Smart thermostats are Wi-Fi thermostats that can be used with home automation and are responsible for controlling a home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. They perform similar functions as a Programmable thermostat as they allow the user to control the temperature of their home throughout the day using a schedule, but also contain additional features, such as sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity, that improve upon the issues with programmable thermostats.
Like other Wi-Fi thermostats, they are connected to the Internet via a Wi-Fi network. They allow users to adjust heating settings from other internet-connected devices, such as a laptop or smartphones. This allows users to control the thermostat remotely. This ease of use is essential for ensuring energy savings: studies have shown that households with programmable thermostats actually have higher energy consumption than those with simple thermostats because residents program them incorrectly or disable them completely.
Smart thermostats also record internal/external temperatures, the time the HVAC system has been running and can notify the user if the system’s air filter needs to be replaced. This information is typically displayed later on an internet-connected device such as a smartphone.
Manual thermostats (also known as analog thermostats) are the oldest and simplest type of thermostats. These thermostats are set to one temperature and do not change until the user manually adjusts the temperature.
Programmable thermostats, first introduced over 100 years ago, are a type of thermostat that allows the user to set a schedule for different temperatures at different times. Most programmable thermostats also have a hold feature which suspends the schedule and effectively turns the thermostat into a manual thermostat. The idea of the scheduling feature is that users will set a warmer or cooler temperature when the home is unoccupied to save energy and money. Due to this assumed energy savings, some building codes and government programs began requiring the use of programmable thermostats. Unfortunately, due to human error in using these devices, many programmable thermostats result in more energy use than the basic manual thermostat.
Development of the smart thermostat began in 2007 with the creation of the ecobee thermostat. The founder of ecobee, Stuart Lombard, wanted to save energy and reduce his family’s carbon footprint. After realizing that heating and cooling made up most of his home’s energy usage, Lombard purchased a programmable thermostat in an attempt to reduce total energy usage. Lombard quickly discovered that the programmable thermostat was difficult to use and unreliable. Following difficulties with the programmable thermostat, he set out to create a smart thermostat that saved energy and was easy to use. With that goal, the ecobee company was created in attempt to offer users a thermostat that could truly save energy by fixing the issues with programmable thermostats.
Following the ecobee, EnergyHub released its version of a smart thermostat in 2009 with the creation of the EnergyHub Dashboard. The co-founder of EnergyHub, Seth Frader-Thompson, got the idea for the Dashboard from his Prius. The Prius had screens on the dashboard that displayed the car’s gas mileage in real time. Thompson felt that a house should have something that does the same. With that goal in mind, Thompson created a thermostat that could communicate with a home’s furnace and appliances to determine the energy usage and efficiency and how much it was costing. The thermostat also had the capability to turn off appliances or raise and lower the temperature to save energy and cost. Ultimately, the goal of this thermostat was to display energy usage to users and to save energy and money.
Nest Labs company logo. Creators of the Nest Learning Thermostat.
In 2011, Nest Labs developed the Nest Learning Thermostat. The Nest Thermostat attempted to reduce home energy consumption by addressing the problems with programmable thermostats through the use of better technology. This new technology included the implementation of sensors, algorithms, machine learning, and cloud computing. These technologies learn the behaviors and preferences of the occupants, and adjust the temperature up or down to make the occupant comfortable when they are home and to save energy when they are away. Additionally, the Nest Thermostat connects to the home Wi-Fi. This allows users to change the temperature, adjust the schedule, and check energy usage from a smartphone or laptop. All of these features were part of Nest’s goal to create an easy to use thermostat that saves users energy and money.
