There is no such thing as a free lunch. Though against your better judgment, you have probably jumped at the opportunity of a few free offers in life – especially at the State Fair. A free phone, a free hotel stay, or even a free thermostat from your energy company. The last one may seem strangely out of place, but over the past several years electric power companies have been offering “free” electronic thermostats – their reason for doing so may surprise you.
Westar Energy is one such energy company. Yesterday, during a heat warning from the National Weather Service with temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, Westar Energy shut off the air conditioners of customers during the peak heat of the day. From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Westar Energy “cycled” an unknown number of air conditioners across the state. Cycling is the legalese word they choose to use in place of “shut off.”
Under the guise of “going green” Westar has been advertising their WattSaver program, with which they offer a free digital thermostat upgrade to the customer. The catch is that customers are contracted for three years to allow Westar Energy the right to control your heat and air. Unless a call is made to opt out, they can continue to do this indefinitely after the contracted period ends. Though the program is “voluntary” with all necessary ‘Caveat Emptor’ trappings firmly in fine print to protect Westar legally, the program is marketed dishonestly. Perhaps this is why Westar representatives were so eager to note they are no longer adding new customers to WattSaver as of June 12, 2015.
In just one hour yesterday temperatures indoors rose from 72 degrees to 85 degrees. I asked Westar WattSaver representative, Tammy Rhea about the safety of such a decision. My wife and I are healthy, young, and able to handle a couple hours of heat. How would an elderly person handle being subjected to high levels of heat all afternoon? Rhea told me that this “wasn’t a program we [Westar] encouraged elderly people to opt into.” Yet, there are multiple elderly persons living at our apartment complex, with WattSaver thermostats in every apartment. The WattSaver mailer ads were also sent blindly in the mail. Rhea did not seem to have any clue as to who this program was actually being marketed to or who was taking the offer – since my wife and I never even signed up.
Westar advertises the WattSaver program with “Potential to save money, save energy, and help the environment.” The webpage for the service even features a beautiful green field to stimulate the environmentally conscious mind. The thermostat itself helps to sell the snake oil by proclaiming “SAVINGS” at the top of the thermostat when they shut it down to only the fan. Exactly how much money and energy was saved by cutting air conditioning at the hottest time of the day? Our unit alone ran for 10 straight hours to catch up – but Westar offered no bill compensation for the excessive cost to cool our home back down. We were just expected to pay for the privilege of saving power for them – which is the real goal of the WattSaver program: to generate revenue for Westar. Rhea responded to my questioning this by stating “We are not marketing this as a ‘green’ program.” Nevermind that is exactly how the program is advertised on Westar’s website. I was also told while interviewing another representative that “We [Westar] are moving forward from that [WattSaver program].” When asked if this was an attempt to distance themselves from what I had found, I received no comment from either Rhea or other representatives.
Rhea described the WattSaver program as “Beneficial to both Westar and the consumer.” In reality, Westar benefits alone – shutting off the air alleviates heightened use of the power grid on a hot day, while also generating additional profits through electric revenue as the unit fights to keep up or to catch up. Customers with older units, the ones most likely to desire a free electronic thermostat, are most harshly affected. To make matters worse, customers may assume that there is a problem with their unit, as we did, and pay for unnecessary maintenance. When I posed this problem to Rhea, she answered by stating “Other electric companies are doing this. We aren’t the only ones.”
Lastly, Westar made no attempt to inform us of this program when we opened our account. If you move into a residence with a WattSaver thermostat, you are subjected to its terms by default and without notice. Rhea was unable to answer how, or if, new customers were ever notified of the temperature tampering. So even though we did not sign up for this program, and did not consent to this program, Westar pushed their former agreement off onto us without so much as a letter to inform us.
If you have a WattSaver thermostat in your home, you are subjected to the whims of Westar Energy as to when you should be allowed to use your air conditioner. They limit you to overriding their decision only once a month, via phone contact. When asked why Westar knowingly chose a dangerously hot day, Rhea told me that “The system was designed for days like yesterday. The people that make those decisions (to turn off air conditioners) decided yesterday would be a good day.” Rhea claimed that the Kansas Corporation Commission required Westar to cycle this summer, but the choice to do it on one of the hottest days of the year was exclusively Westar’s decision. Rhea also claimed that “customers were notified” of the cycle yesterday, but could not tell me how other than a short blurb that was allegedly on their website. No phone calls. No emails.
The decision by Westar to turn off air conditioning units yesterday afternoon amounts to one part dangerous and one part profiteering. It exposed customers to health risk and is a means by which Westar can create demand for energy, and thereby additional profits, by causing the unit to run abnormally. It is also a move that creates questionable wear on the system being subjected to it. If you find that you have a WattSaver thermostat in your house, you can call (316) 299-7426 to explore options for removal. Ask for the head of the WattSaver “energy efficiency” program Katie Panek. If you are outside of Kansas and have received a “free” thermostat upgrade from your provider, it may be time to investigate your billing.