Thermostats are a core component of a heating and cooling system, helping to maintain the temperature and humidity for everyone in the home. With advancements in technology, thermostats have transformed from simple temperature controls and time switches to fully connected smart home devices.
In this guide, we provide everything you need to know about thermostats, including how to choose one, comparing thermostat brands and devices, guidance in installing and configuring your thermostat, and assistance in troubleshooting if things go wrong.
Top Smart Thermostat Brands
Competition is fierce in the smart thermostat market with Nest, Honeywell and Ecobee leading the pack. Below are the top brands to consider when choosing a smart thermostat. Clicking each logo brings you to their product portfolio on Amazon.
Important to note that some manufacturers have variations of their product for multiple regions, such as Nest and Honeywell. Others are dedicated to a specific market, such as Hive for the UK and Ireland.
What is a Smart Thermostat?
A smart thermostat is an inter-connected device that retains all of the features of digital programmable thermostats while enabling remote control, voice control, and more. The fundamental feature of a smart thermostat is, it controls the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning of a home.
The innovative aspects of a smart thermostat allow for the device to learn your behaviors and tailor a temperature schedule around your patterns. Also, it can save you energy and money by adapting to the outside climate while gradually heating and cooling your home, avoiding abrupt, expensive calls for warm or cool air.
GPS / Geofencing functionality allows your thermostat to switch itself on or off automatically when it senses you are home or away.
Read on for a full list of features and benefits of smart thermostats.
Benefits of a Smart Thermostat
A smart thermostat has all the benefits of digital programmable thermostats. Here are the extras you get by upgrading to a smart thermostat.
With your app-enabled smart thermostat, you also have voice control. Some of the first smart thermostats had voice commands built into them. You can interact with your thermostat and make changes with simple commands.
“Alexa, increase thermostat to 74 degrees”
Newer smart thermostats are integrated with popular voice technologies like Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant. The development behind these techs is quickly progressing. You can make conversational commands and they’re smart enough to carry out.
Extra Convenience and Comfort
Smart thermostats are equipped with newer technologies that can “learn” from the inhabitants. These new technologies analyze inhabitants’ behavior and preferences to regulate the temperature. This automated feature brings extra comfort to the users and lessens the burden of control. Your thermostat even knows when you come home.
Remote connectivity features bring along extra convenience. Add to that the ability to connect with Wi-Fi and the Internet, and control the thermostat from your phone.
Heating and cooling eat up a huge chunk of the household energy bill. Manufacturers tried to design older programmable thermostats to be more efficient. Smart thermostats bring more to the table now.
Smart thermostats are designed with newer tech to lessen human error. This was a problem with previous thermostat versions. Newer ones benefit from additional tools like sensors and learning technologies. This makes smart thermostats more successful in increasing savings for households.
With a compact design, smart thermostats can process a lot of data. You have information on usage, consumption, or temperature data at your fingertips. You can use this to better track and manage not just your thermostat but also your HVAC equipment.
If you don’t want to worry about these, you can just let your device do the work. Manufacturers continue adding features and automation updates to your smart thermostat. Keep updated!
All the features already mentioned so far work hand-in-hand to save energy. Technologies like energy monitoring and machine learning learn from residents’ preferences and patterns. With the help of sensors, these are integrated into the scheduling, management, and monitoring to save energy.
Some thermostats come with recovery modes to gradually increase or decrease temperatures as opposed to sudden demands for intense warm or cool air. Also, thermostats can disable air conditioners just before the temperature is reached to eke out extra savings.
Smart thermostats also comply with standards and undergo certification to live up to world-class efficiency.
Features of a Smart Thermostat
We’ve talked about the benefits. Now onto the features, you can expect from a smart thermostat.
Yes, I know your old thermostat already has this. But we’re not talking about a clunky, old clicker. We’re talking about your smartphone.
There’s a reason they called it a smartphone. You can install the app to control your smart thermostat and HVAC system remotely. And not just on your couch. With Wi-Fi or data connectivity, you can check or control your data from the backyard, mall, or beach.
Automatic Learning Schedule
This helps you save money and energy. Your smart thermostat does most of the work for you so you don’t have to sacrifice your comfort and convenience. In fact, your smart thermostat has these in mind.