To show that their thermostats save energy and money, numerous smart thermostat producers have conducted models and studies to confirm their savings claims. One popular way that smart thermostat producers calculate energy usage is through energy modeling. In these models, the smart thermostat is compared to a thermostat set at a constant temperature, and savings are calculated. Using this method, ecobee calculated energy savings by correlating how long heating and cooling equipment run to local weather conditions. Energy savings were calculated relative to a constant temperature of 22 °C (72 °F). Upon conducting this model, ecobee determined a 23% savings on heating and cooling costs for those who switch to their smart thermostat. Using a similar modeling method, Nest claimed a 20% energy savings for homeowners who install a Nest Learning Thermostat.
To determine energy savings using actual data instead of energy models, in February 2015, Nest conducted a national study of Nest customers in 41 states who had enrolled in Nest’s MyEnergy service. In May 2013, Nest acquired MyEnergy, a company that tracks and analyzes utility usage of people enrolled in the program. Upon acquiring MyEnergy, Nest was able to use the historical data to determine the energy savings of those who installed the Nest Learning Thermostat. This study looked at energy usage before and after the installation of a Nest Learning Thermostat and used a weather normalization procedure to prevent unusually cold or warm weather from skewing the data. The study had a sample size of 735 homes for gas usage analysis and 624 homes for electrical analysis. All of these homes were enrolled in the MyEnergy program and had sufficient energy data before and after the installation of a Nest Learning Thermostat. After observing the energy usage for one year, Nest determined that there was an average gas savings of 10% and a cooling savings of 17.5%. The savings varied from house to house depending on how occupants set their thermostat before the installation of a Nest thermostat, along with differences in occupancy patterns, house characteristics, and weather.
While the results from the My Energy study are significantly lower than those from energy modeling, both show a savings in energy usage by switching to a smart thermostat.
Since the release of smart thermostats, a number of third party studies have been conducted to determine if smart thermostats actually save energy and how they compare to manual and programmable thermostats with regards to savings. One study conducted an experiment in which 300 standard programmable thermostats were placed in homes and 300 Nest smart thermostats were placed in other homes. It is important to note that the homeowners involved in this study received proper training on how to properly use all of the thermostat functions. This effectively eliminated the issues regarding human error with programmable thermostats. All homes were located within one region of Indiana and had previously undergone home energy assessment. After 1 year of observation, the study concluded that Nest users reduced their heating gas consumption by 12.5% while users of a standard programmable thermostat reduced consumption by 5%. Additionally, it was concluded that Nest and standard programmable thermostat users reduced their cooling electric consumption by 13.9% and 13.1%, respectively. The major factors that allowed Nest to reduce consumption more than other thermostats was its ability to further reduce human error and set more efficient temperatures. The Nest thermostat used sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity to adjust the temperature on its own and provide more savings. This study helps to suggest that smart thermostats are in fact successful in reducing energy consumption.
A similar study conducted in 2012 with the ecobee thermostat also concluded that smart thermostats are capable of saving energy. The goal of this pilot program was to determine the gas and electric savings of smart thermostats. This study provided 86 households with 123 ecobee thermostats and monitored the homes for 12 months. The study included 69 houses from Massachusetts and 17 from Rhode Island. The participants either had manual or programmable thermostats before the study was conducted. Gas and electric billing data were provided for 12 months before the study was conducted to use as a baseline. After the 12 months of observation, the study concluded that ecobee thermostats led to an average electricity savings of 16% and an average gas savings of 10%. The gas savings for manual thermostat replacements (10% per thermostat) was found to be larger than for programmable thermostat replacements (8% per thermostat). The difference in electricity savings between homes whose prior equipment was a manual thermostat or programmable thermostat was found to be minimal.
Although these studies report differing amounts of savings compared to the internal studies conducted by Nest and ecobee, both of these studies show that smart thermostats have the potential to save energy. This suggests that the technologies added to fix the issues with programmable thermostats have been successful.
Although most studies show that smart thermostats show an energy savings, the amount of savings varies. A large discrepancy is seen between energy modeling savings and the savings found using actual data. The energy modeling compares the smart thermostat to a constant set point temperature of 72 °F, but an online survey conducted by Nest showed that most users have a set point temperature that is 10% more efficient. Therefore, the savings predicted by the energy modeling are going to be higher than real savings.
