.

Even though weather experts suggest the city is going to see some relief this weekend, the blistering cold the city is experiencing is a reminder of how having a trusty thermostat can make a huge difference. As such, residents who expect the temperature to cool off where they reside may want to take steps in the coming days to make sure this product is functioning to its fullest ability.

Municipal buildings can benefit from manual thermostats

In recent months, there's been a lot of publicity about government spending and how it's growing out of control. While there are those who want to politicize this issue, when taxpayers are paying too much money, that's never good for anyone.

A January 25 article by Connecticut news source, the Milford-Orange Bulletin, highlighted how the manual thermostat use in municipalities buildings may be contributing to wasteful spending. Mayor Ben Blake, of Milford, Connecticut, indicated that the thermostats in government buildings remain set at 72 degrees, even at night.

"I always feel hot in city buildings," Blake told the news source.

Part of the problem, Blake suggested, was that only three of buildings in the area have programmable thermostats – models that allow users to program the products to change the temperatures in the buildings to the desired setting at a specific time.

However, the problem here may not be with the existing thermostats, just that no one seems to be responsible for the setting of their manual thermostats. These products, which are often more inexpensive due to their lack of advanced features, can be just as effective as long as those who are in the building remember to lower the temperature before leaving.

Blake's solution is to reduce the temperature in the city's buildings to 68 degrees, and to purchase programmable thermostats so that temperatures can be set between 55 and 60 degrees at night, the news source says.

While Blake is right in his assessment that this will save taxpayers in the short term, he could be achieving the same results without the added expenditure. And you can do the same thing when you look for a new thermostat – remember that while programmable models can be beneficial, saving money with a manual version can be just as simple with the right degree of supervision.

High-tech thermostat earns mixed reviews

Some readers often like to point to my "old-school" approach to home-heating technology, citing an article I wrote about the much-ballyhooed release of the Nest thermostat a few weeks back. While I'm told this is a compliment in most cases, a few readers seem to think that my "old-school" approach is more "old-fashioned."

However, (while I'm not trying to claim the last laugh here) a recent article by Green Tech Enterprises indicated that the first buyers of this high-tech thermostat (those who were no doubt wooed by its progressive aesthetics) have been less than satisfied by its performance.

(Now, if you remember this past article, you'll recall how the Nest is supposed to set itself apart from its peers by being smartphone-controlled and adaptive to a user's preferences. You'll also remember the learning tool programmers lauded for its ability to remember – and adjust to – the temperatures individuals prefer at certain times of the day.)

"Commenters are having trouble with the 'learning' feature, which they attest is confused by varying habitation schedules and 'can't even adapt to simple schedules,'" Eric Wesoff wrote in his January 18 post, citing from a WiredPrairie review of the product.

Wesoff went on to suggest that in addition to the device's near $250 price tag, those who purchased the device shelled out almost $120 for installation. The author noted that by comparison, programmable and manual thermostats often retail for as low as $40.

Now, I haven't tried this product, but I have my doubts that any thermostat can save enough on its initial run to cover a near $400 asking price. That's why I suggest that consumer pursue alternative options by purchasing them on discounted retail sites, at least until the Nest becomes more affordable and or shows real energy-saving benefits for its users.

Saving money by dialing down the thermostat at night

Yesterday, I got our latest energy bill and was pleasantly surprised that the wife and I were able to shave almost $20 off of last month's total, even despite the fact that it was a bit colder during this four-week stretch. Now, many of you may be wondering the secret, whether I used some fancy manual thermostat or magic house humidifier to achieve this feat. However, the answer is a simple one you can try at home.

Last month, I went and bought a new comforter online, choosing one that was renowned for its ability to retain heat. My wife and I then resolved to turn our thermostat to around seven to 10 degrees lower than we usually keep it at night. After all, we reasoned, we'd be asleep during this time, and likely wouldn't notice the change as long as we took the proper precautions.

As such, we began sleeping with the temperature set at 58 degrees, instead of the usual 68. While you may think 10 degrees is a big shock that would take you out of your normal patterns, we adjusted just fine. Once the house is at a certain temperature, it takes a while to cool down, even if you turn your manual thermostat lower. So, we were able to fall asleep before the change took place in most cases.

Those who would like to reduce their heat by even more, however, may not be able to achieve the same consistency with their sleep patterns. According to the National Institutes of Health, abnormally hot or cold temperatures can disrupt the REM stage of sleep, which helps everyone set their normal sleep cycle progression.

As a result, those who are seeing temperatures rise or fall abruptly at night may want to choose to purchase a new thermostat, as their sleeping problems could be due to an issue with their existing model.

Properly disposing of manual thermostats

The unusually warm winter many Americans have been experiencing is causing some unexpected trends – mainly a strange sense of glee in my native New England, though that may be due to the outcome of recent sporting events. For example, I came across several articles this morning about how retail and hardware stores are seeing diminished sales on shovels and other winter necessities.

However, while you may not be turning up your manual thermostats as much to get away from the frigid winter chills, this doesn't mean you should forget about this vital energy-saving tool until next winter. If you own an older manual thermostat, for instance, now may be the time to upgrade as seasonal deals could make saving money on home heating and cooling in the future more affordable.

But, before simply throwing that old thermostat, you need to ensure you're taking the proper precautions to help the environment.

This is because most old-fashioned thermometers contain mercury. These thermostats were for sale in places like New York as recently as 2005. Each older thermostat contains roughly a seventh of an ounce of mercury, a neurotoxin that has been linked to health problems in unborn babies and young children.

Recent research indicates only around two out of every 100 thermostats that contain mercury are recycled, though this is higher in some states like Vermont and Maine, where recycling is mandatory. (Other states, like Indiana, have voluntary programs that encourage contractors and suppliers to stop using these products). Regardless of the laws in your state, however, you may want to do the right thing by properly disposing of this energy-saving tool before you purchase a new model.

