Remote-Controlled Thermostats

People just don’t understand security:

Mr. Somsel, in an interview Thursday, said he had done further research and was concerned that the radio signal — or the Internet instructions that would be sent, in an emergency, from utilities’ central control stations to the broadcasters sending the FM signal — could be hacked into.

That is not possible, said Nicole Tam, a spokeswoman for P.G.& E. who works with the pilot program in Stockton. Radio pages “are encrypted and encoded,” Ms. Tam said.

I wonder what she’ll think when someone hacks the system?

Posted on December 11, 2008 at 6:55 AM82 Comments


HJohn December 11, 2008 7:35 AM

@ “That is not possible, said Nicole Tam, a spokeswoman for P.G.& E. who works with the pilot program in Stockton. Radio pages “are encrypted and encoded,” Ms. Tam said.”

Someone who otherwise would have no interest in hacking it are probably already plotting just because she said they can’t do it.


t3knomanser December 11, 2008 7:37 AM

No no no. This system is unhackable. Really. I know there have been a lot of unhackable systems before, but this time we mean it. Really. I mean, we have encryption! And encoding! Nobody have ever combined these kinds of features in a security system before, and they’re a killer combination.

Why are you looking at me that way?

Mat December 11, 2008 7:37 AM

I don’t like the idea of utilities controlling my thermostat. Holding a de facto monopoly isn’t enough control for them? Bah!

bob December 11, 2008 7:44 AM

Well (as usual) it’s obvious which position the Times is pushing.

While I academically approve of the idea of suffering a little to avoid overloading the grid, I do NOT believe that the pain will be shared equally; the rich elites like Al Gore want ME to share the pain by raising my 1300 sq ft house AC from an already high 77 to 85 while his empty 4000 sq ft guest house (adjacent to the 10,000 sq ft main house) has space heaters in the bedrooms in case the guests get chilly with the AC set at 69. (kind of like having an anti-global warming conference in Bali! If they actually CARED about GW instead of it being a very lucrative meal ticket it would have been in St Louis with a VTC link to Frankfurt so that practically no one would have to fly. Nevermind not having a 10,000 sqft house in the first place)

But even if I approved of the idea of giving government that control (who in the last 50 years or so have proved they are incapable of controlling -anything- no matter how much money thrown all around it), I would still need more info on the “link” technology for the thermostats. Is this going to be a binary “on/off” signal? Will it be something like “go up by 5 degrees”? Or will it be “start maintaining xx degrees”? The first two, there wouldn’t be much more than nuisance factor and thus little incentive for someone to hack a poor security standard (which is the kind I assume a state govt would implement, possibly even by Diebold) . But the third type someone could switch on your heat in midsummer and kill an infant/pets/infirm in a very short time. Or a terrorist could switch everyone’s heat pump to resistance heat mode in summer and overload the grid intentionally.

Richard December 11, 2008 8:05 AM

If I buy a small thermoelectric device and a fan – and stick them right up against the thermostat – I can easily push the temperature “seen” by the thermostat 10 degrees either way at will – why should I bother to hack the thermostat comms?

Maginot line again…

tim December 11, 2008 8:20 AM

She is a spokesperson. I find I don’t really care what she does or doesn’t know.

Now – if a VP or a other person of real authority said it – I would be more willing to skewer them.

This article does make me more relieved I don’t live in California.

Julian December 11, 2008 8:23 AM

Richard is right. It just makes it harder for people to get the temperature they want. If it’s too hot, warm up your thermostat (with a hair dryer) to get the a/c to come on. If it’s not warm enough, sit a glass of ice water on it.

Clive Robinson December 11, 2008 8:28 AM

So the y will be able to turn it up or down in an emergancy…

Can anybody think of an emergancy where thy would need to turn a consumers heating up or aircon down?

I can when the directores bonuses are on the line…

Seriously though there is are more sinister uses to which this sort of technology can be put.

Thankfully the systems I have seen can be easily defeated due to the need to “fail safe”.

But at the end of the day two things need to be considered.

Firstly irrespective of what the power companies say, the consumers have paid for the infrestructure and are reliant upon it. Therefore they have some entitlement/expectation it should be maintained to a suitable standard irrespective of what the company shareholders think.

Secondly apart from a few diehard sceptics most accept interlectualy that global warming is a reality, and it is mainly driven by the use of fosil fuels liberating carbon back into the atmospher where it has not been for millenia to millions of years.

However the intelect has little to do with comfort, and I would be one of the first to put my hand up to being grumpy and irritable when it is to warm to concentrate.

Which sugests that in the short term we do need to control power consumption over peoples wishes.

However there are much better ways of doing it than this cock eyed scheme.

HJohn December 11, 2008 8:32 AM

@tim: “She is a spokesperson. I find I don’t really care what she does or doesn’t know. Now – if a VP or a other person of real authority said it – I would be more willing to skewer them.”