There are other factors that cause discrepancies even between studies that all look at actual data. Most studies compare total energy consumption of a house from year to year to determine energy savings, as opposed to looking at just the energy that is used for heating and cooling. Due to this, there could be other factors that change the energy consumption of a house, and it might be incorrect to state that the thermostat is responsible for all energy savings in a house. For example, it is possible that other new energy efficient practices/appliances are partially responsible for the savings in addition to the thermostat.
Another discrepancy to consider is the population of people involved in the study. Some studies, such as the My Energy study, involve people who signed up for an energy analysis program. These people are likely to be more energy conscious and efficient and have better heating and cooling practices. This greater interest in energy efficiency may lead to lower energy savings by switching to a smart thermostat. The most energy-conscious customers are the ones more likely to have had efficient thermostat settings, therefore, the savings that they receive from the smart thermostat may not be as great.
The weather will also have an impact on the results of a study. Having very high temperatures in the summer and very cold temperatures in the winter will lead to more cooling and heating in those months, requiring more energy. When comparing year to year data, if one year had extreme temperatures, while the following year had moderate temperatures, the savings may look drastic. In reality though, the savings are not from the thermostat, but rather from the change in weather. Studies will try to mitigate this problem through weather normalization procedures.
While smart thermostats have the potential to save energy consumption, they can create unintended consequences on the broader electrical grid. Smart thermostats tend to operate similarly across a population and can create load synchronization. This load synchronization can create much higher peaks and more rapid changes in heating demand. Particularly in the winter, this heating demand is shifted earlier in the morning, when solar electricity is unavailable, making it more difficult to supply electric heating sources like heat pumps with renewable energy.
Installing a smart thermostat requires a little bit of elbow grease. If you’re not comfortable dealing with the wires in your walls, or navigating studs and drywall when mounting the thermostat, you may have to hire someone to help get everything set up.
One particular bump in the road are common wires. These blue C-wires provide power to a smart thermostat so it can run software continually. Older homes may not have a C-wire, which may necessitate an adapter. This means you’d have a cable running from your thermostat to the nearest electrical outlet in a rather unsightly way.
How people come and go from your house will largely shape the way a smart thermostat makes adjustments. If you’re always home, or if you have a pet always in the house, the ability for a smart thermostat to reduce climate control automatically isn’t especially useful; odds are you’ll want to keep a steady temperature all day long.
Similarly, if you’re not staying in one place long enough for a smart thermostat to get to know your habits, you’ll also see little benefit. It may be worth holding off on the purchase if you know you’re going to be moving within the next year. Once you’re settled in at the new digs, a smart thermostat will be able to properly assess the climate profile of your home.
Though some of the newest smart thermostats are really gunning for affordability, the most fully featured models currently available can get fairly pricey. In these instances, you’ll be looking at paying over $200 for a smart thermostat, when a standard model can be as cheap as $20. The added cost of smart thermostats can often be mitigated by rebates provided by local governments or service providers. Even if $200 is totally affordable, getting a free smart thermostat is totally worth it if possible. Many argue that you even earn that cost back in the long haul with electrical savings.
The ballooning number of connected devices in the home is introducing new gateways for malicious actors to gain access to networks. Nest Thermostats have been attack point vectors in the past, but software updates routinely patch gaps as they become apparent.
Even under less nefarious circumstances, Nest is owned by Google, which, despite making routine pledges to protect privacy, has a vested interest in user data. Besides its potential application in advertising, this user data could potentially be handed over to law enforcement, according to one cybersecurity firm.
One of the first questions that likely come to mind when considering a smart thermostat is “does it really save money?” In short, yes it does, but how much specifically will vary by brand, home, and occupancy. There are plenty of aspects to consider, but you can expect roughly 10% in electrical savings. You can pick one up for just over $100, which is more than a basic model. Eventually, you should start to reap those savings in your electric bill.
