Programmable Thermostats Enter The Mobile Age

By Paul Bianchina  Inman News®

January 18, 2013

It certainly comes as no big surprise to anyone that the heating and cooling systems in our homes consume huge amounts of power, and typically account for the lion’s share of our utility bills. So anything we can do to conserve on the amount of power these systems use will help lower those bills each month.

Programmable thermostats are one of the best ways to do that. Using internal computer circuits that raise and lower the thermostat set points at various times during the day in accordance with our occupancy and habits, they help keep the furnace or air conditioner from running when it doesn’t need to.

Programmable thermostats have been around for decades, but it’s only been recently that they’ve caught up with the Internet and smartphone age. Now they’re more intelligent than ever, and, used correctly, that can translate into even more energy savings.

Nest Learning Thermostat

One of the most talked about thermostats on the market today is the Nest Learning Thermostat. You probably don’t think of “attractive” when you think of thermostats, but this one definitely is, with a small round shape that glows blue when it’s in cooling mode and orange when it’s in heating mode.

Beyond its appearance, there’s the lack of buttons. Adjustments are done with the outer ring, and you see programmed settings on a screen in the center of the thermostat. As you make the various adjustments throughout the day, the Nest “learns” your habits, and programs those habits into its circuitry. Soon, it’s set up a temperature schedule that meets your specific lifestyle.

The Nest also has sensors in it that detect when no one is home. It switches into Auto-Away mode, automatically turning itself down to save even more energy. In that mode, the face switches to black. As additional motivation, there’s even a leaf symbol that appears periodically to show you when you’re saving more energy than what you’d originally programmed it for.

There are currently two generations of Nests. The first generation retails for around $198, and works with about 75 percent of the heating and cooling systems. The second generation retails for $250, is 20 percent thinner, and is compatible with an estimated 95 percent of systems. Both generations offer Wi-Fi remote control so you can control your thermostat remotely from your smartphone, laptop or tablet.

Ecobee EB-STAT

This thermostat takes programmable to a whole new level. At around $295, it’s not cheap, but with the flexibility it offers you should have the opportunity to recoup that investment within a couple of years on average.

The Ecobee is rectangular, so it looks a bit more like a conventional thermostat, but with a full color screen and animated icons it’s pretty cool, and very easy to program and adjust. It offers connectivity to the Internet, as well as control through a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. It offers 365-day scheduling, free over-the-air software upgrades, and downloadable system reports. It’s compatible with most types of heating and cooling systems, including heat pumps, and can also be used to control humidifiers, dehumidifiers and ventilators.

Hunter Universal Internet Thermostat

At less than $100, this is a more affordable option, available from most home centers. Installation is quick and easy, with clear instructions. Everything you need except a screwdriver is included in the box. Once installed, it has an Internet gateway that connects to your router, and allows Internet access to the thermostat.

You can program the thermostat from your smartphone, tablet or computer. As with the other programmable thermostats, you can call it to change settings from a remote location, making it perfect if you’re delaying getting home from work, or for situations such as warming up the vacation home before you get there. It will also send you email alerts for low batteries and when it’s time to change the filter.

Nothing’s perfect

As with any technology, none of these thermostats are perfect. Online reviews from actual users of all of these thermostats are mostly positive, but they do indicate some compatibility issues and software glitches in some instances. Not all thermostats are compatible with all systems, and while they’re all OK for do-it-yourself installation, depending on your skill level you may still need the help of a pro to get them installed and operating correctly. And, of course, there’s always a learning curve involved.

In general, I like what these thermostats have to offer. I like the additional control options, particularly for vacation homes, and the flexibility of smartphone control. But do a little homework when selecting the right model for your home and your lifestyle. Make sure it’s compatible with your system, and that it has the features and operating modes that you like.


Real Estate Provisions in “Fiscal Cliff” Bill

On January 1 both the Senate and House passed H.R. 8, legislation to avert the “fiscal cliff.” The bill will be signed shortly by President Barack Obama.

Below are a summary of real estate related provisions in the bill.

Real Estate Tax Extenders

  • Mortgage Cancellation Relief is extended for one year to January 1, 2014.
  • Deduction for Mortgage Insurance Premiums for filers making below $110,000 is extended through 2013 and made retroactive to cover 2012.
  • Leasehold Improvements: 15 year straight-line cost recovery for qualified leasehold improvements on commercial properties is extended through 2013 and made retroactive to cover 2012.
  • Energy Efficiency Tax Credit: The 10% tax credit (up to $500) for homeowners for energy improvements to existing homes is extended through 2013 and made retroactive to cover 2012.

Permanent Repeal of Pease Limitations for 99% of Taxpayers

Under the agreement so called “Pease Limitations” that reduce the value of itemized deductions are permanently repealed for most taxpayers but will be reinstituted for high income filers. These limitations will only apply to individuals earning more than $250,000 and joint filers earning above $300,000. These thresholds have been increased and are indexed for inflation and will rise over time. Under the formula, the amount of adjusted gross income above the threshold is multiplied by 3%. That amount is then used to reduce the total value of the filer’s itemized deductions. The total amount of reduction cannot exceed 80% of the filer’s itemized deductions.

These limits were first enacted in 1990 (named for the Ohio Congressman Don Pease who came up with the idea) and continued throughout the Clinton years. They were gradually phased out as a result of the 2001 tax cuts and were completely eliminated in 2010-2012. Had we gone over the fiscal cliff, Pease limitations would have been reinstituted on all filers starting at $174,450 of adjusted gross income.

