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Smart Thermostat Guide

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A smart thermostat with a blue and black screen is on the right-hand side of the image, while the words "Smart Thermostat Guide" are on the left-hand side.
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Thermostats have changed quite a bit over the years. They’ve progressed from basic devices you had to adjust manually, to programmable models where you can input a specific schedule of settings that adjust automatically. In the past few years, thermostats have advanced even further with the introduction of the smart thermostat, a piece of modern technology that can adjust your home’s temperature based on occupancy, weather, and even voice commands.

Smart home thermostats can learn how to regulate the temperature settings for your heating and cooling in real-time, so you can use energy more effectively and possibly lower your home electricity bills. Not all smart thermostats are created equal, as there are various models for varying needs and budgets. Before you buy and install a smart thermostat, read on to learn about the available options so you buy the right model for your home and lifestyle.

What Is A Smart Thermostat?

A smart thermostat is a device that intelligently controls the heating and cooling systems in your home, and can adjust temperatures for optimal performance from a phone, tablet, or smart speaker using Wi-Fi.

The “smart” in smart thermostat refers to the technology’s ability to learn from your habits and behaviors in the home, and automatically make adjustments that meet your needs. Like programmable thermostats, a smart thermostat will let you schedule the heating and cooling of your home to make it more energy-efficient. However, they can take that operation a step further with algorithms powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that can do things like calculate your optimal schedule and preferred settings without your direct input, to help maximize efficiency and comfort.

How Is a Smart Thermostat Different From a Standard Thermostat?

Smart thermostats are popular because of their fancy aesthetics and ease of use compared to standard thermostats. However, that's not enough to make a big difference in the life of the average consumer.

Where smart thermostats set themselves apart is how they use technology to improve your home. Below are four big differences between smart thermostats and their less advanced counterparts:

  1. Programmable - You have to manually interact with a standard thermostat every time you want to adjust your temperature. Smart thermostats let you place your temperature settings on a schedule, so the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system only runs when you want it to and at the exact temperature you want. This alone can save money on your energy bill, because the HVAC doesn’t need to work when you're away from home, but it can ensure a comfortable temperature when you return.
  2. Customizable - Setting a regular schedule is fine, but what if you need to deviate from that schedule? Something as simple as getting off work early could mean coming home to an uncomfortable house if you have to be at the device to change the programming. Smart thermostats are controllable via the internet from anywhere in the world, so your smart thermostat works on your schedule, not vice-versa.
  3. Intelligent - Smart thermostats are literally designed to learn. As you make manual adjustments to the temperature, the thermostat can notice those changes, detect your patterns, and then begin predicting when you might want to make changes. These adaptable changes to your settings can even help you improve energy efficiency without sacrificing comfort.
  4. Informative - Like many smart devices, smart thermostats track a lot of data. They can give you insights about your electricity usage, deliver reports on how long your heating or air conditioner has been running, remind you to change filters, provide alerts for certain problems that may occur with your HVAC system, and more.

How Is a Smart Thermostat Different from a Programmable Thermostat?

The differences listed above also set smart thermostats apart from programmable thermostats, except for their one area of similarity: programmability. Programmable thermostats are an older technology, but are still reliable, and can be used to save some money on your HVAC usage. You can essentially set a time for the heating and air conditioning to come on and go off every day, and for some families, that’s all they need.

Smart home wi-fi thermostats allow for much more precise and flexible scheduling. Not only can they learn your regular habits, but their connected smartphone app gives you greater options for changing those settings if you deviate from your typical schedule.

Smart thermostats also offer other features that may help you save even more on your electricity bill compared to a simple programmable unit, which we discuss below.

How Does a Smart Thermostat Work?

Nearly every thermostat operates using a temperature sensor that's connected to your home's heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. The sensor detects the ambient temperature around the thermostat and turns itself on or off as needed to maintain the setting on the thermostat.

A standard thermostat uses manual switches to adjust the HVAC’s temperature when someone makes manual changes. Most programmable thermostats control both the settings and your schedule using a simple processor.

