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The Best Heating Controls for the Visually Impaired

Modern heating controls give us unprecedented control over our heating and enable us to improve our energy efficiency. But with such a wide range of heating controls on the market, are any of them suitable for users with impaired vision?

Making the Right Choice

Introducing a new heating system or boiler into a home is the perfect opportunity to upgrade the heating controls as well. However, it’s also possible to change the controls but not the rest of the heating system. To do this you need to ensure that the new controls are compatible. A professional heating engineer will be able to recommend the best manufacturers and will need to install them for you. The best professionals will also be able to recommend the best products based on your needs and lifestyle.

It’s crucial that any new heating controls are right for the individual. This decision will come down to not only level of useful sight but also lifestyle, budget and personal preferences in terms of usability. Generally, the heating industry has been slow to produce heating controls specifically designed for people with visual impairment so the challenge remains in finding controls which can be easily adapted to suit the user.

A heating control will enable you to turn your heating on and off and / or determine the temperature of either your whole home or specific rooms. Most controls now also make it possible to programme your heating by time of day / night and day of the week. It’s also possible to vary the temperature room by room which is particularly handy if you have rooms not often in use or prefer a cooler temperature in your bedroom than your lounge. When it comes to usability it’s important to consider how often the control needs to be adjusted or if it can be preprogrammed and left. In terms of budget, heating controls in general can vary from £15 for TRVs (Thermostatic Radiator Valves) all the way up to £200 or more for the latest smart thermostat system.

Things to look out for when doing your research include:

    • Are the buttons or switches easy to locate by touch? It’s possible to add stickers or raised markers onto your buttons or dial to help.
    • When pressed / turned is there any audible feedback?
    • If there is a screen, is the information easy to read? Some displays may display information temporarily – is there enough time to read everything you need to?
    • The labels on buttons need to be clear, large and possibly tactile if appropriate.
    • Is the control portable so you can keep it with you or does it need mounting on a wall? If it needs installing somewhere permanently it needs to be located somewhere with easy access and adequate lighting.
    • Are the instructions available in an accessible format such as large print or Braille? You should be able to request this from the manufacturer if not.

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Which Heating Controls?

There are two main types of heating controls: programmers or thermostats.

Programmers will turn your heating on and off at specified times and can be either mechanical or digital. Thermostats control the temperature of your heating and can either be manually adjusted or combined with a programmer to schedule your heating.

What is a TRV?
A TRV (Thermostatic Radiator Valve) is control which is fitted directly to a radiator. The valve senses the temperature of the air in the room and automatically adjusts to allow more or less hot water through the radiator, depending on which setting you have selected.

What’s good about TRVs?
Every room that has a TRV attached to the radiator can be controlled independently. This means that your bedroom can be cooler than your lounge or vice versa, and you needn’t waste energy heating rooms which are seldom in use.

Things to think about…
The majority of TRVs are manual dials which you turn to a numbered setting rather than a temperature. The valves can be stiff to move and will be low to the ground so may be poorly lit. If they have small or faintly marked settings they may not be suitable for people with impaired vision.

Many TRVs will ‘click’ with each turn of the dial so it’s easy to recognise when the setting has been successfully changed. If a TRV moves through the settings smoothly it may be necessary to add tactile markings. The most modern TRVs have digital displays which, depending on the manufacturer, may be easier to read. Some also offer a remote control option which may be better suited to some. Popular TRV Manufacturers include Drayton, Pegler, Danfoss, Honeywell.

Room Thermostats
What is a Room Thermostat?
A room thermostat enables you to control the temperature of your home. You tell the thermostat what temperature you would like your home to be (using either a manual dial or buttons), the thermostat senses the temperature of the room it is in and, if it’s too cold, it will turn your boiler on until the required temperature has been reached.

What’s good about room thermostats?
A room thermostat makes it really easy to control the temperature of your whole home with either the turn of a dial or push of a button. If you are happy for the temperature of your home to stay at a constant temperature for most of the time you can simply set it once and leave it.

Things to think about…

If you would like the thermostat to automatically adjust the temperature of your home based on the time of day or day of the week you will need to install a programmer too. Or, even better, a programmable thermostat.

Thermostats are either mechanical dials or digital screens operated by buttons or a dial. If you choose a dial you need to be sure that the markings are large and clear enough and / or that the dial or button makes a sound as the setting changes. Large buttons or dials which are easy to locate by touch are ideal. You can also buy brightly coloured and embossed stickers which have been specifically designed as visual aids for thermostats. By placing them over the top of the existing controls you can significantly improve usability at very little cost.

Programmable Thermostats
What is a programmable thermostat?
Many modern thermostats also include programmers. This means that the thermostat can communicate with the boiler to not only manage the temperature of your home but also when to turn on or off. You can usually schedule a 7 day period so you can have different temperatures at different times of the the day or on different days of the week.

What’s good about programmable thermostats?
A programmable thermostat gives you even greater control over your heating. You can programme the heating to follow a daily and weekly schedule so once it is set up you can leave it to manage itself.

Things to think about…
A programmable thermostat will usually have a digital screen. This will need to be large enough and the information clear enough. Backlit screens are usually more suitable for people with impaired vision. Programmable thermostats with large, backlit displays are best for those with visual impairment. As with standard thermostats the buttons or dial should be large and clearly marked with tactile markings ideally.

Smart Thermostats
What is a smart thermostat?
A smart thermostat is a programmable thermostat that is connected to the internet. This means that you can control either via a website or a smartphone app. They are the latest development in heating control technology and the government wants to install one in 53 million UK homes by 2020.

What’s good about a smart thermostat?
As with any programmable thermostat, a smart thermostat will programme a heating schedule by time of day and day of the week, will communicate with and control your boiler to maintain your desired temperature and also control your hot water. The key benefit lies in their internet connectivity. This means you can control your heating from anywhere via an internet connected device which removes the need for buttons or dials. You can monitor both your heating and energy usage so you can see where you could be saving money on your energy bills. Some even include GPS and motion detectors which will automatically activate or deactivate your heating as you leave or arrive home. In some systems it’s also possible to control different ‘zones’ in your home so you can have different temperatures in different rooms.

Things to think about…
To have a smart thermostat you will need a device with internet connectivity that you are comfortable using such as a computer, tablet or smartphone. If you rely on magnifiers or screen reader software you may have difficulty with compatibility. Also, not all smart thermostats have displays designed for people with sight loss.

Hive Active Heating from British Gas was the first smart thermostat app to be accredited by the RNIB as being fully accessible for people with sight loss. This is largely due to the quality of the voice control feature. Other popular smart thermostats include Nest and Honeywell Evohome.

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