Eco-enthusiasts may even want to shop around for top products from big manufacturers like Honeywell that no longer contain the substance. This way, you can do your part by reducing your energy costs and the proliferation of a potentially harmful substance.

Humidifiers used to help save famous Scottish organ

While many major news sources talk about the benefits of humidifiers, these so-called experts often only focus on one or two advantages of these low-cost energy-saving items. For example, there have been a number of articles recently highlighting the health benefits these devices can have during the winter months when the cold and the flu are common. However, in my opinion, not enough is said of the versatility of these items.

The U.K. news source, The Courier, published a report on January 20, though, that provided an example of how house humidifiers can be used to prevent certain items from needing product repair.

In particular, it highlighted the story of the Friends of the Caird Hall Organ, which according to the organization's website, is dedicated to protecting what has been called the "finest concert organ in Scotland." So, it's no surprise that in order to safeguard this important treasure, these individuals would look to humidifiers as a way to protect the wood and leather that its original craftsman used to make the organ.

"The humidifier makes sure the air put through the pipes within the organ is at a certain percentage of humidity or you can damage the wood and dry it out,'' Dr. Jim McKellican, the chairman of the group, told the report. ''Some of the organ pipes are made of wood as well as of metal, and there is also leather which needs a certain air humidity, so that is why the humidifier is so important to the organ."

Those who want to secure other valuables may be wise to invest in these energy-saving tools in order to protect their collections. For example, baseball cards, musical instruments and paper documents are just a few of the valuable items that can be protected with the right levels of humidity provided by a house humidifier.

Humidifiers may help those suffering from winter nosebleeds

If you're like many Americans, you may suffer from the occasional nosebleed in the winter, as the cold, dry air that persists in certain parts of the country can contribute heavily to this uncomfortable symptom. According to the National Institutes of Health, nosebleeds are more common among those who suffer from allergies, sinusitis and colds.

While frequent nosebleeds can be the sign of other more complicated illnesses, such as bleeding disorders or high blood pressure, most of the time they can be sufficiently treated with the use of house humidifiers.

Even though I've long-known that humidifiers can be beneficial for many nasal problems, I've never considered these energy-saving tools as a solution to nosebleeds – not suffering from these frequently myself or knowing any friends with this ailment. However, one reader brought this issue to my attention, as his wife had heard that humidifiers could offer a solution to her infrequent nosebleeds.

In particular, this reader sent me a copy of a helpful article that was recently published in Washingtonian Magazine that highlighted the issue.

"During the winter, the air doesn't hold that much moisture," Dr. Thomas Troost, of GWU Medical Faculty Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based practice, said in the report. "So when you breathe in, you essentially dry out mucous membranes."

Individuals who have nosebleeds often may want to consider purchasing more than simply a portable humidifier. For example, Venta Airwasher offers larger models that could be great for year-round use. By purchasing this product from a trusted online reseller with a quality shipping policy, individuals who choose this type of humidifier for their medical needs may be able to save as well.

Designers unveil house humidifiers disguised as modern art at CES 2012

Household items generally don't need to be improved. For example, my trusty manual thermostat works just as well as fancier models that come with smartphone integration and other more expensive bells and whistles. But that said, the designers of these tried-and-true energy saving items have never been ones to offer many unique products. And after all, when I buy a humidifier, I'd like it to look like a humidifier, not a Salvador Dali painting.

However, D-Design, a house humidifier manufacturer based in Japan, unveiled a surprisingly sleek new design at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that changed my initial perception. The company has disguised its humidifiers to basically look like vases. These humidifiers also come in a variety of colors (blue, black, green) and a modern shapes. (The "Allonge" models are tall and slender, while the "Middle" models are shaped like teardrops. Other humidifiers were made to look like decorative twigs or like leaves growing out of a pot.)

"You could easily put one in a corner or on a tabletop and it would look to all the world like an artistic accoutrement," Christina Bonnington, said in her report for Wired Magazine on the subject.

I agree, and according to her report, the ultrasonic models use vibrations to disperse humidity for up to 100 square feet, which isn't too shabby given their relatively small size. And if these products inspire other people to increase their health and help their energy bill with a humidifer, why argue?

But, while they are aesthetically appealing, these models won't be available for purchase until September. As a result, you may want to pursue alternative ultrasonic models from trusted online resellers if you're looking for a solution to your dry winter air this season.

Humidifier cleaning important for ultrasonic models

While a house humidifier can have beneficial effects on your family's health when used correctly, these models need to be cleaned frequently or the benefits could quickly be undone. As anyone who's ever looked under one of their children's beds knows, clutter can accumulate quickly when you're not watching. This same idea holds true with a humidifier. No matter how often it's in use, keeping still water in these products can cause microorganisms to grow.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that ultrasonic models (those that produce cool mist with the help of ultrasonic sound vibrations), may be one of the types that's most predisposed to the buildup of microorganisms.

This extra maintenance isn't just necessary for ultrasonic models, however. The EPA also indicates that steam vaporizers, impellers (which use "cool mist") and evaporate models may be more susceptible to the buildup of microorganisms.

While the agency says that the full effect of these microorganisms on the health of those in the home isn't known, they could cause sickness in certain instances. As a result, the EPA recommends that homeowners who use these devices clean out their tanks once every three days.

Still, this extra maintenance shouldn't discourage you from buying a ultrasonic humidifier from a trusted online source if you're in need of the energy-saving and health benefits these products can provide. For example, I use the Sunpentown SU-4010 Dual Mist Humidifier due to its easy portability and the quality of its controls.

Other similar models are available online for as little as $50. As such, these products represent a great bargain for those looking to breathe easier this winter.