Choosing the best smart thermostat for your home can unlock the full potential of today’s high-efficiency air conditioning and heating systems.
If you have a manual thermostat in your home, you have few options other than on and off and basic temperature controls. That was once the standard, but these days it’s like watching your favorite Blu-ray movie on a black and white TV.
And while the picture on that old, fuzzy television might be hard on your eyes, the manual thermostat can be rough on your wallet, your comfort and your environmental friendliness.
There are many benefits to programmable thermostats, wifi thermostats and smart thermostats, including savings, ease of use, comfort and control. But to understand a smart thermostat best, let’s start with how a programmable thermostat is different than a manual one.
What Does a Programmable Thermostat Do?
The thermostats most of us grew up with were non-programmable models. Some might’ve been fancier than others, ranging from the old mercury thermostats to digital models with touch screens, but they all required manual adjustments for each setting change.
Programmable thermostats are designed to adjust the temperature settings for different days of the week and different times during the day. On a hot summer day, for example, a programmable thermostat can be set to a higher temperature for when you are not in the home and a lower temperature when you are in the home. The most obvious benefit of that is you save energy, and therefore money, by not fully cooling a home when nobody is there.
Programmable thermostats are customizable in many ways, and a wifi thermostat and a smart thermostat – which are sometimes called a combined term of wifi smart thermostat – allow a homeowner to control thermostat settings when away from home. We’ll get to the cool features of those thermostats in a moment, but first let’s fully explore the benefits of a programmable thermostat.
The Benefits of a Programmable Thermostat
As mentioned above, a programmable thermostat can reduce energy use. The savings can be substantial, so that tops the list on benefits of a programmable thermostat:
- Saving energy and money: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a home can save as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling by adjusting the thermostat throughout the day. Changing the temperature by a mere degree or two at different times of the day can shave dollars off the energy bill. The Department of Energy says that heating and cooling account for nearly half of a typical home’s total energy use, so the numbers can really add up.
- Simplifying things: While making minor adjustments in the temperature setting throughout the day can be helpful, it can also be a hassle – and if you’re away from the home, impossible – with a manual thermostat. A programmable thermostat allows a homeowner to input the times when the home will be unoccupied and the times when less cooling or heating might be needed, such as overnight. There is no need for daily adjustments when you wake up, leave and return to the house and go to sleep.
- Increased comfort: Programmable thermostats can customize a schedule to maximize your comfort. Even when at home all day, it’s not unusual for a person to prefer the temperature setting to vary slightly at different times of the day. In the heat of summer, for example, some people have a cooler setting to help them fall asleep. After they fall asleep, the programmable thermostat can move up a degree or two to save energy and money.
- Good for the environment: Programmable thermostats allow your home to be more energy efficient, and anything that helps reduce waste is environmentally friendly. As mentioned above, the savings in dollars really adds up, but the environmental impact can also be dramatic. The EPA estimates that if all U.S. homes achieved the typical energy savings of a programmable thermostat, it could offset 13 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year. That’s equal to the emissions of 1.2 million motor vehicles.
The Added Benefits of a Wifi Thermostat and Smart Thermostat
The advantages of a programmable thermostat are clear, but a wifi thermostat or smart thermostat takes it to the next level. The terms smart thermostat and wifi thermostat are sometimes used interchangeably, and you’ll see the term wifi smart thermostat, but a wifi thermostat can be different than a smart thermostat.
A wifi thermostat is a programmable thermostat that allows control of a home’s temperature settings through an Internet-connected device such as a computer, tablet or phone. The wifi thermostat might have its own mobile application to control it or it might work as part of a home automation system such as Google Home Hub or Amazon Echo.
A smart thermostat is also a wifi thermostat, which is why it’s sometimes called a wifi smart thermostat. It’s also sometimes called a learning thermostat – yes, it does go by a lot of names – and it’s that learning ability that allows a smart thermostat to offer homeowners the ultimate in control over air quality and comfort.
Here are two of the key functions of a smart thermostat:
- Learning your schedule: A smart thermostat goes far beyond setting up a basic schedule for when you’ll be at home or away. The best smart thermostats can actually program themselves. They learn from your schedule, habits and preferences and tailor settings to best fit your needs. If you want the most customizable smart thermostat, you’ll want it to be a learning smart thermostat.
- Early warning of HVAC system problems: Until recent years, most problems with a home’s air conditioning weren’t discovered until a homeowner noticed the symptoms of an AC malfunction (and often at the worst possible time, such as a heat wave in August). A smart thermostat can provide feedback via email or text when there’s a sign of a problem, or potential problem, so that it can be addressed before a breakdown. A smart thermostat can also alert the homeowner – again via email or text – whenever the thermostat’s settings have been adjusted manually. So, if someone is adjusting the thermostat without telling you, you’ll know immediately.