Your smart thermostat is equipped with sensors, Internet connectivity, and even GPS to “learn” from you. The people behind thermostat technologies designed machine learning capabilities to understand your needs to keep you comfortable. All the while helping save the planet, too.
Geofencing – Home/Away Assist
The integration of smart thermostats to the Internet brings about this technology. This gives your HVAC system the ability to create a virtual “fence” with the help of GPS. Through your smartphone, the smart thermostat knows when you are home or away, and automatically adjusts the programmed settings.
Home/Away Assist is a particular feature by Google Nest that helps automate devices according to your location.
This feature brings a lot of convenience. There’s a lot of times when using your voice just gets things done faster. But hopefully, it wouldn’t come to you having to shout because of the heat or cold.
Make easy commands to adjust heating or cooling in your home using your voice. You can even adjust settings from room to room.
Smart thermostats like the one from Ecobee can even do more with Alexa built-in. Ask the temperature, control other connected devices, even play music.
Modern technologies are not spared from modern design, and smart thermostats are no exception. They are stylish, neat, and functional.
The attractive design of smart thermostats varies from elegant, to blending into the background, to high-tech futuristic. Ease of use and simplicity is maintained. The smart thermostat combines nicely with the attractive smart home.
Energy Consumption Insights
With the presence of sensors and advanced software, smart thermostats can process a lot of data.
With the ability to connect to a smartphone and Wi-Fi, you can view energy usage or diagnostic information on your system. The app can send reports on energy consumption, and also recommendations for saving or better comfort.
It can also send alerts about problems within the system or maintenance needed. This helps save money and energy, while also protecting your equipment.
Zoned Temperature Control
With additional thermostats or with extra sensors, you can make adjustments room-to-room for better control. This is zoned temperature control, a convenient feature for smart thermostats to help increase comfort and reduce hot or cold spots.
The smart thermostat can adjust heating or cooling in empty rooms. This helps to reduce energy consumption and maximize money savings.
Smart Home Integration
You can connect multiple sensors to your system to better manage heating and cooling using only a single thermostat. You can also have multiple smart thermostats for control and monitoring while using only your smartphone.
With your smartphone, you can integrate your smart thermostat with other smart home devices such as Samsung SmartThings, Hubitat, HomeAssistant and more. Check the compatibility list for specific smart home ecosystems.
This can also be done with your voice. Smart home technologies can synchronize and make significant changes to secure your home, or make intelligent adjustments to lessen your worries.
Types of Thermostats
Check out our guide here on the various types of thermostats for your home.
Compatible HVAC Systems
There are lots of different smart thermostats available today. Before buying one, you need to know what heating and/or air conditioning system it is you are looking to control with your thermostat. It’s also important to ensure it’s compatible with the system.
To help you, we’ve listed and described the different heating and air conditioning systems. This way, you are more informed about your smart thermostat search.
When learning about heating and air conditioning you’ll come across the term HVAC Systems often. HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. It’s the technology that helps with thermal comfort indoors along with good air quality and is commonplace in most homes in the United States.
Forced Air Systems
1. Split HVAC System (Standard or Hybrid)
A Split HVAC system has two separate units responsible for cooling or heating your home. Furnaces are typically used for heating, often placed in unoccupied spaces such as the garage, attic, basement, etc. Central air conditioning (AC) units are used for cooling. AC units are usually installed outdoors and use ducts to refrigerate air. These same ducts are used by the furnace to distribute heat via an air handler.
A system similar to the above is a hybrid split HVAC system. This is an HVAC system that’s made for flexibility. As well as using a furnace, which uses fuel, the system uses a heat pump, which runs on electricity. The latter is a device that's capable of both heating and cooling. Having this flexibility makes it often more energy-saving than the standard system, especially for moderate weather.
2. Packaged HVAC System – Electric or Fuel
You have the option of having one unit that does both cooling and heating with a Packaged HVAC system. This is a good option for homes without enough space for the larger components that a standard HVAC system often uses. This system can be installed on an AC pad outside your house or on your roof.
Packaged HVAC systems can be all-electric, or a mix of fuel and electricity. When choosing between these systems, consider your area's climate.
Does your area experience freezing temperatures? The added fuel/gas option could be your best choice. On the other hand, are extreme temperatures rare? You’ll probably do well with a Heat Pump option in that scenario.
Aside from space-saving, a system with a good Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) makes it energy-efficient too. Also, you’ll have the benefit of quieter operation and cost-efficiency.