Problem is, she’s publicly put a bullseye on her company. I agree in the since that it would be worse if it were a high up executive, but this is still not good for the company.

peri December 11, 2008 8:39 AM

“The proposed rules are contained in a document circulated by the California Energy Commission”

Anyone really worried about this should keep an eye out for the eminent leak:

I am trying to imagine what conditions would keep people from easily bypassing these thermostats. To be effective they would want to ensure it would be easier to reduce the need for AC during peak hours than to bypass the thermostat.

The major problem being that the thermostats will eventually be compromised and so you have to add the potential loss of life to the bypass side of the equation. So people will be forced to ensure they can bypass the thermostat to prevent loss of life.

Phillip Hofmeister December 11, 2008 8:40 AM

I didn’t read the article, but I assume we’re talking about home thermostats? Why do we need to have centralized control of these? We get along just fine now without this capability. Has something changed?

Phillip Hofmeister December 11, 2008 8:42 AM

Why are they using electricity for heating anyhow? In Michigan we use natural gas and propane.

Phillip Hofmeister December 11, 2008 8:44 AM

One final comment — the system would be easy to master-override by the customer. Take the thermostat off the wall and join the two wires together to turn the heater on manually. (That’s the function the thermostat basically does — complete the circuit)

peri December 11, 2008 8:45 AM

I also wanted to comment that Obama is combating an decrepit national infrastructure and recession by investing in modernizing the American infrastructure. Certainly California’s inadequate electrical infrastructure and economic woes should be more inspired by Obama.

peri December 11, 2008 8:54 AM

@Phillip Hofmeister
“Why do we need to have centralized control of these?”

California has had to deal with electrical demand outpacing the supply by instituting rolling blackouts. This proposal would give California the option of reducing demand by changing thermostat settings throughout the state and alleviate the need for rolling blackouts but as a side effect it might also give the same power to anybody with an Internet connection.

Canadian December 11, 2008 9:00 AM

Just to clarify, Toronto Hydro will turn off volunteered air conditioners 15 minutes out of every 30 minutes for up to 4 hours.

I have not found any information about what kind of signal is sent to the control box in each home. Nor have I heard any reports of the system being hacked, but, absent provocative comments, there is little motivation to do so.

HJohn December 11, 2008 9:05 AM

@Tom: “Isn’t that overkill? Surely one or the other would be sufficient.”

In most cases, probably. But if a spokesperson is going to taunt hackers by saying “it can’t be hacked,” overkill may not even save them.

Carlo Graziani December 11, 2008 9:10 AM

The fundamental problem is that power is too cheap. Central control of demand, rolling blackouts, etc. are all ways to avoid facing this central truth. When the price of a good is heavily distorted by regulation or subsidy, people waste it — it’s just the tragedy of the commons (although the silly discussion that attends it makes it seem more farcical than tragic).

I’m not a market fetishist, and I believe there’s a place for regulation in achieving societal goals. But when resource allocation gets so screwy that the power company has to turn your lights on and off, it’s clear that it’s time to let in a little market discipline. If the result of letting power costs rise to their market value is a windfall for the power companies, we should tax them and use the revenue to subsidize power for the poor. Everyone else should be put in mind of a meter running when they turn on their AC.

Calum December 11, 2008 9:21 AM

@Carlo: Quite correct. The American electricity market is a boondoggle of the first order. That it works at all is a minor miracle.

Tom December 11, 2008 9:27 AM

I can imagine Ms. Tam’s response to the obvious follow-up question, “But what if it does get hacked?”

Ms. Tam: “Well, as I just said, that’s not possible. If it happened, it would mean that the programmers responsible for security had made a mistake, and we all know that never happens.”

Energy Employee December 11, 2008 9:37 AM

From an information assurance standpoint, it’s become embarrassing to be associated with the energy industry.

Rick December 11, 2008 9:44 AM

This is a terrible idea, and not just for the “hackability” reasons already aired. Some people depend on the A/C for medical reasons. During the great blackout of 2003, Lewis Wheelan died in his apartment because of the lack of air conditioning — he’d previously suffered extensive burns, and his extensively grafted skin couldn’t shed heat well enough to prevent overheating in the summer temperatures.

Andrew Keefe December 11, 2008 10:32 AM

Why don’t they just mandate what clothes we wear?

Also, doesn’t this promote distributed generation?

Sean December 11, 2008 10:34 AM

If we’re doing this to unload the grid to keep it from collapsing, we’d better make sure it truly is unhackable because it’s also a very easy way to load the grid to its breaking point if not implemented properly. Or just cause misery by everyone’s heat going off and on at will. I imagine someone figuring out how to flash a city in a checkerboard fashion.

Stan December 11, 2008 10:45 AM

I honestly don’t see what the outrage is (outside of the security issues.) P.G.&E. can already control your AC – by blacking out your whole neighborhood when they need to. Which would you rather have?

Davi Ottenheimer December 11, 2008 10:46 AM

“Next year in California, state regulators are likely to have the emergency power…to manage electricity shortages.”

