Fine print

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

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.”