Capital Gains

Capital Gains rate stays at 15% for those at the top rate of $400,000 individual and $450,000 joint return. After that, any gains above those amounts will be taxed at 20%. The $250/$500k exclusion for the sale of a principal residence remains in place.

Estate Tax

The first $5 million dollars in individual estates and $10 million for family estates are now exempted from the estate tax. After that, the rate will be 40%, up from 35%. The exemption amounts are indexed for inflation.


Housing Industry Skates Through Cliff Deal

By Alan Zibel

The housing market and the housing industry have escaped a potential blow on several fronts now that lawmakers have at least partially resolved Washington’s “fiscal cliff” budget morass.

A bill passed by Congress on Tuesday to pull the nation back from the brink of end-of-year tax hikes and spending cuts contains several provisions that are favorable to housing.

Chief among them is one that provides an additional year of relief for troubled homeowners selling their properties. Without action by Congress, those homeowners would have faced big tax bills if they completed “short sales”—those in which the lender agrees to allow the borrower to sell the home for less than the outstanding mortgage amount.

In the past, forgiven debt has typically been considered taxable income. But in 2007, Congress exempted homeowners from treating some forgiven mortgage debt that way as part of an effort to encourage alternatives to foreclosure.

“An extension of the tax break is positive for home values by reducing the number of foreclosures and helping more troubled borrowers stay in their homes,” wrote Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Guggenheim Securities. “That means less supply on the market.”

Another move that should benefit some homeowners is the restoration of a tax deduction for mortgage-insurance premiums, including premiums paid to the Federal Housing Administration and private mortgage insurers alike. That deduction had been absent for a year after expiring at the end of 2011. In 2009, 3.6 million taxpayers claimed this deduction, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

“This is a meaningful win for the housing lobby generally and, more specifically, the mortgage insurance industry,” wrote Issac Boltansky, a Washington analyst with Compass Point Research and Trading.

The housing industry also dodged a bullet on a big issue—potential limits on itemized deductions, including the cherished mortgage-interest tax break. Last year, there was talk among politicians in both parties of capping those deductions at a particular level, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested several options, ranging from $17,000 to $50,000. But those limits did not come to pass as part of the fiscal cliff deal.

The pact does restore some limits on deductions that had been in place in the 1990s. But they apply only for individuals earning above $250,000 per year and couples earning above $300,000.

These limits reduce how much high-income taxpayers can claim for mortgage interest and other deductions. For example, a couple with a combined income of $350,000 would see their total itemized deductions fall by $1,500. That results from a formula that reduces the amount that can be deducted by 3% of the difference between the taxpayer’s income and the deduction cap. (In this case, $1,500 is 3% of the $50,000 difference between $300,000 and $350,000.)

However, analysts still believe the mortgage-interest deduction could be altered as Congress continues to look for ways to save money. “While the mortgage interest deduction avoided a direct hit this time around, we doubt it will…dodge Congressional scrutiny going forward,” Mr. Boltansky wrote.


Looks Like Wood, Wears Like Tile

What looks like wood, but cleans up like ceramic tile? Wood tile, of course. For decades, homeowners have chosen wood floors over other coverings, including carpeting, because of the rich look of wood, as well as its durability and ease of care. With the availability of wood-look ceramic tile, however, some homeowners are making another transition, and incorporating this new tile design into many areas throughout the home.

What are some of the advantages of wood-look tile? Just as ceramic floors can stand up to heavy traffic, so do wood-look tiles. These tiles are resistant to fire, moisture, stains and are almost immune to damage from shoes, high heels, dropped pots or pets.

Because of their ability to stand up to moisture, homeowners who are interested in experimenting often begin by adding tiles to kitchens or bathrooms. But as the tiles become more sophisticated-looking, designers and residents are choosing them for living rooms and great rooms as well, in part because of the many varieties of styles and colors now available.

Wood-look ceramic “planks” can be purchased in widths of 6, 8, 12 inches or more, simulating wide-plank wood floors. Colors and grains abound, and tiles are made to emulate almost every type of wood, including chestnut, maple, oak, mahogany and teak. Some tiles even come with an aged or “distressed” look to create an old-fashioned style. Other tiles can create a sleek and contemporary feel with the use of tiles that look like narrow wood strips in dark colors. The tiles can be placed in fashion similar to traditional hardwood flooring patterns or can be used to create unique patterns of color and design.

In almost all cases, “wood” ceramic tile is less expensive than hardwood flooring. There is a range of pricing, but tiles can be purchased from under $2 a square foot to $7 per square foot. As with other tile, it is a good idea to purchase extra tiles when laying out a floor, for use in case of errors or mishaps. These tiles can be found in home improvement stores as well as on-line.

The choice of grouts is an important consideration to make sure wood-look tiles appear natural-looking. While some installers have suggested that these tiles can be laid without grout, most professionals disagree, noting that no matter how tight the titles butt up against each other, there is always the opportunity for dirt, debris and water to enter between them.

To keep grout lines to a minimum, allowing for the most natural look, any grout purchased should be fine-sanded grout.

When it comes to installation, some homeowners prefer the do-it-yourself method, while others prefer to have the tiles professionally installed. A tile-cutter is an essential tool for the project, but anyone who has laid ceramic tile in the past will have little difficulty laying wood-look ceramic tile.

In addition to kitchen and bathroom floors, homeowners are also finding use for these tiles on the walls, especially in shower stalls and bathroom enclosures.

Source: Huffman Inspections