Thursday, January 31, 2013

Programmable thermostats enter the mobile age

Remote operation, people detection among cool new features
By Paul Bianchina
Inman News®
It certainly comes as no big surprise to anyone that the heating and cooling systems in our homes consume huge amounts of power, and typically account for the lion's share of our utility bills. So anything we can do to conserve on the amount of power these systems use will help lower those bills each month.

Programmable thermostats are one of the best ways to do that. Using internal computer circuits that raise and lower the thermostat set points at various times during the day in accordance with our occupancy and habits, they help keep the furnace or air conditioner from running when it doesn't need to.

Programmable thermostats have been around for decades, but it's only been recently that they've caught up with the Internet and smartphone age. Now they're more intelligent than ever, and, used correctly, that can translate into even more energy savings.

Nest Learning Thermostat

One of the most talked about thermostats on the market today is the Nest Learning Thermostat. You probably don't think of "attractive" when you think of thermostats, but this one definitely is, with a small round shape that glows blue when it's in cooling mode and orange when it's in heating mode.
Beyond its appearance, there's the lack of buttons. Adjustments are done with the outer ring, and you see programmed settings on a screen in the center of the thermostat. As you make the various adjustments throughout the day, the Nest "learns" your habits, and programs those habits into its circuitry. Soon, it's set up a temperature schedule that meets your specific lifestyle.

The Nest also has sensors in it that detect when no one is home. It switches into Auto-Away mode, automatically turning itself down to save even more energy. In that mode, the face switches to black. As additional motivation, there's even a leaf symbol that appears periodically to show you when you're saving more energy than what you'd originally programmed it for.

There are currently two generations of Nests. The first generation retails for around $198, and works with about 75 percent of the heating and cooling systems. The second generation retails for $250, is 20 percent thinner, and is compatible with an estimated 95 percent of systems. Both generations offer Wi-Fi remote control so you can control your thermostat remotely from your smartphone, laptop or tablet.

Ecobee EB-STAT

This thermostat takes programmable to a whole new level. At around $295, it's not cheap, but with the flexibility it offers you should have the opportunity to recoup that investment within a couple of years on average.

The Ecobee is rectangular, so it looks a bit more like a conventional thermostat, but with a full color screen and animated icons it's pretty cool, and very easy to program and adjust. It offers connectivity to the Internet, as well as control through a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. It offers 365-day scheduling, free over-the-air software upgrades, and downloadable system reports. It's compatible with most types of heating and cooling systems, including heat pumps, and can also be used to control humidifiers, dehumidifiers and ventilators.

Hunter Universal Internet Thermostat

At less than $100, this is a more affordable option, available from most home centers. Installation is quick and easy, with clear instructions. Everything you need except a screwdriver is included in the box. Once installed, it has an Internet gateway that connects to your router, and allows Internet access to the thermostat.

You can program the thermostat from your smartphone, tablet or computer. As with the other programmable thermostats, you can call it to change settings from a remote location, making it perfect if you're delaying getting home from work, or for situations such as warming up the vacation home before you get there. It will also send you email alerts for low batteries and when it's time to change the filter.

Nothing's perfect

As with any technology, none of these thermostats are perfect. Online reviews from actual users of all of these thermostats are mostly positive, but they do indicate some compatibility issues and software glitches in some instances. Not all thermostats are compatible with all systems, and while they're all OK for do-it-yourself installation, depending on your skill level you may still need the help of a pro to get them installed and operating correctly. And, of course, there's always a learning curve involved.

In general, I like what these thermostats have to offer. I like the additional control options, particularly for vacation homes, and the flexibility of smartphone control. But do a little homework when selecting the right model for your home and your lifestyle. Make sure it's compatible with your system, and that it has the features and operating modes that you like.

Remodeling and repair questions? Email Paul at All product reviews are based on the author's actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

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