The complete irony of this measure is that the electricity “shortages” in California were a result of deregulation of the market and crooks in companies like Enron.

“‘It demonstrates this was an intentional, internally overt effort to identify holes in the system and exploit them,'” said Michael Gianunzio, the utility district’s general counsel. […] When he sued the company last year, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer accused Enron of market manipulation stretching back to 1998. He said the company used elaborate trading schemes to create the appearance of power shortages in some cases and congested transmission lines in others.”

Instead of regulating the individual homeowner thermostats, the gov’t should continue to take a hard look at the men in companies like SG Barr Devlin that clearly have been hacking utilities and infrastructure for personal profit for years.

Nick Lancaster December 11, 2008 10:59 AM

If the RF-controlled thermostats are required by law to be included in new construction, it means that tampering with them becomes a crime.

How the heck do you enforce THAT? A routine signal sent by the control point? If I adjust my thermostat at 2 AM, is it going to let PG&E know I’m being an energy hog?

And if I turn off my heater, then plug in a bunch of electrical heaters, what then?

Too easy to defeat, even without hacking. Low probability of enforcement. Useless piece of garbage.

Anon December 11, 2008 11:02 AM

encrypted AND encoded?

Isn’t that overkill? Surely one or the other would be sufficient.

No. Encryption and encoding are two entirely different things

Carlo Graziani December 11, 2008 11:16 AM


Effective monopolies are a problem for deregulating power. Gimcrack schemes to create “competition” where none exists, coupled to a determination to deny even the theoretical possibility of collusion and price fixing by the Bush administration’s “regulators”, set the table for the Enron fiasco and for the Rape of California. I agree with you that it’s a scandal that nobody went to prison for that (as opposed to for the funny accounting at Enron).

However, price-fixing by Utility boards are also a pathology of our power delivery system, one which results directly in the perverse incentive system that wastes power and which apparently requires centralized demand management to sustain.

It would be better if we got rid of the price-fixing role of the regulatory agencies, and instead set them the mandate of monitoring the industry for collusion, the way we do with the Airline industry. Civil and Criminal law enforcement is the appropriate tool here. Supposing, of course, that we can avoid setting the bank robbers to guard the banks, as we did with Cheney’s pals for eight years…

Roy December 11, 2008 11:21 AM

The implementation decides the vulnerabilities.

Certainly the control will not be hard-wired, as a statewide network would be prohibitively expensive, which leaves telephone hardlines, wireless telephony, and the Internet.

Hardlines can be disconnected, and antennas can be isolated by shielding, so anybody with a little ingenuity can opt out of being controlled.

Sneakier would be getting a battery-powered thermostat, disconnecting the controlled one, and switching to the new one. You control the working thermostat, and the commission can control the setting of the one that does nothing all they want.

Incidentally, California has experimented with pricing tiers, where the rate goes up as the individual usage goes to higher tiers. Penalizing power hogs makes more sense than penalizing everyone, and it generates more revenue for the utilities and their stockholders. This has the further advantage of being easy to implement through existing automated billing.

David December 11, 2008 11:44 AM

In the first place, centralizing all of the controls for electrical usage would be a very tempting target for miscreants. Imagine a young hacker who manages to set everyone’s temperature to 59 degrees F in the middle of a hot summer day. That would probably shut the entire local grid down, and possibly have national effect.

But besides that, the whole concept is ludicrously easy to beat. All I need to do as a consumer who doesn’t wish to have my house drift up to 85 degrees in the summer is to set up a small heater close to my thermostat so that the thermostat sees a higher temperature than the rest of the house. Being geeky, I would want the heater to measure the temperature away from the thermostat and then adjust it’s local temperature automatically to be, say, 5 degrees above the remote temperature. So the power company sets it to 85 and my house stays at 80. Problem solved. As a bonus, I might even get a tax credit for participating in the program…

Sounds like a great program to me.

Pat Cahalan December 11, 2008 11:45 AM

Hrm, what about semi- (or fully) autonomous homes?

If I put solar panels on my roof to provide some (or all) of my power needs, does the state still get to decide to turn off my thermostat? Does it matter if my house feeds back into the grid? Can I petition for a cooler house based upon the fact that I contribute power to the grid, if I do?

In and of itself, I don’t buy the civil libertarian argument; if the power company wants to limit customer’s consumption due to overall demand being too high, this isn’t entirely unreasonable. The “energy market” in California isn’t precisely a “market” – it has many characteristics of a commons. All of the energy customers have a desire to have “some” power over perhaps “enough” power.

All that said, the devil’s in the detail, and there are a LOT of details here…

Pat Cahalan December 11, 2008 11:46 AM

Oh, and just on the security aspects…

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that some really bright kid is going to wind up doing jail time when he pulls the prank of shutting off the AC at the governor’s mansion…

Andy from Workshopshed December 11, 2008 11:51 AM

You don’t need to use a separate radio channel, the electric supply is a good enough channel to broadcast messages.