3. Ductless HVAC System – Electric
If you prefer to have cooling or heating only in specific rooms, a ductless system might be best. In some cases, this would also be more cost and energy-saving. You’ll also have more control overall.
There are many reasons to consider this type of HVAC system. You can even consider this when there is already a different system in place. Maybe it’s not possible or practical to extend the existing system, making the ductless option better.
Ductless HVAC systems usually have two components. You typically have a compressor/condenser unit outside. This is connected to a wall-mounted indoor air-handling unit. Because of this design, this system is also called a mini-split system. You can also have additional indoor units while being served by one outside compressor.
As this system does away with ductwork, they take much less space than others. Usually, you also endure less noise pollution. This is good news for light sleepers or babies.
Warm Water Systems
4. Central Boiler & Radiators
This system is common in Europe and uses water to distribute heat throughout the house or building. It‘s also called a hydronic system. Instead of a furnace, you have a boiler that commonly burns gas or oil to produce steam or hot water which is delivered through pipes. The pipes deliver the water to radiators and other heating devices which then radiate heat to parts of the house.
As steam releases heat, it returns to liquid form. By either gravity or pump the water cycles back to the boiler to be heated again.
Stand Alone Devices
5. Electric Resistance Heaters (Baseboard, In-Floor, Ceiling)
Electric resistance heating is a less commonly used solution for heating systems. Although you need to do less maintenance on them, there are specific concerns to consider. But first, what are the usual applications of this technology?
Electric baseboard heaters provide a zonal heating solution, meaning their heating is limited to a specific zone or room in the house. You can control each zone individually which is an advantage, especially for family residences. As the name suggests, the heaters are placed on baseboards. Baseboard heaters around the house can be controlled by individual thermostats.
Electric baseboard heaters are quieter than other heating systems and are also easier to install. On the other hand, they’re less efficient and use up more electricity. Their design, while functional, takes up space and can be hazard risks too.
In-Floor & Ceiling Heaters
Electric resistance heaters in floors and ceilings use wiring and mats built under the surfaces. These are run across a layer beneath surfaces and radiate heat by converting electricity.
These heating solutions share some of the zone-heating benefits of ductless systems. But they have their unique disadvantages such as operating and maintenance costs.
Considered well, electric resistance heaters make for good supplementary heat sources. For conditions such as limited use or lower local electricity rates, the benefits of this system can compensate for its drawbacks.
6. Air Conditioning Unit (Wall/Window, Portable)
We’ve learned about applications of an AC unit in split and ductless systems. But AC units are also known to be stand-alone appliances. They can be used as zonal air conditioners in the form of wall, window, or portable units. AC units have all their components housed within their cases. These can be the cheapest solutions to cooling your home.
Wall/window AC units function by being fixed to walls or windows with their vents faced outside. This means that they can provide some difficulty installing and securing. Their advantage is saving floor space, reducing clutter.
Portable AC units, on the other hand, are easier to install and move from window to window, room to room. Being medium-sized appliances, they do take up some space.
Depending on the models, both types of AC units can make significant noise, too. Despite this, you have the advantage of compactness, cost, and practicality.
7. Space Heaters
Last, but not least, are space heaters which are used for small areas. While electric space heaters are most common, there are some powered by fuel. A thermostat may also be present in these appliances.
While fuel-burning types are great for larger spaces, some risks need to be considered. Exhaust for fumes must be properly installed and enough space is needed for the heater.
Infrared & Convection
Portable space heaters are often electric. Infrared types are great because they don’t need insulation to function well. This makes them effective even for outdoors, but they might not be as good for larger areas. Meanwhile, if an area has good insulation in place, a convection heater can be used. These distribute warm air by using a fan, so keep in mind that they can take time.
These are some of the common space heaters, but there are also other types like oil heaters. Each of them has distinct features that give them different pros and cons to compare.
Depending on the specific heating or cooling system, there can be several different energy sources to power the system.
- Solid Fuel – These are solid material sources that release heat through combustion. These may be wood, charcoal, pellet-types, etc. These are common for boilers and furnaces.
- Oil – Heating oil is another energy source used for heating boilers. When they are added to burners, they are pumped as a mixture of fine mist and air. Oil applications are also found in space heaters. Standards and developments in heating oil made it safer, cleaner, dependable, and more energy-efficient.
