How to Choose a Smart Thermostat

If you're thinking about adding home automation to your next home improvement project, installing a smart thermostat may be a great place to start. Smart thermostats are the hottest trend in home automation and one that can save you money in the long run. A WiFi-enabled smart thermostat allows you to:

  • Remotely access your thermostat from anywhere using a your smartphone, tablet, or computer
  • Control the temperature using a voice-activated device such as the Amazon Alexa
  • Automate your home's climate controls via a smart hub
  • Save money on utility bills by optimizing your energy usage
  • Pre-heat or pre-cool your house before you get home
  • Get email alerts if the temperature falls or rises below a pre-selected setting
  • Control access to your home's thermostat

With the ability to make your life easier and save you money, a smart thermostat is one device most homeowners can appreciate. To help you determine whether a smart thermostat is right for you, here's a rundown of some of the most popular functions and features you should be aware of before you shop.

Control your home's temperature away from home with a smart thermostat.

Control your home's temperature away from home with a smart thermostat.

Common Benefits & Features Smart Thermostats

Although smart thermostat features will vary from model to model, here's some common functions to look for when deciding which model is best for your home and budget.

Lower utility bills

Traditional thermostats let you only set a single stable temperature that you have to change manually which is an inefficient use of energy. Standard programmable models let you schedule what your home's temperature should be at select times of day. This lets you turn down the heat when you are not at home to conserve energy and only heat the house when needed.

Smart thermostats take the process one step further by monitoring zones of your home and auto-scheduling the temperature of each room of your home to use energy more efficiently. Most homeowners can recoup the cost of the smart thermostat in heating and cooling savings within two years. In general, studies have shown the typical homeowner will save 10-12% on their heating bills, 15% on cooling bills, and on average save $100-$145 a year on their utility bills, depending on usage.

Auto scheduling

Smart thermostats let you program schedules for heating and cooling. Some models learn your preferences over time to build on your schedule and adapt to changes. Others don't predict your schedule based on past activity and instead respond automatically to your activities. Those models with auto-scheduling use your habits, local weather patterns, or responses to a series of simple questions to create a foundation for its programming. These models work best when it employs at least one of the following:

  • Usage reports that record and provide feedback on how much energy you use.
  • Motion sensors that interact with the thermostat to provide information outside your regular schedule such as sensing when you come home from work at a different time than usual
  • Geofencing uses a GPS system to create a zone around your house and tracks your smartphone's location to activate home and away modes.

Usability and ease of installation

Smart thermostats work with mobile apps to allow you to use your enabled device such as a smartphone, tablet, computer, or voice-activation home system to control your thermostat. Most new models are easy to program, easy to read, and offer intuitive functionality.

Smart thermostats are generally easy to install for DIYers and come with a guide and tutorials to walk you through the process. If your electrical system has a C-wire, the process is even easier and usually takes about 30 minutes to complete. Models with online compatibility checkers and built-in levels are the easiest to install.

Smartphone and smart home integration

Smart thermostats are WiFi-enabled and use downloaded apps to work with most Android and iOS systems, so you can remotely access your thermostat controls via a smartphone, tablet, computer, and even on some models voice-activated systems such as Alexa. Thus you can monitor your home's system, program schedules, and get reports from anywhere at any time.

Some models include home automation functionality so you can link your thermostat to other smart home devices. For example, you can link your thermostat to a smart lock that activates your thermostat's away mode when you lock your door. Or you can link smart lights to your thermostat to schedule both to come on right before you come home.

Service alerts, reminders, and support

Most smart thermostats tell you when to perform basic maintenance such as changing air filters in your cooling system. Others will alert you when there's a problem with your HVAC system. The best models also come with complete customer service that lets you reach support representatives via social media, email, phone, or even live chat when you have a question or problem.

Three popular models of smart thermostats are the Ecobee4, the Nest Learning, and the Deriva IntelliSync. For a quick, at-a-glance overview of these smart thermostat models, check out the comparison guide below.