The implementation of this system seems wrong, it should not need to be a case of passing control to the supply company rather it could be a case of passing control to the consumer. For example if you set your washing machine to run whilst you are out, the supply company could send it a signal indicating that there was a period of low demand and the machine could start its cycle. The same signal could be sent to your meter too so that the supply companies could give discounts to consumers like a smarter Economy 7 system.

NM December 11, 2008 11:56 AM

« While I academically approve of the idea of suffering a little to avoid overloading the grid, I do NOT believe that the pain will be shared equally; the rich elites like Al Gore want ME »

Don’t let your prejudices get in the way of missing the point by 300 K (that’s Kelvin).

One of the ways for it to work doesn’t involve poor little y°ü getting inconvenienced by a 1 K temperature swing; it works by having your fridge or freezer lowering its standard thermostat temp a few degrees, so that it has a buffer to not switch on its motor when the network advertises a need.

Oh wait, I just realized something. Your ice cream won’t have the ideal temperature anymore! ‹cartman voice› You will have to suuuuuuffer harder icecreeaam just to pleease the libruuul eliiiite‹/cartman›

Kaukomieli December 11, 2008 12:27 PM

In some countries where brownouts are a risk it might be a good idea to limit the amount of energy especially air conditioners consume to keep the grid running. AFAIK Italy achieves this with electricity meters that cut off power when the load exceeds a certain amount of kW.

Investing into distribution networks is a lot more expensive, but might be wise in the long run.

Bryan Feir December 11, 2008 12:31 PM

I agree, you would think that it would be possible to send the signals over the electrical wiring itself.

The ‘peaksaver’ program here in Toronto is annoyingly light on technical details. One page I found from the Toronto Star newspaper says that it’s based on a one-way paging wireless network. Which makes sense given that it’s centralized control, and only very short pieces of information need to be sent.

(I don’t use the system; I don’t have central air, so I don’t qualify anyway.)

I suspect that the main protection for this is going to be that I see little incentive for ‘professional’ messing with the system. People getting their jollies by shutting off their neighbour’s AC on a hot day an hour before he gets home are the most likely threat here. Well, and the whole ‘because I can’ aspect, but that tends not to result in multiple breaches once someone’s proven they can do it.

old guy December 11, 2008 12:32 PM

If they tax it properly, it may be a way to solve some budget shortfalls when there’s plenty of energy to go around.

Malvolio December 11, 2008 1:08 PM

The complete irony of this measure is that the electricity “shortages” in California were a result of deregulation of the market and crooks in companies like Enron. If you are mocking someone for not understanding your area of expertise, you should probably avoid making absurd statements of your own.

  1. The systems tend to be voluntary — the power company needs to cut peak load, so they give you a break in your rate if you let them shut down your AC a little in the middle of the day (when you probably aren’t even home). No, it wouldn’t be difficult to hack, or just disconnect, the thermostat, why would you? And if you are dependent on constant A/C, you don’t volunteer in the first place.

  2. The California power market was never deregulated — the wholesale market was, but since the retail price was still held artificial low, the distributors were mulched by the price difference.

  3. There was no shortage of crooks at Enron, but the employees who extracted the maximum money from sales of electricity were doing their jobs and obeying the law. The law was stupidly designed, huge surprise

jas88 December 11, 2008 1:34 PM

Actually, I seem to recall this “signal” is already sent over the electricity network, albeit inadvertently: as load varies, the frequency of supply varies very slightly. Any appliance wanting to could simple monitor the frequency – any time it dips, try to cut consumption a bit. No need for any new infrastructure, and indeed very difficult to hack as well. Besides a risk of getting stuck in a loop (demand dips, appliances cut in boosting demand, which shuts them off, cutting demand…), much more elegant.

The idea of anyone being able to send “commands” like this remotely worries me; appliances sensing and adapting to electrical demand seems much better in many ways, as well as much less susceptible to malicious interference.

Given the track record of such security attempts, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the encryption is XOR with all-ones, then the encoding consists of inverting all the bits…

RH December 11, 2008 1:37 PM

To continue the earlier idea of passing control to the consumers, a better solution might be a digital meter which is continously updated with power prices (on perhaps a 1 minute interval). Those prices woudl go up and down with demand.

Then you can sell devices which hear that signal and only turn on when the price is X or Y

Chris S December 11, 2008 1:38 PM

@Canadian: “In Toronto, there is a campaign on asking homeowners to allow the local electrical utility (Toronto Hydro) to shut off their residential air conditioners for up to 4 hours during periods of peak electrical demand.”

I prefer to stick with my 14 year old setback thermostat, which lets me (1) get the A/C when I want it, and yet (2) cut off the A/C for periods longer than 4 hours, on a regular and automatic basis.

I would much rather see the roll-out of Time Of Use pricing. That will let people make their own decisions about the trade-offs involved, while (hopefully) building more the externalities into the price that people use to make their decisions.

