The Misunderstood but Invaluable Occupancy-Based Thermostat

In our business, we sometimes forget that “occupancy-based” thermostats are misunderstood as just another kind of programmable setback thermostat. But a change in occupancy of any room occurs everyday everywhere in everyone’s life – we live and breathe it. But apparently not everyone else understands this. Who knew?

If you’re not geeked out on occupancy-based thermostats, we want to fix that. We’re here to help! (You’re welcome.)

Let’s start by talking about what it’s NOT. An occupancy-based thermostat is NOT a “time-of-day” thermostat.

“Time-of-Day” Thermostats

“Time-of-day” thermostats have been around for 20 years or so. In spaces with scheduled occupancy, like homes and offices, thermostats can be programmed to heat or cool more aggressively based on the clock and the calendar. Most homeowners and renters have set up heating and cooling schedules based on when they’re typically home and when they’re typically away at work or school. This technology is still relevant today. It’s lasted this long because it works. I bet 80% of you have this technology available at home. Your office probably has it. Your gym does too.  Car repair shop, barber shop, movie theater? Yes, yes, yes.

Do you know where this technology DOESN’T work very well? In spaces with unscheduled occupancy like hotels. And it doesn’t work all that well in spaces where, quite frankly, the occupants are controlling the temperature but aren’t paying the utility bills, like college dorms, MDU’s (multi-dwelling units which are growing in popularity, especially in larger US cities), senior living facilities and military barracks.

Enter: Occupancy-Based Thermostats

In these spaces (hotels, dorms, MDU’s, etc.) there’s a solution that works exceptionally well: occupancy-based thermostats, which receive occupancy data in real-time. These thermostats rely on PIR sensors, especially those detecting both light and heat, that are calibrated to extreme sensitivity. These unobtrusive sensors are capable of detecting occupancy and distinguishing between occupants, spinning fan blades, and the family terrier. Some sensors can even detect sleeping occupants: those who are moving very little but still radiate body heat.

These sensors transmit real-time occupancy data to the thermostat, which acts accordingly to heat or cool a space to maintain a setpoint temperature when a room is occupied, letting it drift when no one is there.

PIR sensors can be built right into the thermostats. They can also be separate devices that communicate wirelessly with the thermostat, especially in larger or multi-room spaces.

So, what’s the source of the confusion? Although our industry sweet-spot is the commercial market, occupancy-based thermostats only relatively recently hit the home market, with Nest, EcoBee and others. Before that, the general population was not familiar with them, or had heard disparaging reports about how they did not work. That lack of awareness is a holdover from the home market.

Occupancy based thermostats are much more effective and successful in our target markets than in homes. Why is this? It’s because homes are large, multi-room spaces. In order to sense occupancy anywhere in the home, occupancy sensors are needed in every room on every floor, and even in hallways. On the other hand, dormitories, hotel rooms, military barracks and other similar spaces are smaller, and most require only one sensor. And since hallways are part of the public space, they don’t need to detect occupancy. The smaller the space, the more accurate occupancy detection is. And that’s a pretty sweet spot for us to be in.

We’ve found claims as recent as 2009 and 2010 that occupancy-based thermostats don’t work. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It was a common myth that we still have to dispel to this day. We’ve collected years of data and analytics from hundreds of thousands of reporting devices, which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that occupancy-based thermostats save energy. Period.

To learn more about how successful occupancy-based thermostats can be in saving energy in the commercial market, contact a Telkonet sales representative today at or 888-703-9398.