One of the biggest benefits of smart thermostats is their usability. The core function of keeping your controlling your climate can be done manually or with simple programmable thermostats. The key is lowering the barrier to that task so you’re more likely to use it. You’re less likely to get up and move the dial of your thermostat down a few degrees than you are to use your phone to set up a command to do it all automatically in the future.
The only caveat here is that some folks are not especially tech-savvy, so learning how to use the smartphone app or voice assistant commands could be a challenge. There is a lot going on that makes a smart thermostat work, after all. Even if the app is simple enough for them, people can have a natural resistance to big technological changes that seem intimidating.
Over time, a smart thermostat’s ability to predict your coming and going improves, and in turn, it can more accurately control the climate. Sure, there’s quite a bit to do for the initial setup, but once it’s all done, smart thermostats tend to take care of themselves, with minimal tweaking from users. Not having to think about temperature control in the house is a real benefit. Even the few times you need to make tweaks, while you’re off on vacation, for example, the interfaces tend to be so smooth that it’s a painless experience.
The ecobee Smart Thermostat with Voice Control is a full-fledged Alexa device that is a sort of jack of all trades. For example, it will serve as a hub for ecobee’s smart camera and entry sensors, and connect with Apple HomeKit (so it works with Siri and your iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch).
Most importantly, as a smart thermostat, it will help you regulate the temperature in your home and potentially save you up to 26 percent on your annual energy costs.
Alexa and Siri integration aside, the ecobee’s signature feature is its remote sensor. You get one in the box, which helps you ensure the temperature is comfortable in a specific location, not just wherever the thermostat itself happens to be located.
If you have a home office that’s always chilly in winter, for example, put the remote sensor in there, and ecobee will prioritize heating that room even if the thermostat’s main location is in the right temperature range.
Using your voice to control the ecobee is simple (and handy when you’re sitting on the couch), but the user-friendly mobile app gives you access to all kinds of additional data, like the temperature in each room where you’ve placed a remote sensor.
Alternatively, you can use the device’s own touchscreen to control the thermostat if you prefer getting more hands-on. If you set it to eco+ mode, the device will learn your schedule and adjust the temperature automatically. This feature will conserve power and save you money once it learns your lifestyle, preferences and schedule. You can also set target temperatures manually.
The ecobee Smart Thermostat is easy to set up and has 12 terminals for controlling your heating and air conditioning, as well as an optional accessories, like a whole-house humidifier or dehumidifier. Setup is painless if your home has a C wire; if it doesn’t, ecobee includes a Power Extender Kit and instructions to wire it up. Overall, it’s something you can probably do yourself without hiring an electrician.
Google Nest has a distinctive “modern retro” look that stands out from the sea of rectangular or square touchscreens on the market. It also comes in more finishes (about a half-dozen choices) than any other smart thermostat.
Nest makes setup famously simple, as long as you have a compatible HVAC system. The Nest thermostat is optimized for modern 5-wire furnaces with a C wire, but might work with an older 4-wire setup—if you have concerns, you might want to hire an electrician.
Once installed, you answer a few questions, hook it up to your Wi-Fi network, and let it figure out your schedule and climate preferences. Google Nest knows when you’re away, so it won’t cool or heat an empty house, and it learns your schedule to lower temperatures overnight or when you’re routinely out of the house.
Nest also takes into consideration how long it takes to get the house to the right temperature. When you adjust it during the day, it’ll learn that too and, before long, you’ll find that Google Nest is keeping your house exactly how you like it with little to no input from you. Best of all, once it learns your route and preferences, it’ll make adjustments automatically that will ultimately lower your utility costs (sometimes significantly).
