A lot has change for the once plain and lowly thermostat throughout the past twenty years. What started out as a relatively simple device used to control and maintain the temperature, has burgeoned into a hip, technologically-sophisticated smart home device that can do so much more than just keep your home at a comfortable temperature.
Originating as early as the mid-19th century, the thermostat was invented when the need arose to regulate the temperature and humidity in mills and production facilities to protect the products being manufactured. Today, thermostats are used around the world to keep homes, work places, and public buildings at comfortable temperatures and to protect us from the extreme heat and cold of Mother Nature.
There are three main types of thermostats available today: the basic (or manual) thermostat, the programmable thermostat, and the connected / smart thermostat.
Basic / Manual Thermostats
The basic thermostat is still widely used in many homes today. Originally designed with a rotating dial, and then as a rectangular box with a lever that move to the right or left to select the temperature setting, if you want to adjust the temperature you have to walk up to the thermostat and manually move the dial (or lever) to your desired setting. Comprised of bi-metallic strips that coil and uncoil at specific temperatures, the basic thermostat does a decent job of maintaining a comfortable level of heat or cool air in your home. However, the dials and levers on basic thermostats are not very precise and could be off by several degrees of the temperature you think you’re setting. This could lead to a loss in energy savings and an increased utility bill.
To know just how much the temperature plays a part in energy savings, a good rule of thumb to go by is that for every degree you raise or lower the temperature on your thermostat, results in a 1% increase or decrease in your energy bill. For example, if you like to keep your home a cool 65 degrees in the summer, then by moving the temperature up to 75 degrees, you’re saving 10% on your energy bill. Since basic thermostats aren’t very accurate, you may think you’ve set your thermostat to 75 degrees, when actually it’s cooling your home to 73 or 74 degrees, so you’re using more energy than you want to and paying more than you expected.
There are basic thermostats with digital displays, however, that are more precise. If you want the temperature to be 75 degrees, then just punch that number into the display. Basic thermostats that are digitized also allow you the option to punch an “up-” or “down-” arrow button to easily increase or decrease the temperature. Basic thermostats can save you money when you leave your house empty for long periods of time, but that’s only if you remember to manually adjust the temperature on the thermostat yourself before you leave. Basic thermostats are the least expensive type of thermostat you can buy due to their limited features. The non-digital basic thermostat typically costs between $15 and $35, but they are being phased out because they contain mercury. Basic thermostats with a digital display cost around $20 – $50. Though still limited, the digital display allows you to set a specific temperature. Basic thermostats are best for those people who are home a lot and like its simplicity and ease of use.
Up until just a few years ago, programmable thermostats were the most technologically advanced and energy-saving thermostats available on the market. A programmable thermostat offers the convenience and energy-saving function of setting different temperatures for different times of days. So, for example, if your work-day routine typically has you arriving home at 6 p.m., then you can program the thermostat to start cooling, or warming, your home at 5:30 p.m. so it’s at the perfect temperature by the time you walk in the door. You can also program it to adjust the temperature higher or lower while you’re sleeping to save energy as well.
Most programmable thermostats allow you to program up to four different set times for the week (5 days) and up to four different times for the weekend (2 days). There’s also a manual override switch where you can manually adjust the temperature either higher or lower without affecting any of your pre-programmed schedules. Programmable thermostats are a great way to save on energy costs by giving you the ability to set energy-efficient temperatures for those times of the day when you’re either away from home or sleeping. No more leaving the house without forgetting to adjust the temperature and wasting money– just set it and forget it.
The four main settings programmable thermostats have are: Wake, Leave, Return, and Sleep. Before setting the times and temperature for each of these categories, it’s important to know your schedule. Spend a few days tracking the time you typically leave your home, the time you return, when you typically go to sleep, and when you wake. Now, you’ll have a better idea for when to program the thermostat to begin warming or cooling your home. Since it can take up to 30 minutes for the temperature to regulate once the system kicks in, it’s best to program the time for 30 before you want to wake up, go to sleep, leave, or arrive home.
Newer programmable thermostat models have even more programming options and allow you to have numerous temperature settings throughout the day and the ability to program each day individually, instead of being limited to just 5 days at a time and 2 days at a time. With advanced features such as touch screens and illumination for easy access at night, programmable thermostats give you more flexibility and control of your heating and cooling while significantly cutting your energy costs.