What makes a smart thermostat so different is that it combines more advanced processors with learning algorithms and even external sensors to make more informed decisions about heating and cooling your home. It does more than simply change temperatures when you give it a command. It uses those remote sensors and processors to detect your habits, and then proactively adapts to what you should like based upon your prior activities.

Here are some other features of smart thermostats:

  • Analytics - By tracking useful information about your heating and cooling usage, smart thermostats give you better insight into your system, and can identify opportunities for additional savings.
  • Geofencing - In coordination with other devices that are connected to your smart home, the thermostat can tell when you are and are not at home. Using this technology and related algorithms, the device can detect when you’re in range, and make necessary adjustments. It can then detect patterns in those revisions and create a new recommended schedule, even if you don’t explicitly program it to do so.
  • Multiple Zones - If your home's HVAC system can heat or cool different areas of your home at different temperatures, some smart thermostats can control them with the same features for a single-zone system. Often a smart thermostat can interact with multiple external sensors so it’s aware of the temperature of individual rooms, not just the air directly around it.

How To Install a Smart Thermostat

Installing a smart thermostat in your home depends upon the make and model you purchased. Smart thermostat installation instructions are always provided in the package, along with the parts and tools you typically need, and many companies also provide video instructions.

Manufacturers have taken great care to ensure that this task is as simple as possible for the average homeowner. However, if you don’t have the time or interest to complete this project yourself, or if you feel unsure of your skills around this type of equipment, you can always hire a professional electrician to do the work for you.

The installation process for most smart thermostats follows a basic pattern, so this 8-step overview will give you a general idea of what an installation process might entail. Before you begin though, please consult the manufacturer’s directions for your device’s specific instructions.

  1. Check For Compatibility - Your thermostat should come with guidelines to determine whether or not it's compatible with your HVAC system.
  2. Turn Off The System - Because you'll be dealing with electrical wires, you need to fully power the system down. This usually means going to your electric panel and flipping the breaker for your HVAC system.
  3. Remove The Old Thermostat - A thermostat consists of two parts: the faceplate (where the controls are) and the backplate.
    1. The faceplate often pulls right off without much effort. If it doesn't, don't force it, as you might need to remove small screws before you can remove it.
    2. The backplate underneath, and the wires coming into the plate, are typically secured to the wall with screws.
    3. Pay attention to the color of the wires and the labels of the connectors they are pulled from. Taking a photo of your old connections can help.
    4. Unscrew everything and remove the backplate.
  4. **Check For A C-Wire ** - Smart thermostats require a common wire to supply constant power, which is also called a C-wire because the wire is screwed into the backplate at the connection labeled with a “C”. If your home already has one, you're good to go. If not, you will need to stop the installation and have an electrician run the wire for you.
  5. Secure The New Backplate - Before you drill new holes for your thermostat, place the new backplate against the wall to mark the spots where the screws need to go. Drill those spots out and attach the backplate to the wall with the provided screws. Attach the wires into the same connectors on the new backplate that you pulled them from on the old one.
  6. Install The New Display - The new smart thermostat display should snap into place, but make sure to read the instructions to align everything correctly.
  7. Finish Setup - The final steps will probably require you to connect it to Wi-Fi using your smartphone or another device. The manufacturer instructions will provide you with the steps to do this, and a link to any apps you’ll need to install, so you can monitor and adjust your thermostat’s settings.

How Does a Smart Home Thermostat Save Energy and Money?

Smart thermostats can seem like an expensive investment, causing people to wonder if they are worth the added cost. While the upfront expense is higher than less glamorous options, smart thermostats can help you make next-level changes to your energy usage that may save you significant money in the long run.

  • Data and insights provided by your smart thermostat can help you determine the optimal temperature settings for your home.
  • Real-time energy usage data can show you the energy efficiency of your HVAC system. After looking at the numbers, you may decide that it's worth altering the temperature a few degrees to use less energy.
  • The AI inside the device can even learn when you are and aren't home so that it automatically picks the best time to turn the system on and off for maximum energy savings.
  • The technology is smart enough to make minor adjustments to when and how your system works so that it can keep the house at your desired temperature while also maximizing energy efficiency.