On a related note, this is same reason I have a solar calendar timer on the porch lights. It retains the needed functionality, while saving power, and requiring almost no maintenance or regular activity on my part.

geek December 11, 2008 1:56 PM

In Arizona, some power providers offer off-peak pricing reductions. Our peak power consumption is in the summer, especially during daylight hours.

Two friends of mine have already enrolled in the off-peak power programs, and they don’t have remote-controlled thermostats. That’s because off-peak is simply defined by time of day, which is an approximation, rather than the real-time demand on the power provider.

If the power provider instituted smaller gradations of peak and off-peak power rates, then telling thermostats when the on-peak and off-peak times occur would be crucial for managing this on the finer level of real-time granularity.

Les December 11, 2008 1:58 PM

The ‘peaksaver’ program in Ontario does use the paging infrastructure.

It’s existing, cheap, proven technology. I don’t remember reading about paging hacks, although there must be some.

It’s one way. The utility just controls the temperature delta, not the base temp (which would depend on thermostat placement anyways).

I’m a member of the program, and I think that they only changed my temperature twice last year (that I noticed), and only for a few hours. How much it effects you depends largely on how well your house is insulated. If your house temp shoots up as soon as the thermostat is reset, you probably have bigger issues to worry about.

It’s also override able and voluntary.

It’s easy enough to hack. You could do stuff with hairdryers or Faraday cages but, honestly, isn’t it way easier just to wire-in a different thermostat? It’s only four wires. If you want to get fancy, you can add a switch.

The whole point to this program is that it imposes minimal inconvenience (a one or two degree shift on a hot day), and provides a benefit (no brownouts or blackouts, lower electric rates in the long term). So what if it has as much security as a “leave a penny take a penny” jar? Most people won’t even bother to try to cheat it, and it’s most likely to be used during weekday daylight hours when you probably aren’t even at home.

Power to the People December 11, 2008 2:10 PM

I share the distaste that many feel about this system. And several commenters have pointed out security risks.

In the bigger picture, the Commission is trying to solve an allocation problem. When demand exceeds capacity, electricity will be “rationed.”

Rationing Scheme A: Regions of the grid are shut off.

Rationing Scheme B: Heating or cooling is decreased.

(Rationing Scheme C: No load shedding is done, everybody loses power.)

In any of these schemes, customers will experience diminished control of their electrical systems, including HVAC. So it becomes a policy question, which is better?

Of course, these aren’t security questions. But security problems often relate to policy questions like this one. Usually, the list of alternatives doesn’t include utopia: we don’t get to choose between “exactly the way we prefer” and “the other thing, that we dislike.”

There is a related security question, however. Rationing schemes can be compared, with regard to their risks to public health and safety. For example, what is the likely harm due to hacking of a remote-thermostat control system, compared against the likely harm from rolling blackouts?

pfogg December 11, 2008 2:24 PM

The comparatively simple system of defining ‘peak summer hours’ by clock and calendar, and charging more during those hours, has been proposed, but is normally shot down by pointing out that it would require replacing lots and lots of cheap meters with expensive ones. This thermostat proposal affects only new and substantially modified homes, so I’m not clear on why they’re not just proposing the meter change instead. It avoids introducing any new security issues, and charges customers for the thing that’s actually expensive: extra power production capability that’s only used during peak usage.

Implementing it as a discount during off-peak hours instead of a premium fee during peak hours is functionally identical, and would encourage people to voluntarily install the new meters in their old homes as well.

Californio December 11, 2008 3:04 PM


Why are they using electricity for
heating anyhow? In Michigan …

Heating? In California? Good one.

leonard December 11, 2008 3:07 PM

I wonder what she’ll think when someone hacks the system?

Why hack the whole system? I just think it’d be funny to cook my annoying neighbors.

Anonymous December 11, 2008 3:10 PM

@Chris S:
Well, yes, the plan in Ontario is to introduce Time of Use rates all over the province, not just in Toronto. This requires everybody having ‘Smart Meters’ to manage it properly, though, and even in Toronto they haven’t finished installing all of them yet, though they hope to be done sometime next year, with end of 2010 for the whole of the province.

Toronto Hydro was supposed to introduce Time of Use pricing late this year, but that’s obviously not happening now… sometime next year, apparently.

Davi Ottenheimer December 11, 2008 3:46 PM

“For example, what is the likely harm due to hacking of a remote-thermostat control system, compared against the likely harm from rolling blackouts?”

Same difference.

I think more attention should be paid (no pun intended) to the guys who hacked the system and caused the rolling California outages in 2000-2001, as I mentioned above.

John S December 11, 2008 3:47 PM

The nice folks at PG&E have repeatedly offered me $25 to voluntarily join this program. If they would offer me $2,500 annually, I’d consider it.

another bruce December 11, 2008 3:59 PM

i’m not smart enough to hack this system, but i’m damn well smart enough to diddle my thermostat so the signal will be ineffective. as a young lad, i figured out how to turn on a sauna heater from a reclining position by squirting beer out the gap between my front teeth at the test junction of the thermocouple.

