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Protecting the Planet, One Thermostat at a Time

Dec. 19, 2013
Homeowners have increasingly made the switch to programmable thermostats. And why not? They’re inexpensive, convenient and have the potential to decrease utility costs. But what happens to those thermostats that are being replaced, many of which are older-style thermostat units that typically contain mercury?

For the HVACR contractor, proper disposal of mercury thermostats has long been an issue. For years, many people threw discarded mercury thermostats in the trash, where the mercury could leach from landfills into the soil and groundwater. As the environmental effects of mercury, a highly toxic element that can severely hurt the health of humans, animals and the environment, became better known in the 1990s, a growing number of states began to ban its disposal. Many of these states also mandated the recycling of products containing mercury.

Around this time, three of the major thermostat manufacturers got together and formed a voluntary recycling program to safely collect and properly dispose of mercury thermostats. The program, established by Honeywell, White-Rodgers and General Electric, began in 1998 with a simple goal of keeping mercury out of the waste stream in order to protect the environment. The program grew into a nonprofit organization – Thermostat Recycling Corp. (TRC) – to facilitate and manage the proper collection and disposal of these thermostats.

To ship the discarded mercury thermostats, however, required a change to the U.S. EPA’s universal waste program, which regulates the proper disposal of hazardous materials. The manufacturers had petitioned the EPA to include mercury thermostats in the rules so that they could ship them via FedEx to an authorized recycling facility. Once that regulation took effect, TRC was able to begin its program, primarily collecting and shipping them from seven northeastern states and Florida.

TRC accepts all brands of mercury thermostats.

Today, TRC consists of 31 manufacturers that historically branded and sold mercury switch thermostats. More than 3,400 businesses and communities in 47 states are enrolled in the program. Since its founding, TRC estimates that it has collected more than 1 million mercurycontaining thermostats for a total of 7.4 tons of mercury that have been kept out of the waste stream.

TRC operates out of an office in Alexandria, VA, with a full-time staff of three and a larger staff of contractors that handle the day-to-day logistics of the program. Mark Tibbetts, executive director of TRC, says the beauty of the program lies in its simplicity: Supply the proper bins and materials to HVAC distributors and dealers. Then provide them with the training and tools so they can ship them to TRC’s central distribution center in Golden Valley, MN, and offer them an array of marketing and promotional materials to promote the program to their customers.

By far, TRC’s most effective way to collect mercury thermostats is through HVACR distributors. Tibbetts calls this a “reverse distribution scheme,” and says, “Our bread and butter is the distributor.” Of TRC’s approximate 1,900 active collection points, about 1,200 are distributors. Retailers who sell thermostats as well as HVAC contracting businesses with more than seven technicians or that serve rural communities are also eligible to serve as collection locations. Because of federal regulations, TRC only offers the program in the continental United States. Canada has its own recycling program called “Switch the ’Stat”.

“We live and die by the support of the distributors – engaging with them, increasing their numbers who actively participate in the program and coming up with strategies to support their businesses,”

Tibbetts says. For distributors, there is no downside. After paying an initial $25 fee, there are no additional costs associated with the program. They receive a collection container from TRC. Once the distributor fills the container and preps it for shipping (about a two-minute process) with a prepaid address label, FedEx takes it away. Five to seven days later, the distributor gets the bin returned to them. “It’s a nobrainer,” Tibbetts says. “It’s so simple for them to do the program at their locations.”

Johnson Supply, an HVACR wholesale distributor, has collection points at each of its 24 branch locations in Texas and Louisiana. Richard Cook, president/COO, concurs with Tibbetts’ assessment of the program. “It is very easy now that we have protocols set up,” Cook says. “We just place the green bins close to high traffic areas, maintain proper signage and TRC makes it very easy from there.”

TRC has two training videos that serve as a step-by-step guide for contractors and HVAC wholesale distributors who are new to the program or who need a refresher on how to effectively implement and promote it. The videos are available on TRC’s YouTube page and its website. They also cover detailed steps that highlight procedures, safety precautions and best practices to ensure that the program runs smoothly and effectively.

A behind-the-scenes look while shooting a TRC program training video.

Associated benefits come with the reputation of being a mercury recycling collection center, Tibbetts says. Having a collection bin gives the contractor a value-added reason to come into a local branch or dealer. “You may get someone through the door who may not have otherwise walked in,” Tibbetts says. In a crowded marketplace, a dealer who recycles mercury thermostats can help to distinguish its brand. While businesses may say they’re environmentally conscious, nothing says “green” like having the green mercury recycling bins at a branch to prove it to customers.