Quick Comparison Chart

  Deriva IntelliSync Ecobee4 Nest Learning
Model# INTELLISYNCR1 EB-STATE4-01 T3008US (Silver), T3016US (Carbon Black, T3017US (Cool White)
Dimensions 5.7"W x 1.32"D x 3.12"H 4.29"W x 1.028" deep x 4.29"H 3.5" in diameter x 1.21" deep
Display 2.75" backlit LED display 3.5" color LCD touch screen, 320x480 resolution 24-bit color LCD display, 480x480 resolution
Touch screen No Yes No
Power Battery, c-wire, or micro USB Built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery Hardwired/Battery
Compatible with low voltage (24V) heating Yes Yes Yes
Compatible with high voltage (110-240V) heating No No No
Heating stages 2 4 3
Cooling stages 2 2 2
Compatible with Conventional Systems/Heat Pumps/ 2 and 3 Wire Heat Only Hydronic Systems/Gas Millivolt Heaters Conventional (2H/2C), heat pump (4H/2C), gas, oil, electric, and dual fuel Most 24V heating and cooling systems including gas, electric, forced air, heat pump, radiant, oil, hot water, solar, and geothermal
Temperature swing +/-0.25 degrees F to +/-2.25 degrees +/-0.9 degrees F +/- 1 degree F
Mounting orientation Vertical or horizontal Vertical Vertical
Home automation platform NA HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, Logitech, Wink, IFTTT Amazon Alexa, Nest, Logitech, IFTTT
Smartphone compatibility Android, iOS Android, iOS Android, iOS
Smart learning No No Yes
Common wire required No Yes Yes
Programming options 7 days/2 or 4 periods per day 7 days/4+ periods per day Pre-programmed basic schedule, auto schedule, and learning options
Auto-schedule Yes Yes Yes
Geo-fencing No Yes Yes
Savings feedback Yes Yes Yes
Weather conditions No Yes Yes
Humidity range 20% to 90% (non-condensing) 5% to 95% (non-condensing) NA
Motion sensor No Yes Yes
Operating temperature range +14 degrees F to 122 degrees F 32 degrees F to 131 degrees F NA
Temperature control (display) range 32 degrees F to 99 degrees F 41 degrees F to 98 degrees F NA
Service alerts and reminders High/low temperature alerts, low battery indicator Yes Yes
Included in box Unit, manual/install guide, and mounting hardware Unit, mounting plate, room sensor with stand, install guide, wire labels, voice card, and mounting hardware Unit, base, optional trim plate, install guide, welcome guide, Nest Pro installation card, mounting hardware, and Nest screwdriver
Warranty 5-year 3-Year 5-Year (with professional installation)

Things to Consider When Replacing Your Thermostat

Non-connected programmable thermostats vs. smart thermostats

If staying connected is not important to you and all you need or want is simple programming, a non-connected thermostat is sufficient and a more affordable option. If you wish to control your home's climate remotely by using your voice or an app-enabled smart device, you should consider a smart thermostat. Although a smart thermostat is more costly to buy than a simple non-connected thermostat, they can pay for themselves in terms of convenience, comfort, and energy cost savings.

Check compatibility with your HVAC system

Most smart thermostat models work with common heating and cooling systems, but it is important to check the product packaging to confirm the model you are buying with work with your current system. For example, if you a three-stage heat pump system, you need to purchase a thermostat that is listed for use with this type of system. If your home has separate heating and cooling zones or separate systems, you may need to install a separate thermostat for each zone and/or system.

Look for a C-wire in your home's electrical system

Before installing a smart thermostat, you will need to scope out your home's wiring. Most non-connected, programmable thermostats will easily work with the low-voltage wires commonly found in older heating systems. The newer smart thermostats, however, usually require a common or C-wire since they require more power than simpler thermostats. The C-wire is what provides continuous power for WiFi and other features. It is usually black or blue in color. Consult an HVAC technician or specialist to determine if your home has a C-wire.

If your electrical system does not have a C-wire, you still may be able to install a smart thermostat. Look for a model that comes with a power adapter or power extender that allows you to add a C-wire to your system or pick a model that does not require a C-wire. Be aware that using a smart thermostat without a C-wire could possibly damage your mechanical equipment. You can also install a third-party add-a-wire adapter or update your electrical system and have an electrician professionally install a C-wire.

Ready to add a smart thermostat to your home? Shop Smart Thermostats and other Heating & Cooling products at Riverbend Home.

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