Rational Thinker December 11, 2008 4:50 PM

Quote: – “You realize there are times — very rarely, once every few years — when you would be subject to a rotating outage and everything would crash including your computer and traffic lights, and you don’t want to do that,” said Arthur H. Rosenfeld, a member of the energy commission. –

$o, how many million$ will be $pent to [attempt to] $olve a problem that occur$ very rarely – once every few year$? Those crazy Californians!

Clive Robinson December 11, 2008 5:00 PM

@ RH,

“To continue the earlier idea of passing control to the consumers, a better solution might be a digital meter which is continously updated with power prices… …you can sell devices which hear that signal and only turn on when the price is X or Y”

On the face of it it sounds like a nice sound and sensible idea that is also environmentaly friendly. BUT, there is one little problem…

The power companies are businesses whos motivation is the maximisation of “shareholder value”.

They want you to use as much of their product as you can at maximum profit to them, whilst minimising their cost and also doing a good PR job with regulators and the public.

The main reason these companies have problems is deliberate under investment in infrestructure. It has been clear for quite some time that load per head of population has been increasing in a fairly predictable fashion (ie as we move from family dwelling to individual dwelling to name one effect). And also that planning and zoning are increasing.

However building infrestructure prior to or just in time cuts into profitability which is a no no for shareholders (which is why you get brownouts, outages and rolling blackouts.

The fact that the power companies are spinning the problem as an environmental issue (ie shift the blaim from them to their customers) does not resolve the problem.

Further if they told you how much they where charging at any point in time you would plan around this in various ways which would reduce the power companies profitability further, so I don’t see them being overly keen to do this, and if they do and profits fall then expect price rises at the “economy end” of unit pricing to compensate, thus rendering the system you propose less and less atractive as the sacings rapidly decrese.

Which identifies what the effective solution is, which I’m afraid is that little bitter pill control demand by price control.

Odd as it might sound this is environmentaly friendly as you start paying the real cost for your energy usage, which encorages you to buy into more efficient methods of doing things. Often this will kick start a new aspect of industry (high efficiency light for instance) which will almost compleatly replace the old less efficient products at comparable or better pricing as volume production brings in economy of scale.

Further it encorages life style changes, I wear a fleace around the house and heat to only 14C, and don’t have dimmer controled lights. If allowed I would install high efficiency wood burning stoves with energy exchanger air circulation (which is much healthier than radient heating). Further I would happily look at photothermal and photovoltaic systems as well if the price was at a sensible point, possibly even under ground storage heating as well.

Germany amongst other continental European countries have realised that you need to put in subsadies in “the right places” to kick start the markets you want such as CHP and solar technology. Not the politicaly easy vote catching “energy tariffs for the poor”.

As I said in an earlier post this “page a thermostat” proposel is not the solution.

It is infact inefficient un environmentaly friendly technology looking for a market to protect vested interests by the companies and politicos.

The easiest way currently to kill it is to bang on about “how ungreen it is” this kills of the PR and brings to light the shody practices of the power companies and politicos and just how much it realy costs the individual…

Further point out that a change in building regulations for mandatory increased thermal efficiency and renewable energy system discounts will show bigger returns for longer and importantly reduce the “carbon footprint” more effectivly (not that the power companies want you knowing that as it hits their profits and PR).

(Now I will just put my soap box back in the cuboard and have a calming cup of tea 8)

Clive Robinson December 11, 2008 5:16 PM

@ pfogg,

“but is normally shot down by pointing out that it would require replacing lots and lots of cheap meters with expensive ones.”

Woha, that does not make sense…

Nearly all electricity meters are (and should be) controled by a microprocessor, adding a little extra ROM (say 5cent increase on chip price) and the attendant software is going to be way way cheaper than installing paging receivers into new “electronic thermostats” (where mechanical ones are actually better for many reasons).

The people who come up with the sort of argument you outline should be “shot down” themselves possibly figurativly but better literaly.

I guess they must have vested interests either directly or indirectly in this rather bizzar idea.

And rather than using a scarce resource like paging (limited number of frequencies and questionable coverage) why don’t they opt for powerline data signaling (which some power companies already use to control their infrestructure).

Clive Robinson December 11, 2008 5:33 PM

@ Rational Thinker,

“Those crazy Californians!”

I have been told (when I was in the US a few years back) that it was California that came up with the idea that if your house was worth more than a certain amount then you had to pay for the maintanence of the local sidewalks and roads via a special tax…

Now if they are “crazy enough” to come up with that one how about,

If your house is worth more than X you have to pay an extra tax to install enviormentalt friendly technology in low cost housing, If your house is worth less than X but more than Y you pay for the technology yourself, and if your house is worth less than Y you are in low cost housing.

Yup it’s socialisum with a small S but then so is pavment taxation etc.