Features to Look for in a Smart Thermostat
While people might disagree on which model is the best smart thermostat, here are some features that are universally popular:
- Home automation: If you have a home automation system such as Google Home or Amazon Echo, make sure that the smart thermostat will be compatible. You’ll want it to be able to interact seamlessly with other smart devices.
- Touchscreen/ease of use: One problem with programmable thermostats in the past was that they were very complicated to program. In fact, a 2015 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that about two in every three homes that had a programmable thermostat weren’t programming the thermostat. Fortunately, smart thermostats with easy-to-use touchscreens have simplified the programming.
- Energy tracking and reports: A smart thermostat can record lots of useful data that helps a homeowner see the performance of an HVAC system and check how settings affect energy usage. A homeowner can get daily, weekly or monthly reports that have performance summaries, estimated energy savings and details on how temperature setting changes and weather conditions affected energy usage.
- Geofencing: This is a feature in which a smart thermostat uses your phone’s location to determine whether you are home or not. When the phone is in the home or within a certain range of the home – and presumably you are with it – the temperature can be at one setting. When the phone is outside the range, the temperature is at a different setting that requires less energy. Geofencing can be a great tool for people who don’t follow a set schedule day-to-day.
Does Using a Smart Thermostat Create a security risk?
The Internet has become such a big part of our lives that there is now the term the “Internet of Things.” This refers to Internet connectivity into physical devices and everyday objects. Who would’ve thought when we first surfed the Internet with crazy-sounding dial-up modems that we would someday be communicating with our watches?
The upside of Internet connectivity, of course, is the amount of convenience and customization it can add to our lives. The downside is that the Internet connectivity can introduce privacy and security concerns. That leads to the question of security in relation to smart thermostats.
It’s important to know that many Internet-connected devices are no longer using a simple password for protection. Multifactor authentication, such as having a one-time code sent to an email address or phone, is becoming the standard for restricting access to smart devices.
Security features will continue to improve for smart thermostats, and all smart devices, as Internet connectivity becomes an even bigger part of our lives. The number of smart homes in North America is expected to be near 73 million by 2021, accounting for more than 50 percent of households.
So What is the Best Thermostat for Me?
Obviously, there are many options when it comes to a thermostat. Manual thermostats are still available, but whether you’re getting a new HVAC system or replacing a broken thermostat, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to purchase a manual thermostat – to buy old technology as new. Most new HVAC systems come with a programmable or wifi thermostat, but if they don’t even a simple programmable thermostat doesn’t cost much more than a manual one – and offers homeowners, even those who say, “I’m home all the time,” benefits that will save money.
You’ll just need to decide what thermostat is right for you:
The simple ability to program this thermostat for different temperatures during night and day and weekdays and weekends makes it valuable. If you have a very set schedule, this could be the right thermostat for you. But you won’t have control of the thermostat away from your home. You also won’t have access to energy tracking and reports or benefit from the “learning” functions of a smart thermostat.
If you like the basics of a programmable thermostat but have a more unpredictable schedule and would like to control the thermostat away from home, this might be the right thermostat for you. In some cases you’ll have access to energy tracking and reports, but the thermostat won’t have the “learning” functions of a smart thermostat.
As you weigh thermostats, the only real negative for the smart thermostat is the cost. But the cost isn’t substantial, and you can get a less-expensive model if you don’t need all the bells and whistles. That up-front difference in cost should also be wiped out because the best smart thermostats are inexpensive enough that there are studies showing they can pay themselves in as little as two years.
When you get to know a smart thermostat best, you’ll appreciate the genius of the technology involved. A learning smart thermostat takes away the big problem people had with programmable thermostats of the past: the difficulty of programming them. Smart thermostats give you complete control over your HVAC system, and they’re simple enough to use that you don’t need to dive into all the available energy tracking and reports to save energy and money.
Cooling and heating can account for nearly half of your home’s total energy usage, so it makes sense to be as efficient as possible. That’s why it’s wise to upgrade from a manual thermostat to one that can be programmed to match your unique schedule.
With a programmable thermostat or wifi thermostat, and especially with a smart thermostat, you can make small changes that make a big difference in energy savings. The thermostat in your home acts like the gatekeeper for about half of your home’s energy usage, and a smart learning thermostat can deliver the ultimate in savings, simplicity, comfort and control with your air conditioning system.
Talk to your trusted AC professional about how you can choose the best smart thermostat for your home. Are you ready to make your home energy use smarter?