Programmable thermostats range in price from $25 to $150 and are a great mid-priced option for helping you save money each month on your utility bill – up to 33% more over manual thermostats!
Connected & Smart Thermostats
Taking the convenience and flexibility of programmable thermostats one step further, “smart” thermostats allow you to adjust your home’s temperature remotely from your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Performing the same functions as programmable thermostats, smart thermostats give you the flexibility to regulate the temperature in your home around the clock. So, for those days when you unexpectedly work late or go out to dinner with friends after work instead of going home as you normally would do, smart thermostats allow you to re-adjust the temperature setting remotely, so you can still save money on those days you veer from your routine.
Thermostats that connect to the internet and allow you to make changes remotely are known as “connected” thermostats. All smart thermostats are connected to the internet, but not all “connected” thermostats are considered “smart.” Thermostats that are considered truly “smart,” are those that can learn from your behavior and automatically set your temperature schedule for you. Rather than programming it yourself, a smart, or “learning,” thermostat will monitor the temperatures you typically input during certain times of the day, and after a short period time will begin to automatically adjust the temperature on its own. Trying to figure out how to program your thermostat and set multiple temperature schedules has been eliminated – the smart thermostat automatically does it for you!
Other advanced features smart thermostats have are:
- Real-time your energy consumption statistics
- Filter and maintenance alerts
- Energy-efficient recommendations
- Air quality monitoring
- Weather forecasting
- Touch screens
- Changeable colors to match your interior
Smart thermostats are changing how homeowners manage their energy consumption and other smart features of their home. The Nest thermostat is a popular smart thermostat that works with over 115 other smart devices, such as garage door openers, lights, media centers, alarms, Alexa and Google Assistant. The Nest also supports Bluetooth and has geofencing technology, which uses your smart phone to track your proximity to your house so it can adjust the temperature accordingly and getting it to your desired setting by the time you arrive home.
Some smart thermostats, such as the Ecobee4, use remote sensors to measure the temperature in multiple rooms, thereby saving energy costs by not heating or cooling a room that doesn’t need it. The Ecobee4 also uses occupancy detectors to determine if a room is occupied resulting in extra energy savings from not needlessly heating or cooling a room that’s empty. With a built-in Alexa voice command system, the Ecobee4 can also give you the latest headlines, play music, and perform all the same functions as the Amazon Echo, without needing to buy one.
With costs ranging from $200 to $300, smart thermostats are definitely costlier than basic and programmable thermostats, but the energy savings, convenience, and numerous features they offer make them a very appealing choice. Plus, an upside is that based on multiple studies, people liked the ability to change the temperature of their home remotely so much that they did it a great deal more than if they had to adjust their thermostat manually, resulting in more than half the participants in the study using less energy. Another study reported that smart thermostat users saved on average 10-12% on heating and 15% on cooling costs, which equaled nearly $130 in annual savings.
Basic thermostats and programmable thermostats can also provide energy savings, if they are programmed properly and you are diligent about keeping to a set schedule and you remember to adjust it every time you leave the house or go to bed. It’s hard to maintain but is doable. Smart thermostats, however, make is so easy to change the temperature for energy efficient savings, that you hardly even have to think about it.
What should I set my thermostat to?
After reading about how setting your thermostat to lower or higher temperatures can save you a lot of money each year, you may be wondering, “Well, what temperature should I set my thermostat to?” A lot of professional HVAC contractors will recommend a default setting of 78 degrees Fahrenheit for the air conditioner during the summer months. This may be a little warm for some people as the ideal daytime temperature for most Americans is between 70 and 75 degrees. Setting your thermostat as close to 75 degrees as possible, or even higher, is key to cutting energy costs and saving money. At night, the recommended temperature range for ideal sleep is 60 – 67 degrees. If you can still get a good night’s sleep with the temperature set closer to 72, then you’ll save even more money. During the cooler months, a setting of 60 – 68 degrees is recommended. If you can set it as low as possible and just throw on a sweater, or two, then you’ll really be saving on energy costs. In fact, if you can set your thermostat to as low as 50-55 degrees while you’re sleeping, you can save as much as 15% on your energy consumption!
Regardless of your temperature preferences, it’s important to be aware of how much energy your HVAC system is consuming. Taking up as much as 40% of your entire home’s energy consumption, consciously regulating the temperature of your home’s heating and cooling is not only good for the environment, but also good for your wallet. The Department of Energy also has recommendations for your thermostat settings which you can view here.