How Smart is Your Thermostat?

Category: Gadgets

“Smart” thermostats are the latest thing in energy conservation and home automation. But if you’ve struggled with earlier programmable thermostats, you may hesitate to upgrade to something even more complicated. It’s a pleasant surprise to learn that smart thermostats are actually much easier to live with than programmables, and can save you even more money. Here's what you need to know…

How Do Smart Thermostats Work?

Regular thermostats let users adjust temperature targets and then wait for the heating or cooling system to achieve the desired temperature. Programmable thermostats let you set different temperature targets for different times of the day; some even let you set different temperatures on different days of the week.

But programmable thermostats have horrible user interfaces. A study published in the July 2015 issue of the journal, “Energy Research and Social Science,” found that 40% of programmable thermostat owners don’t use the available programming features; 14% of them couldn’t even find the programmable settings! Consequently, many programmable thermostats are left in “permanent hold” mode, effectively making them just regular thermostats. Smart thermostats eliminate much of the pain and error of programmables.

The best smart thermostats learn from the behaviors of a home’s residents when to adjust temperature automatically, and they also allow users to control heating or cooling remotely. Motion sensors in the thermostat detect movement to inform the thermostat that the home is occupied. (The sensors are generally aimed high, so they don’t pick up stay-at-home pets.)

Smart Thermostats

Over the course of a few days, a smart thermostat learns what time you get up in the morning, how long it will take the heating system to achieve your desired temperature, and programs itself to start heating at the proper time. If you sleep later on weekends, the thermostat will take that habit into consideration, too.

When no one is in the home, the thermostat targets an energy-conserving temperature, e. g., 60 degrees in winter or 85 degrees in summer. If the thermostat expects people to come home around a certain time, it starts heating or cooling early enough to achieve the desired “occupancy” temperature by that time.

Basically, all you have to do is set target temperatures for when you’re sleeping, away, and actively at home. The thermostat will figure out how and when to strive for each target temperature.

If you plan to come home early, you can override the “away” temperature setting using an app on your smartphone. Likewise, you don’t have to get out of bed until the home is warm enough for you.

The Nest Learning Thermostat (about $224 on Amazon) is one of the pioneers and current leaders in the smart thermostat market. The latest Nest thermostat can sense when someone’s home, when the relative humidity changes, or when an oven is turned on, and adjust heating/cooling accordingly. Apps for Android, iOS, and Windows provide remote control and detailed information about energy use patterns.

In early 2014 Google paid $3.2 billion to acquire Nest (which was originally developed by former Apple employees) as part of the search giant’s foray into home automation. Already, Nest can serve as the intelligent controller for a number of other “smart” appliances, from lightbulbs to clothes dryers.

Honeywell’s Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat (about $175 on Amazon) claims to learn your habits faster than “other brands.” It also sports a color-changing LCD screen that displays indoor/outdoor temperature, indoor humidity, date and time, and other info. It connects to the Internet via WiFi to enable remote control through an Android or iOS device. Currently, it does not integrate with other smart appliances.

The ecobee thermostat (about $240 on Amazon) is “for homes with more than one room.” In fact, it supports up to 32 remote, wireless sensors that can detect when you are in the bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, etc., and adjust the temperature accordingly. It also learns your habits and can be controlled remotely. Depending on your heating/cooling system’s wiring, the ecobee and its remote sensors may require professional installation.

Some public utilities are offering subsidies of up to $200 to customers who install smart thermostats. Check with your utility to see which model(s) qualify for subsidies; in some cases, any WiFi-capable smart thermostat will qualify. Utilities are keen to help customers use less electricity and natural gas, because conservation postpones utilities’ need to invest in more power generation infrastructure.

Do you use a programmable or smart thermostat? Tell me about your experience with it. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How Smart is Your Thermostat?"

Posted by:

17 Dec 2015

Take this with a pound of salt: our local hydro outfit GIVES (ie free) semi-smart thermostats (as well as shower saver and a short length of pipe wrap) to help people save energy.

The problem with this was people were so efficient at saving energy that the utility commission had to RAISE their rates because revenues were (naturally) down.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Posted by:

Frank Cizek
17 Dec 2015

Hey, Len, I feel for you! The same thing happens when they ask you to save water or electricity! ; )

My problem with "smart" ones are when they go into fail mode because the batteries died or something malfunctioned. So I had one go into full on all the time in the Summer in an empty house & didn't find out about it until the $900 gas bill came.
I'll never use one of them again.

Posted by:

17 Dec 2015

It is my understanding that the Nest thermostat reports information back to the whoever it is that provides the device (Google?). Given that, I'm very suspicious of this technology (and also the "internet of things").

Posted by:

17 Dec 2015

I have an Emerson Sensi wifi thermostat. It's not "smart" - you have to set up your own programs, but it is controllable by wifi. Fortunately, I'm smart enough to use the easy programming interface, so I don't need a smart thermostat to track my habits. I do give up some privacy: Emerson's servers know what I've programmed and they know when I access the thermostat remotely. Power is not a big concern as I'm running it off the 24 volt furnace transformer, with the batteries providing backup.

Posted by:

17 Dec 2015

I have a smart (I use the word loosely) thermostat,but it does not allow the high or low function of my two stage furnace to operate correctly. Any suggestions?

Posted by:

Mike Brose
17 Dec 2015

I don't have a smart thermostat and will never have one. It seems as though EVERYTHING is being hacked and I don't need my thermostat joining the "devises of the hacked"

Posted by:

17 Dec 2015

I have had the standard, programmable, and now a Nest smart thermostat. It does exactly as it says, it learns your schedule. I've tested it while on vacation, while watching TV, at bedtimes, away for a bit, and it has worked flawlessly. I've been very pleased. It was easy to install according to the HVAC guy that did it for me. He had never done one before. I did all the settings, and it was a breeze. It has been installed about 6 months. At this complaints. I definitely would recommend this particular one. I like the monthly reports it sends me. My HVAC system is only 6 months old, so I can't say anything about older systems. I also don't worry too much about Google. Everyone else spies on me...more the merrier I guess. :)

Posted by:

18 Dec 2015

Our thermostat is 80 years old and and it works better than ever, in fact much better than just after it was made. We heat with wood and it indirectly controls the chain saw that
cuts down usually dead trees and bucks em up as well as the
tractor and wood splitter. It has never needed any sevice but here in Canada brain surgery is fully covered. We do have an old Honeywell that turns the electric furnace on the super intelligent high tech one is not in the house.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2015

We have a two stage gas pack on a programmable Honeywell. After our Sears service person found the programmable had been miss connected and the wrong functional program had been selected at installation, It does all it needs to and has the AC/Gas Pack working without complaint. I'm Leary of our smart world even though I have progressed along with it. I still love some analog things that work every time all the time. Like me.

Posted by:

Jay R
19 Dec 2015

I don't have to be too smart to get the drop on my thermostat. I have irregular hours, so it would probably fail trying to learn my schedule. But I have learned the intricacies of pushing the temp button as well as the heat/cool button. Oh! Those first world problems. On a more respectful note, Thank you, Bob. I really appreciate your emails.

Posted by:

20 Dec 2015

I'm waiting for the thermostat that is smarter than my wife. It will need to monitor her thoughts to get readings on her core temperature. It also has to monitor door and window status, and deliver reminders to close them before activating the heat/AC. lol

Posted by:

14 Jan 2016

PEPCO (Eastern US: DC/MD/VA) provides (and installs for free) a less smart programmable thermostat than the above examples. It also will automatically adjust the thermostat during high demand times.

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