Fine print

Customers signing up for a new free thermostat from Westar Energy should be careful they understand the deal they are getting.

October 7, 2011


Customers of Westar Energy may be getting a little confused by communications being sent by the company about “smart” meters and energy-saving thermostats.

The confusion being created by the two programs that are being marketed in Lawrence simultaneously may not be intentional, but it does create a need for customers to make sure they want the service they are signing up for.

In two weeks, Westar is scheduled to begin installation of so-called “smart” meters in Lawrence as part of its SmartStar program. The installations come at no cost to customers, who will be able to track their energy usage hour-by-hour online. The idea is for customers to use that information to help make decisions about their power usage. It’s information that customers can use or ignore; it’s up to them.

At the same time, Lawrence customers are receiving information about a second program called WattSaver. Westar is offering to install a new programmable thermostat for local customers. However, unlike the SmartStar program, WattSaver comes with some significant strings attached.

The letter sent by Westar touts the benefits of WattSaver, saying the free thermostat and installation is a $300 value that will provide energy savings of up to 20 percent, “help the environment” and “manage your thermostat through the Internet.” At the bottom of the letter, in significantly smaller type, it is revealed that Westar, not individual customers, will be providing that online “management.”

The fine print informs customers: “On the hottest weekday afternoons from June through September. At these times, we may cycle your central air conditioner or heat pump on and off in 15 minute increments in a coordinated effort to reduce energy demand.” While that cycling may reduce a customer’s usage and bill, the primary motive for the new thermostats is to give Westar the power to reduce electricity demands during peak usage times. The company says “cycling events will occur infrequently and only on weekdays,” and “You likely won’t notice the change.”

Well, maybe. If you work outside the home on weekday afternoons, the change may not be noticeable, but if you are at home during the day, you may not want someone else deciding when your air-conditioner can be “cycled” on and off. Perhaps you are willing to give it a try, but what if you aren’t happy with the system? Will Westar come and take the thermostat out? Although Westar now says “cycling events will occur infrequently,” once the company gets control of your thermostat, will the frequency increase as peak demand increases?

Some customers may be happy to accept the free thermostat and whatever risks come with it to try to lower their bills and help reduce overall electrical demand, but that should be a well-informed choice. On the company’s website it’s possible to go from the WattSaver home page straight to an online enrollment form without ever seeing information about the control Westar will have over the new thermostat. Westar may not be intentionally trying to deceive its customers, but when the company starts “cycling” residents’ air conditioning off and on next summer, it had better be ready for a lot of angry people who didn’t understand the Westar “deal.”


Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 6 months ago

"Westar may not be intentionally trying to deceive its customers,,,, it had better be ready for a lot of angry people who didn’t understand the Westar “deal.”"

I would bet that these are the very same people that become upset when the electricity goes completely off. In California there are frequent brownouts and rolling blackouts, there is no alternative because there simply isn't enough power to go around at times. That could easily happen here also at some point in the future.

A very good friend of mine works in electrical demand prediction in Sacramento, California for electricity purchases by the utility service there, and until recently my sister and her family lived in southern California. So, I've already heard all about this.

Cycling usage during periods of extremely high demand can result in significant savings of money if the electrical system does not have to be configured to reach a very high peak usage that occurs only a few times a year.

In the bigger picture, the choice is to have reduced air conditioning at times, or no electricity once in a while. But the electricity would only go completely out when it is extremely hot, so it shouldn't be a problem at all.

Kookamooka 6 years, 6 months ago

Imagine if the government wanted you to allow THEM to install a thermostat that they could control? Hmmmmm. Private companies seem to be playing the role of big brother better. I'm suspicious, Republicans. What's next?

gp_westar 6 years, 6 months ago

The Westar team has been very conscious of and responsive to the potential for confusion related to Smart Star and WattSaver and up front when communicating about both programs. We're pleased you are looking forward to the benefits of SmartStar. Over the past year company representatives have attended dozens of events to talk with residents one on one about both programs and, as part of the Take Charge Challenge, to encourage participation in WattSaver. On June 1 several members of our team took part in a live online chat at the Journal World: http://www2.ljworld.com/chats/2011/jun/01/westar-energy/

We have always been clear with customers that WattSaver includes a cycling component. Before an appointment is made to install a WattSaver thermostat, the full program is explained so the customer is aware that we may cycle the thermostat. To clarify a point made in the editorial, the online management is in the hands of the resident who can program preferred temperature settings online. Cycling does not change the thermostat settings. Depending on how well their home is insulated, the age of the air conditioning equipment and the temperature outdoors, many participants in the program do not notice cycling events even if they are at home.

For those who sign up for WattSaver and decide that the program isn't a good fit, they simply call and make an appointment to have an installer come to their home and replace the WattSaver thermostat with their former thermostat. There is no charge for this.

WattSaver has been a great success so far. We have 27,000 customers in the program, nearly double the participation goal we had set for the first two years.

Gina Westar Energy

Jonathan Becker 6 years, 6 months ago

We had the wattsaver thermostat installed this past Spring. We did not detect a difference in the cooling cycles, nor in the temperature or comfort. We did detect a big difference $17.00, in comparing last year's bill with this years. Some rugged individualists will just have to pay more for their principles.

jafs 6 years, 6 months ago

I wonder how that happened.

Do you leave the AC on all day while you're away at work? If so, then they cycled it during that time. But, if you didn't leave it on then, you'd actually save more that way, and just have it on when you get home, or a little before that time (if you have a programmable thermostat).

If you're mindful about how you use the systems, you can do very well on your own, and without having to give control over to the electric company.

beaujackson 6 years, 6 months ago

There are several large combustion power plants in Northern CA that are almost never in use.

They are owned by various power companies - are mandated by the state for reserve power, and used only a few days each year.

sad_lawrencian 6 years, 6 months ago

I do not want the power company messing with my AC. End of story.

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