Do domestic heating controls save energy? A review of the evidence

Lomas, K.J. and Oliveira, S. and Warren, P. and Haines, V.J. and Chatterton, T. and Beizaee, A. and Prestwood, E. and Gething, B. (2018) Do domestic heating controls save energy? A review of the evidence. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 93. pp. 52-75. ISSN 1364-0321 (

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Claims about the benefits of heating controls are often biased, unsubstantiated, misleading, or incorrect. This paper presents a systematic and critical international review of the evidence for the energy saving, cost effectiveness and usability of heating controls. The focus is domestic, low-pressure hot water heating systems in temperate climates. Eleven different types of standard, advanced and smart controls are assessed plus five components and features that add smart functionality. The review retrieved over 2400 documents from on-line databases and other sources. Screening criteria and quality assurance scoring identified just 67 items, mainly from the UK and USA, which appeared to contain relevant evidence. This evidence was derived from computer modelling, field trials and full-scale experiments, and for usability, from expert evaluations and controlled assessments. The evidence was synthesised and its quality classified as very low, low, moderate or high using the GRADE system which is more commonly applied in evidence-based medicine. The energy savings of most heating controls depends strongly on whether the heating system is operated with a continuous or periodic heating pattern, as well as on the energy efficiency of the dwelling and the severity of the climate. For most control types, the quality of the evidence for energy savings was low, very low or non-existent. However, there was moderate quality evidence that, when appropriately commissioned, zonal controllers, which heat individual spaces to different temperatures at different times, could save energy compared to whole-house controllers, and that low-cost systems of this type could be cost-effective. There was moderate quality evidence that smart thermostats do not save energy compared to standard thermostats and programmers and may, in fact, increase energy demand. The usability studies focussed on general heating controls and programmable thermostats and provided high quality evidence that heating controls are difficult to use, especially by older people. However, no studies were uncovered that quantified the consequent energy penalty. There was no high quality evidence about the impact on energy demand of any of the heating controls studied, mainly because there have been no well-founded, large-scale, multi-disciplinary, multi-year field trials.