Being part of the Google Nest ecosystem, it integrates with Nest Cam, Nest Hub, Nest smart speakers, and other compatible smart devices. And if you like ecobee’s remote sensor capability, you can add those to your Nest setup as well, in up to six rooms (though unlike ecobee, it senses temperature only, and lacks motion sensors to tell if you are physically in the room). It does not, however, have Apple HomeKit integration.
Even without an electrician, the Nest Learning Thermostat can be installed in less than one hour using just a few basic tools (like a screwdriver). Using the Nest mobile app, this thermostat works seamlessly with any iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch, as well as Android-based mobile devices.
While there are some good values in smart thermostats, you typically need to spend $200 or more to get a premium model. That’s one reason to like the Sensi Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat from Emerson. It’s a device that costs about half of what the competition charges. Of course, it isn’t the runway model of thermostats in the same way that the ecobee3 or the Nest are stylish and attractive. However, what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in ease of use and overall practicality. It’s easy to install (though it does require a C wire), simple to use, and it works with a lot of other smart home accessories.
The Sensi knows when you come and go, for example, and can adjust the temperature accordingly. It’s voice-compatible with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, and integrates with Samsung’s SmartThings home automation system, for example. And while some smart thermostats have more in common with computers than, you know, thermostats, the interface here is easy to adjust to if you’ve never used a smart thermostat before. The brightly lit display is easy to read and can be controlled using the small array of buttons surrounding the screen.
Of course, since this is a smart thermostat, you can operate it remotely via your Apple iPhone or Android-based smartphone or smartwatch. When using this thermostat, you’re able to simply set the temperature and forget about it, or create a schedule for the thermostat to follow. Enable geofencing and it’ll take your whereabouts into consideration as well. The Sensi is also good about tracking your heating and cooling and generating monthly reports to track your overall energy usage.
If used correctly, Emerson reports, “By a adjusting the temperature using flexible scheduling, remote access, and geofencing, the Sensi smart thermostat saved customers about 23 percent on HVAC energy usage.” Through the company’s website, the purchase of this thermostat currently entitles you to up to $125 in local utility rebates.
The ecobee3 lite smart thermostat is only “smart” in the sense that it has smart home integration. If you’re looking for a thermostat that learns your behavior and schedule, and then keeps the house at the right temperature with little input from you, look elsewhere. This is really just a programmable thermostat that can be controlled using your voice or a smartphone—it’s not a “learning thermostat.”
That said, if you want a programmable remote that also integrates with a vast number of smart home products—like Alexa, Google, Apple HomeKit, and Samsung SmartThings—this is a budget-priced device that has the attractive ecobee aesthetic and is extensively programmable.
Optional SmartSensors for this thermostat are sold separately. These can be placed in various rooms of your home that you want the thermostat to focus on when maintaining a comfortable temperature and further help you save up to 23 percent on annual energy costs.
The ecobee3 lite requires you to have a C wire to power the thermostat’s display. If you have an older HVAC system that lacks a C wire, this thermostat has no workaround, so you should consider other options. If you do have the C wire, though, installation is a snap and you can have it up and running in well under an hour.
Most smart thermostats are designed for homes with central heating and air conditioning, which can—if you’ll pardon the expression—leave people with electric baseboard heat out in the cold. The Mysa Smart Thermostat is one of the few products that caters to this need, and it works well as long as you can deal with a few limitations.
Chief among those limitations: Your HVAC system isn’t centralized, so you’ll need to install a separate Mysa in each room with baseboard heating that you want to control. Priced around $100 each, this endeavor can add up, but if you only have two or three rooms, it’s in the same ballpark as an ordinary smart thermostat. And if you have more than one installed, you can create “zones” using the mobile app to control them as a group, which makes it work similar to an ordinary smart thermostat.
You can certainly install the Mysa yourself, but the multi-wire configuration is admittedly confusing. If you have any concerns about miswiring it, you may want to bring in a professional electrician for the 15-minute setup. Once installed, though, you can easily control it from the attractive illuminated display with touch-sensitive buttons, set up a schedule on the mobile app, or rely on its extensive smart home integration (Alexa, Google, Samsung SmartThings, or Apple HomeKit) to let it adjust your temperature automatically.
