Heating controls are too difficult for people with sight loss

Charities call for accessible designs and publish new guide to heating controls and saving energy 

Many people with sight loss are unable to control their heating or cut their fuel bills because heating dials and switches are too difficult to use says new research1 released today by the Research Institute for Consumer Affairs (Rica) 2 and the sight loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust 3.

In a new guide, ‘Choosing Central Heating Controls and Saving Energy’, researchers report a catalogue of design problems that make heating controls difficult to operate, and offer practical advice on choosing and using heating controls to stay warm and save energy.

“It’s vital that everyone should be able to control their heating but current designs simply rule this out for some customers. We need new heating controls to be made accessible to all,” said Lynn Watson, head of housing research, Thomas Pocklington Trust.

The new guide de-mystifies heating controls. It explains how they work, gives product reviews and lists what to look for particularly if you have sight loss or failing vision. It also reveals an urgent need for better design of heating controls.

“There’s little point in government urging people to save energy if the most basic controls for heating are simply not workable for vast numbers of people,” said Chris Lofthouse, outreach manager, Rica.

In a plea to manufacturers, Rica and Thomas Pocklington Trust call for better-designed controls that are easy to operate by people with sight loss. Since many older people have sight loss this problem could affect large and growing numbers of the population. Easier to use controls could help people to cut their bills, says the guide. But testing by people with impaired vision revealed many controls needed sighted help to programme the settings.

  • Clocks and switches were difficult to see
  • Instructions on digital screens were too small
  • Markings on dials too faint
  • Dials were hard to turn and tappets too stiff or fiddly to move easily
  • Pointers were difficult to line up
  • Audible signals such as beeps and clicks were often not loud enough to detect or there were no audible sounds at all

Controls which can be operated by  apps or through a website have great potential as testers felt these could be more accessible. However, testing revealed that they didn’t work well with access software (screen readers/magnifiers) designed for people with sight loss.

Testers comments included:

  • “I want to be able to use it myself, I don’t want to have to ask somebody else all the time. Everybody else can use their heating, I want to be able to use mine”.
  • “We had [a boiler programmer] that was lovely – it was really old-fashioned, big black writing, big switches. It died one day and we got a replacement that I can’t use at all. It’s completely invisible, the writing is tiny.”
  • “My husband wanted a digital thermostat so that we could set different temperatures for different times of day, different days of the week. He searched high and low for one that would be accessible to me and just could not find one.”

Based on the most common problems, the guide provides a checklist of five key points for people buying new controls to consider:

  • Labelling: Are features labelled clearly? Is written information large and bold enough to see? Are tactile labels easy to understand?
  • Buttons and switches: Are these easy to see or find by touch? Do they give positive sound or tactile feedback when used?
  • Screen: If the control has a screen, can you read the information? Is there a backlight to help visibility, and does it stay on for long enough? Is information easy to find and understand?
  • Dexterity: Are dials, buttons, switches and tappets easy to grip and move?
  • Setting up: Will you be able to set up and adjust the control by yourself, or will you need help? Are instructions available and easy to understand?

For those who don’t want to buy new controls the guide shows how to improve old ones by adding tactile markers. It includes tips on cutting energy bills, keeping homes warm, and how to find and pay for energy-saving home improvements.

“The new guide aims to help people with sight loss or failing vision to take control of their heating – to save energy, cut costs and choose the most comfortable temperature,” says Lynn Watson.

The guide is also a wake-up call to manufacturers – to design and produce heating controls that are clearer and easier to use. This could be a benefit to all but is vital to those with impaired vision.

“The lack of easy to use controls on the market means people don’t have much choice. We hope this guide will get consumers to be more demanding and act as a wake-up call to industry. Features useful for partially sighted people are useful for everybody,” says Chris Lofthouse.