- Gas – Natural gas is the most common energy source for heating homes in the USA and UK, with natural furnaces often used as central heating systems. Compared to other energy sources, natural gas is the most efficient fuel for heating. Less commonly, gas-powered AC units for cooling are also available.
- Electricity – Electric heating involves converting electricity into heat using different elements depending on the application. This the main source for space heating and electrical resistance heating. Infrared radiation and convection heating are common applications.
- Heat Pump – Heat pumps extract heat from air or ground and transfer it, using electricity to power its mechanism. It also acts as an air conditioner to cool houses when its mechanism is switched. Heat pumps are very efficient in heating and cooling, as well as in energy to heat conversion.
- Solar – Solar power is gaining popularity in being supplemented with electricity costs of HVAC systems. Some systems transfer solar heat for space heating, as well as water heating. Hot water can also be used for radiant heating. This has a large effect on sustainability and renewability.
Considerations when Purchasing a Smart Thermostat
Here are important considerations if you are thinking of investing in a smart thermostat.
Wi-Fi Connection Needed with reliable signal
Some functions of smart thermostats require Wi-Fi or Internet connection to function. They may communicate with cloud servers for more intelligent energy efficiency, monitoring, and other features.
Consider things like the use of voice commands or remote control through the app from the backyard. It is also possible to purchase Z-Wave thermostats if you do not want any more Wi-Fi devices. These work in a mesh network topology.
Smartphone needed to use the Mobile App
You can also use a tablet. But yes, this is to be considered when you are sold on some features on paper. It’s a given though that smartphones are more available now than ever.
But what if you are not tech-savvy and without anyone close by for quick assistance? You might find you spent a bit too much cash for features that you can’t work! Some features are only available on the app.
Understand your HVAC system and determine if it is compatible?
If your thermostat has 2-4 thick wires, usually with red-black-white combinations you likely have a line voltage heating system (Such as a baseboard, in-floor, ceiling or electric space heater). The typical smart thermostats, like Nest and Ecobee, do not work with line voltage systems. Instead you need to look at Mysa and Stelpro smart thermostats.
The wiring of thermostats for HVAC systems is typically low voltage. Low voltage systems might have more than four wires, thinner than other electrical wiring. Other than red, black, or white, they have green, orange, or blue wires also.
For some common smart thermostats like Nest or Ecobee, you can check their sites for compatibility.
C-Wire may be required to power the display when systems are off
Thermostats used to be simpler. Now, newer features bring with them more energy requirements.
Without a C-wire, power does not continuously flow to Wi-Fi and smart thermostats. Some thermostats such as the Nest, have an inbuilt internal battery to bypass the need for a C-wire. That being said, for 10-15% of installations, a C-wire is still needed for the Nest.
If your system doesn’t have a c-wire, once can be added. You can also use the fan wire or g-wire, although you lose some fan control. Another option is to use a transformer or an adapter specially made for smart thermostats.
Should the Thermostat location be moved?
If you’re upgrading your thermostat, you might need to consider a new location. This also involves other considerations such as wiring. You might come across this problem especially if an electrician recommends it.
Another location could mean better sensing, efficiency, and comfort for you and your home.
This could mean adjustments to thermostat or appliance placements, or minor renovations, re-wiring, etc. That might or might not require extra resources to spend, so make sure moving provides better cost-efficiency and savings too.
Compatibility with existing Smart Home Systems
If you want a specific feature from a certain smart home ecosystem (such as Samsung SmartThings, Apple Homekit, Hubitat, etc.), you should check the thermostat compatibility beforehand.
There are usually a lot of options if the device you want isn’t available. Check how wide the choices are and the specific devices you were considering, especially sensors and thermostats.
Are you competent and confident to install or should you hire a professional?
After you research smart thermostats, you need to consider your experience with DIY projects. If you have a compatible system ready it might not need much to upgrade. Besides, thanks to YouTube there are many resources online. You could save some money. Professional services start at around $150.
But after reading all the above factors, if you see a lot of unknowns, it’s a good idea to get help. Especially if you have a lot of HVAC devices and appliances. Electrical work like installing a C-wire or transformer could be too challenging and there is always the risk of electrocution and serious injury if you get it wrong. Ignorance is bliss and time is gold. These things might just be worth paying for!