Separate Mysa smart thermostats are available if you have electric in-floor heating or AC and min-split heat pumps. Each offers scheduling, geofencing, zoning, remote control, shared access, and energy charting functionality that’ll ultimately help you save money.
What sets this smart thermostat apart is its bright, five-inch, full-color touchscreen which you can use to control the temperature in your home. However, you can also remotely control the thermostat using your voice or the device’s proprietary smartphone app (available for iPhones and Android-based devices).
The Bosch BCC100 has all the features you’d expect to find in a modern smart thermostat. It’s easy to install, so you can do it yourself—assuming, of course, that your current HVAC system supports a C wire. It’s particularly versatile, able to control most common HVAC systems including gas, oil and electric systems with two heating and two cooling stages, heat pumps with four heating and two cooling stages and any one-wire internally powered whole-home humidifier or dehumidifier.
It works with a mobile app for iPhone or Android and you can voice-operate the system with Amazon Alexa. That’s about the extent of the smart home integration, though. Features like geofencing are not offered, so the BCC100 doesn’t know whether you’re home or not, and won’t vary the temperature or its heating/cooling schedule based on your presence like other thermostats can.
You might forgive that, though, to get access to the gorgeous five-inch, full-color touchscreen. This is the real appeal of the Bosch; it looks great and is easy to use. You can use it to dial in a specific temperature or to program a schedule, as well as control your home’s dehumidifier if you have one installed.
Don’t be confused by the similar naming—the Google Nest is the budget model in the Nest line, not to be confused with the Nest Learning Thermostat (although this budget thermostat can learn too).
About $100 cheaper than the flagship model, the Nest Thermostat doesn’t look quite as snazzy and is controlled with a touchscreen rather than the more advanced model’s trademark spin-and-press interface. But it’s still quite attractive and retains the iconic round Nest aesthetic. The traditional Nest app is gone, though; this model now relies on the free Google Home app for smartphone control. And while the thermostat does learn your habits and has a sensor to know if you’re moving around near the thermostat, it’s not compatible with remote sensors like the Nest Learning Thermostat.
Keep in mind, during the installation process you have the option of using the optional Trim Kit (sold separately), which will impact how this device looks on your wall. On the plus side, this smart thermostat qualifies for up to $100 in rebates and rewards from your energy provider, so you could wind up getting this device for free.
The Honeywell Home T9 makes its mark by working with up to 20 remote sensors (you get one included in the basic package and can buy additional ones separately). That means you can track the temperature in very large homes and tell the T9 which rooms to prioritize, so it’ll ensure they reach the desired temperature.
Aesthetics are often a matter of personal taste, but Honeywell’s rectangular design may strike you as a little industrial compared to the attractive design used by ecobee and Nest. Nonetheless, you get a simple touchscreen display and the requisite app control on your smartphone, along with Alexa and Google compatibility. There’s limited smart home integration, though—it works with Samsung SmartThings, but doesn’t connect to other Honeywell smart products. You can program the system with IFTTT for some smart automation, like geofenced awareness of when you’re home or away. Installation is no trickier than ecobee or Nest, and the system comes with an adapter if your HVAC system is older and lacks a C wire.
The advantage of a smart thermostat is its ability to learn a household’s patterns and adjust heating and cooling according to when a home is occupied or is about to be occupied. This reduces the use of heating and cooling systems when nobody is home for significant periods of time.
Standard programmable thermostats save energy only if they are programmed correctly. Studies have shown that most residential users never program them, or they use the home function to override the programming.
If you’re one of the few who are extremely diligent about monitoring and using their thermostat, you might not see huge savings from switching to a smart thermostat. But the extra benefits, such as the weekly and monthly energy reports and remote access that you get with smart thermostats might make the switch right for you.
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