TRC actively supports its HVAC distributors in promoting their participation in the program. A Promotional Toolkit, provided at no cost to distributors, is available for distributors on the TRC website and contains templates of a number of items for them to download and use at each collection point. TRC also maintains an inventory of promotional stickers that it provides to distributors upon request and attends industry trade shows around the country to drive greater awareness about the program to distributors and contractors alike.

Part of the challenge, Tibbetts acknowledges, is sustaining participation among a distributor’s branches, particularly if there are multiple locations. “The goal is to integrate it into their business and get all of the branches involved,” he says. “What we do is help to support the dealer network and help to drive contractors to their locations.”

TRC has ongoing relationships with industry trade organizations like HARDI and ACCA to promote the recycling program. In partnership with HARDI, TRC relaunched its Mercury Thermostat Recycling Awards in May 2012 to encourage participation by recognizing the distributors who have recovered the most mercury thermostats and/or developed innovative strategies to promote the program at their branch locations.

Mark Tibbetts

The program, dubbed the “Big Man On Planet” (BHOP) award, challenges distributors to “be in it to win it.” TRC developed special invitation cards they sent to HARDI members. The 2012 winner was Johnson Supply, which was honored at last year’s HARDI annual conference. This year’s winner will be honored at the conference in December.

Tibbetts says TRC utilizes some of ACCA’s communications channels to raise awareness of the program because of the close relationships that exist between distributor and contractor. Both contractors and consumers can go to TRC’s home page and use the search tool to type in a ZIP code and find the collection points in their area.

TRC also promotes the program through banner ads on websites like and the chat room, TRC is also employing a strategy to target contractors in states with mercury thermostat disposal bans in an effort to raise awareness among this audience. Tibbetts says these types of strategies show HVAC distributors an important value-added service of participating in the program. “If they agree to serve as a collection point, we’re going to raise awareness about this through our advertising and earned media campaigns,” Tibbetts says.

TRC suggests distributors hold their own promotional events in which they promote thermostats while raising awareness of its recycling program. Tibbetts says some distributors hold a “thermostat day” with manufacturers so a sales rep can talk about its products in conjunction with discounts on certain SKUs. There’s great opportunity to sell more thermostats and offer free recycling of the old mercury thermostats.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is leverage our program around other activities that help a distributor’s bottom line,” Tibbetts says. “Nobody wants to work with a business that isn’t green. What better way of burnishing your bona fides than being known as a business that prevents mercury pollution?”

Cook says the TRC program goes along with his company’s mission of being a responsible member of the community where they do business. “We feel it is the right thing to do – for our families and the future. It is also in keeping with our corporate values,” says Cook of Johnson Supply’s participation. “It is part of our culture at the branches, and our employees help encourage customers to participate. TRC is a great partner, and we encourage all distributors to take part in the program.”

Thermostat Recycling Corp. at a Glance

Executive Director: Mark Tibbetts
Headquarters: Alexandria, VA
Operations: Program is available in all states except Alaska and Hawaii
Employees: 3
Annual Sales: Not-for-profit – recovered more than 1.4 million thermostats since its inception
Year Founded: 1996 – National operations began in 2002

Best Practice

Big Man On Planet Award Competition
Definition and example:
Annual award program that TRC runs with HARDI recognizing the Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) member who collects the most mercury thermostats during the competition (this year from May 15 to Oct. 31).

Significance: Opportunity for distributors to participate in a program that validates their commitment to the environment and at the same time provides a valued service to their customers.

Benefits: Simple ways to promote and raise the visibility of thermostat recycling at your branch locations using the free promotional materials provided by TRC. Acting as a collection point is a simple way to distinguish your locations from your competitors by providing a valued service at no cost to your customers and at almost no cost to the distributor. Or inversely, a great defensive move if your competitors are collecting. By collecting, you don’t give your customers a reason to visit your competitor to recycle thermostats at their location. Also a great way to demonstrate commitment to the environment among industry peers.

Procedure: HARDI members can sign up to participate in the program at

People involved: TRC and HARDI staff

Timing: Competition runs from May 15 to Oct. 31. We will present the awards at the HARDI annual meeting.

Cost: There is no cost to participate in the competition. Locations must be already signed up for the TRC program or have order collection bins if they are not already doing so.

Contact: Christyn Zehnder, TRC staff 571/447-4315.