Californio December 11, 2008 5:55 PM


Good point. The weather alert continues:


raj December 11, 2008 7:06 PM

Here in Indianapolis, we have the water company behaving the same way as the California eletric company. The water company does not want to invest in additional capacity so they have asked the city council to start fining and arresting those who are using too much water. Indianapolis gets plenty of rain, the only shortage is water treatment capacity. sigh..

moo December 11, 2008 7:15 PM

Like anyone living in Canada, I just have to laugh when someone suggests that it ever gets cold in California.

Georgia Geek December 11, 2008 7:39 PM

While I think mandating the use of these types of controls is idiotic, the technology is very old. Some electric membership cooperatives in Georgia have had Air Conditioning cut outs on home AC units for at LEAST two DECADES. The program is (or was the last time I checked) voluntary, but you got some sort of discount I think.

In any case the point of control is NOT the thermostat in the residence. It is a unit hard wired between the compressor outside and the 220 Volt line. The thermostat in the house continues to call for cooling, but the compressor outside just does not run.

I have “heard” that it is possible to block the RF signal that puts the unit in a cutoff state by simply wrapping it in aluminum foil and grounding it. The circuits in the receiver restore power about 15 or 30 minutes after a cut off signal and the default state is power on. If this bill passes I might start selling aluminum foil in California!

markymark December 11, 2008 7:43 PM

“I wonder what she’ll think when someone hacks the system?”

Bruce, don’t you listen? Nicole clearly said “That is not possible”.

Frances December 11, 2008 10:01 PM

Well, not only have we had this technology in Toronto for a few years, we had a similar one for electric hot water heaters before that. We had it installed on our heater and we got a discount for having it. We could tell when it was being used because we could hear the relays clicking. However, when the electricity system changed, they discontinued it. Toronto Hydro says that it only used the system 4 times last summer but it was a cool summer, as summers go.

We also have a new digital time-of-day meter in our house but the time-of-day pricing is not yet in effect.

I think that most of you are just having a knee-jerk reaction to what is actually a good idea.

Mr. Robinson, how do you cope with a 14 C. temperature? Do you keep the whole house that cold?

Clive Robinson December 12, 2008 12:38 AM

@ Frances,

“Mr. Robinson, how do you cope with a 14 C. temperature? Do you keep the whole house that cold?”

That’s as low as I let it get which it has been at for the past few weeks. And yes it’s the whole (flat) place.

It’s warm enough to keep the London damp and grey outside. And it’s what I’m used to being an outdoors type.

When I was a child (I’m about Bruce’s age) central heating and double glazing where virtualy unknown in UK houses and did not come in till the late 1970’s and it was rare having any heating on other than in the lounge and even then it was a luxuray reserved for days when fog/ice/snow was outside, you just put on a jumper (and yes I did wear short trousers it was the school uniform untill I was 11).

And yes I do have to turn it up when certain more delicate (young) friends come around, but then their houses are like sauners. But they have energy bills around 2500USD each year and mine is about 350USD.

Which I assum means I have tiny carbon foot prints in comparison (unlike my real feet for which I would like to thank the US/Canada for being able to get footware for).

Roger December 12, 2008 4:26 AM


… it works by having your fridge or freezer lowering its standard thermostat temp a few degrees, so that it has a buffer to not switch on its motor when the network advertises a need.

What are you talking about? This is about air conditioning, not refrigerators. The network load attributable to domestic refrigerators is tiny compared to A/C.

But … it may indicate the real way to deal with these sorts of issues. I don’t know about the US, but in Australia we started labelling major appliances with their “energy efficiency ratings” back in 1987. It’s a relative scale, with “1 star” roughly based on the current worst model on the market (updated two or three times since then), and each additional star being a geometric progression. By both informing consumers, and keeping a constant downward pressure, this system has seen great strides in efficiency for many appliance types. In the case of refrigerators, back when the program started a mean power consumption of 75 watts (averaged over a year of typical use) would be a fairly efficient model. Today, most are under 40 watts and the best are knocking on 20 watts.

Yeah, 20 watts; if refrigerators are causing brownouts, then so are desk lamps.

Of course, the biggest component in A/C efficiency is building insulation. Over here, the government started giving tax breaks to encourage retrofitting of insulation in older buildings — and it’s working.

gbromage December 12, 2008 5:14 AM


“Can anybody think of an emergancy where thy would need to turn a consumers heating up or aircon down?”


10 years ago, in Australia, there was an explosion at a major natural gas plant, and rationing was introduced.

For about 2-3 weeks, only specific houses (where there were elderly, young children or people whom had a medical need for heating or as hot water) were permitted to use gas-based systems.

At that time, they had formal inspectors who made random checks to ensure pilot lights were extinguished, etc.

jammit December 12, 2008 10:15 AM

Is it really necessary to have total control over the thermostats? Wouldn’t it be better to simply allow a change of only plus or minus 5 degrees? Maybe adding a command to tell the thermostat to delay turning on for up to a few minutes would be better. Kind of like collision handling for KW.

