The Ups and Downs of Where to Keep the Thermostat

New research shows that Americans are keeping their bedrooms warmer in recent decades, even though there are many good reasons to turn down the heat in winter. It saves energy, it’s cheaper, and it turns out – lower indoor temperatures can even help people shed pounds.

Jason Dailey is the public works director for Cranberry Township.  Part of his job is to make sure the township’s five or six public buildings are a comfortable temperature, without spending more energy – or money – than necessary. 

At Cranberry Township’s offices, he’s worked to put in motion sensors for heat.

“There’s actually a training session happening our training room right now and there is a group that’s sitting the back while the presentation is being held in the front,” said Dailey.

Dailey says the motion sensor should automatically start heating the back of the room, where the people are sitting.  If there’s no movement for 20 minutes, the temperature starts to lower. The heat motion sensors reduce Cranberry Township’s carbon footprint.  They are also supposed save money on energy costs.

Sean Groom has written about thermostat technology for Fine Homebuilding Magazine.  He says every 8 hours you lower the heat one-degree – will save you one percent of your energy costs.

Groom says people can keep the house at 68 when they’re home and active, but turn it down when they go out, or go to sleep:

“Say you typically go to bed at 10:30 – you set it to go down to 60, and it’s there for 8 hours.  If you’re looking at 8 degrees lower for 8 hours, studies say that that’s an 8-percent savings,” explained Groom.

And Groom says it’s easy and cheap.  A programmable thermostat can cost less than 20 bucks –  and can be set to go up and down automatically.

This still doesn’t account for one thing: some people are fine in cooler temperatures, while others can’t stand being cold. But if you can live with the cold, research is finding there could be some health benefits.

Dr. Ronald Kahn is a professor at the Harvard Medical School, and studies the link between obesity and diabetes. He’s been researching fat in the body, and says most of our fat is white fat – which stores energy. But we mammals also have a small amount of what’s called brown fat that's designed to burn energy.

"It’s main purpose in humans is particularly is when we’re little babies to keep warm.  So babies are born with brown fat, and it’s part of the mechanism they use to keep warm, even if they’re not wrapped up,” explained Kahn.

Kahn says we now know that adult humans also have brown fat.

“And that brown fat can also be used to burn energy as a way potentially to either help with weight loss, or to keep weight off once weight is lost,” said Kahn.

In his studies, Kahn says people burned 100 to 200 calories a day because they dressed in light clothing in a room set to 60 or 61 degrees.  He says people who want to lose weight, might consider lowering the thermostat.  But temps that low don’t appeal to everybody.

“Oh my God. The thought of keeping your house at 61 is so terrifying,” said Linda Barr. 

My mother, Linda Barr, always worked to stay very thin – but she also always complained about being too cold.  Mom lives in southern Florida – on the day we spoke for this story, it was 80 degrees outside, and her central heating was on, with the thermostat set to 77-degrees.  I consider that to be extreme indoor heat; she was wearing wool socks and a sweater.  Mom was not persuaded to lower the thermostat, even to lose a few pounds:

“I would say staying warm trumps being thin by a mile.  There’s no question that I’d rather be warm,” argued Barr. 

Back when we were kids, Mom says my father set the thermostat so it couldn’t go higher than 68 degrees.  She would wear a winter coat in the house.

At Jason Dailey’s office in Cranberry Township, chilly employees don’t go that far - but some do use space heaters and warm clothing at their desks.

If they are interested in losing weight, researcher Ronald Khan at Harvard says they might want to forgo these things.

So whether you trim down, or be less of an energy hog, experts say it could pay to pay attention to your thermostat.