This type of granular tracking of energy usage can be especially helpful for people who get most of their home energy from solar panels and want to keep their power consumption within a certain range. By letting your smart thermostat do its job and adjust the temperature in your house, you are more likely to see your electricity bill shrink over time.

How To Compare Smart Thermostats (Buying Guide)

Picking the best smart thermostat for your particular lifestyle requires some research. To help you make that decision, we've assembled a list of some of the smart thermostat comparison metrics typically used by consumers:

  • Price: Look for the device that fits your budget. While everyone wants a good deal, you shouldn't automatically opt for the cheapest (or most expensive) options.
  • Mobile App Control: Almost all smart thermostats can connect to an app so you can control the thermostat remotely, but the features offered within that app may vary. Be sure to compare exactly what each model allows you to control, and how easy the app is to use.
  • Interface: You'll be using your thermostat a lot, and looking at it even more. You should pick one with a design you find both attractive and user-friendly.
  • Smart Home Compatibility: Different models have different levels of integration with home assistants like Apple HomeKit, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa. Look for one that matches your home’s ecosystem and your other smart home devices.
  • Ease of Installation: Review the instructions before choosing a specific model so you'll know if complications might arise.
  • Geo-Fencing: A thermostat with this feature can learn when someone is in the house, and what their temperature preferences are. That knowledge helps it accurately map when to turn the heating and cooling on or off for maximum energy efficiency and savings.
  • Temperature Control Methods - While all smart thermostats offer scheduling and manual control, you should look at the other options that may be available, including smartphone apps, voice control, and advanced AI-based interactions.
  • Sensors - Some thermostats have additional sensors you can install throughout your house to measure things like humidity, outside temperature, and the conditions of specific rooms.

The Best Smart Thermostat Brands

In addition to tips for comparing smart home thermostats, let's examine some of the best smart thermostat brands. Most of these brands have Energy Star certified options, but since each brand may have several models available, this is a general overview of what makes each brand unique:

  1. Google Nest - One of the biggest names in the industry, Google Nest smart thermostats pay attention to how you manually set your temperatures, and then learn how to control your climate automatically. Their geofencing technology helps them control the settings based on when you are and aren't home. The app can also give you tips on how to save energy.
  2. Ecobee - To help provide more accurate temperature measurements, Ecobee smart thermostats come with room sensors to place in different areas of your home so the temperature is measured in more than one place. These sensors can connect to smart devices such as Apple's HomeKit, and some even have an Alexa speaker built into them.
  3. Sensi - While Sensi smart thermostats have geofencing capabilities you can program, they don't learn from your daily activities. The interface on the Sensi is more colorful than some of the other options. Like most top brands, it can connect to smart speakers such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home Hub.
  4. Honeywell - Honeywell is a big name in the thermostat industry, so you get good quality for an attractive price. Their thermostats can connect to HomeKit, Google Home, and Alexa, and have basic geofencing capabilities.
  5. Amazon - Since Amazon smart thermostats are powered by Honeywell technology, you're getting a brand known for quality, with the addition of Amazon Alexa for voice control.

A Smart Thermostat Helps Save Money In Your Smart Home

Installing a smart thermostat can help your HVAC use energy more efficiently, which can lead to lower heating bills and cooling bills. Before you make a purchasing decision, it's important to understand how this technology works, and what the potential benefits are, so you can choose the right model for your home and your family’s needs.

Because everyone's needs vary, picking the features that are most important to you, and doing your due diligence is a key part of making the right choice. When allowed to do their job and help control your temperature settings, smart thermostats can save you a lot of money over many years.

If you’re looking to save even more money, you may be able to lower your energy bills even further when you combine a smart thermostat with a home solar energy system. Get started today with a Free Solar Design and Savings Estimate from Palmetto.

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