Mark R December 12, 2008 10:33 AM

Re: “encrypted AND encoded?

Isn’t that overkill? Surely one or the other would be sufficient.

No. Encryption and encoding are two entirely different things”

Not to mention that encoding does not provide security. Even if you use a “secret” encoding, it would surely be easy to reverse-engineer by listening to the signal and watching your thermostat.

The original statement is like saying, “My front door is impenetrable. It’s locked AND it’s brown.”

Harry Tuttle December 12, 2008 2:27 PM

Listen, this old system of yours could be on fire and I couldn’t even turn on the kitchen tap without filling out a 27b/6… Bloody paperwork.

newbs December 12, 2008 5:22 PM

The first thing I thought of when I read this was a recent episode of “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles” where an AI system responded to a loss of power by diverting backup power to sustain its own systems. Other systems, like HVAC and electronic locks on doors were disabled, and as a result a person working in the building died because the doors were locked and the AC was off.

James P. Howard, II December 12, 2008 9:15 PM

On Friday, Baltimore Gas and Electric installed a kill switch on my
air conditioner. When I asked about how it worked, they told me two
things, both of which look like giant blinking red flags to me:

  1. The signal is VHF, but encrypted and the details are proprietary.
  2. In twenty years of running the program, it has never been a problem before.

They are quite insistent that their network is secure and they do not
expect anyone to break into their service and send the signal without
authorization. I am more concerned that someone will duplicate the
signal without using their equipment. (More likely bored high school
students, but it is not an unreasonable proposition.)

Roger December 12, 2008 9:59 PM

I understand that some parts of California get really hot in summer.

What is going to happen to the power company the first time they do this, and it kills an elderly or sick person?

John Brooks December 16, 2008 5:28 AM

Transmitting data, secure or otherwise, to remote-control themostats is unnecessary anyway.

Much wiser (and cheaper!) to implement a broadcast including temperature forecasts (say, half-hour and 2-hour), plus electricity tariff data. It would (presumably) be easier to make this unspoofable than ‘secure’. I’d have thought that once consumers (of all types and scales) can SEE what’s going to happen with their AC running costs, they’ll quickly respond (either automatically or manually) to reduce the load. Let the market decide.

Anonymous December 16, 2008 4:39 PM

I wonder what she’ll think when someone hacks the system?

She’ll poop her self and cry until someone changes her diaper.

All your thermostats are belong to us!!! I can’t wait to blame Al-Qaeda for making Californians stink just a little bit more.

jaded December 16, 2008 5:19 PM

It probably won’t be implemented as a thermostat, but as a motor controller. Commercial solutions have been out for many years.

10 years ago, my electric co-op offered me a load control device for my heat pump, under a program they call Cycled Air. When peak demands are high, they can remotely signal it via FM to kill power to the heat pump for 20 minutes out of every 60. (They do not control the thermostat or the fan.) In exchange, there is a separate electric meter on my heat pump, and I pay only their cost for all the electricity my heat pump uses throughout the year (their cost is about 30% below their regular price.) They offer similar control over water heating, and if I had an electric water heater I’d consider it. Most utilities have had similar programs for industrial users for decades.

Overall it’s an excellent program that inconveniences me just a little. The main differences between it and California’s proposition are that it’s voluntary, and I receive financial benefit for participating.

As with anything, it depends on the implementation. I prefer the free-market approach, myself. So either Californians either aren’t volunteering or no such product is available to them. Either answer is a pity.

David Gimmel January 15, 2009 5:03 AM

Clive says: “Secondly apart from a few diehard sceptics most accept interlectualy that global warming is a reality, and it is mainly driven by the use of fosil fuels liberating carbon back into the atmospher where it has not been for millenia to millions of years.”


It is the other way around. Most people ‘accept’ without applying their intellect… so as an exercise in ‘interlectuality’ (your typo).. most people also realize going back to biology class, that carbon is removed from the atmosphere by plants adding to the carbon that is bound in the planet’s biology. The more CO2, the more life on the planet, both in flora and fauna.

But you know my main beef here is that most ‘accept’ without thinking.

Joseph Somsel September 28, 2009 2:00 PM

Phase II of the system will be Bluetooth connections between the thermostats and the “smart meters” that are being installed. PG&E is spending $1.7 billion – SoCal will need twice as much.

Smart meters will allow real time pricing but remember that the cost of generation is only about 25% of the total cost of electricity delivered. The other 75% are fixed costs for transmission, distribution, and administration.

If the peak price of generation DOUBLES, then the overall price per unit only goes up 12.5% – big deal.

The next phase is to control not only your thermostat but your major applicances too. Your meter will be able to be read from the curb. The FM system can also send test signals that would recorded so that your meter reader would catch not only you billing info but whether or not your home appliciances were responding to real and test signals.

If you’ve bypassed the system somehow, you’d be found out and have to suffer the civil and criminal penalties (TBD).

The solution is just build more power plants so that rationing is not required.


Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.