October 22, 2020

For many years, homeowners used manual thermostats to control their heating and cooling. For much of the 20th century, thermostats were analog and used mercury. In the 1980s, digital thermometers became widespread. Soon after, many of these digital thermometers were programmable and could be set to a schedule. Homeowners could predetermine what the temperature goal would be based on the hour and day of the week. In the aughts, internet-enabled appliances arrived. A concept called the Internet of Things was proposed, and among the earliest of these “things” was the smart thermostat, which is now prevalent and available in a wide range of types.

The Difference Between a Programmable and Smart Thermostat

The EPA estimates that the average home without a programmable thermostat can save at least 10% and as much as 30% of energy consumption by upgrading. This is true of both programmable and smart thermostats. The difference is that the smart thermostat makes it easier to achieve those energy savings. Another way to look at it is that while a smart thermostat is inherently a programmable thermostat, a programmable thermostat is not a smart thermostat since it lacks smart features. In fact, the best way to classify the various types of smart thermostats is to enumerate and explore the major capabilities that these devices can possess.

These major features include:
  • Wi-Fi capability
  • App-based access and geofencing
  • Machine learning
  • Logging and reporting
  • Air quality assessment
  • Zoning support
  • Smart home compatibilities

Wi-Fi Capability

While all smart thermostats are programmable, not all are Wi-Fi capable, and this is arguably among the most important distinctions. A smart thermostat without Wi-Fi access is a self-contained device. It can be quite advanced and feature-rich, but it will always be limited to what is possible through its onboard capabilities and local interface. A Wi-Fi-capable thermostat, on the other hand, is able to connect to the Internet via your home network. It can also connect to other smart devices—the aforementioned IoT—either through your home network or directly through an ad hoc mesh network. While a thermostat without Wi-Fi support can have most of the same smart features that a Wi-Fi-capable device can, there are many conveniences and enhancements that are only possible by being connected.

App-Based Access and Geofencing

Practically any Wi-Fi-capable smart thermostat will have software that lets you connect to it from smartphones, tablets, computers and other devices. In addition, these devices can often update their software automatically, which allows features to be added and refined. Being able to access your thermostat from your mobile phone means that you can conveniently adjust programming from the couch, turn the temperature down from your office and receive alerts and other notifications. Connected devices also allow for geofencing. Your thermostat can know when everyone has left the house and adjust the temperature accordingly. It can also know when you have returned. Many thermostats can even detect your proximity to the residence, which allows it to reach your ideal temperature before you actually step through the door.

Behavioral Learning

What is better than a thermostat that you can program? A thermostat that can program itself. Such feature sets are often referred to as behavioral learning and sometimes machine or AI learning. It allows the temperature in your home to be adjusted dynamically rather than based on a rigid schedule. In basic implementations, a device will recognize patterns and make recommendations based on them or make changes automatically depending on what privileges you allow it. Recent devices use more advanced algorithms to assess your usage and are able to conserve even more energy over the long term. Some can also monitor energy usage directly and adjust to reach the ideal temperature in the most energy-efficient manner possible.

Logging and Reporting

Many smart thermostats can log data, which can include user preferences, temperatures, schedule changes and so forth. Wi-Fi-capable thermostats are able to store this data to the cloud, which allows logging over months and even years. The bigger your data, the better your thermostat is able to save on energy usage. The more advanced smart thermostats have analytical capabilities. These allow them to assess the data and provide you reports. These can include reports on cost savings, energy usage, humidity and so forth. Such thermostats can often recommend how you can save even more, which can range from installing a dehumidifier to giving the thermostat greater privileges.

Air Quality Assessment

Traditional thermostats had but a single sensor. Many smart thermostats have multiple sensors, and not just for temperature but for air pollution, humidity, filter health and so forth. The EPA has placed great emphasis on the dangers of indoor air pollution in recent years. Many homeowners are cognizant of the problem, and so more thermostat manufacturers are adding these features in response. These thermostats can track pollution levels in the home and alert you when they are at dangerous levels. IAQ reports can also reveal problematic patterns that you can then deal with. If you have an air cleaner and/or dehumidifier integrated into your HVAC system, your smart thermostat can control and monitor that equipment alongside your air conditioner and furnace.

Zoning Support

Multiple sensors allow your thermostat to gauge the temperature in different areas of your home. This feature is a must if you have a zoned HVAC system, and even if you do not, it may be a good investment if you plan to upgrade to a zoned system in the near future. Zoning allows a smart thermostat to be even more effective. It can, for instance, not cool the downstairs as much when everyone is upstairs sleeping, and when everyone is in the family room for movie night, it can heat the rest of the house not as much.

Smart Home Compatibilities

Many smart devices are able to communicate with each other. There are shades that can sense sunlight, open and close automatically and report that data to the thermostat. Certain refrigerators can listen to the home thermostat and adjust in order to maintain a consistent temperature. Smart thermostats can control humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air purifiers. The possibilities are practically endless, and the industry is really only scratching the surface of what a smart home can entail. A smart thermostat that can report data, accept data, give commands and receive commands will have you prepared for whatever new smart technologies become available.

Your Local Thermostat Experts

Consider these major features and determine which are important to you. This will make it easier to pick out a smart thermostat that suits you and avoid paying for features that you do not need. If you need professional assistance, Beyer Air Conditioning & Heating in San Antonio is happy to help. We have thermostat experts on staff, we sell the iComfort and ComfortSense series by Lennox and we install and program all smart thermostat makes and models. Our company also offers a full range of heating, cooling and indoor air quality services. Call us today to learn more about these services or to schedule an appointment!

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