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Residential HVAC, Residential Installations

What’s New with Smart Home Thermostat Technology

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Why is a smart home thermostat so smart?

Most people want a smart home thermostat for two reasons:

  • So they can save energy by only heating or cooling their space when it’s occupied.
  • So they can come home to a comfortable temperature without running the heat/ac even when nobody is home.

The truth of the matter is, programmable thermostats can accomplish those goals quite well for many people, if you spend the time to program them correctly and keep the programming up to date when things change. The problem is, very few people actually do that. Many programmable thermostats are not very user-friendly. And for families with constantly shifting schedules, a programmable thermostat is just not practical.

That’s where the new smart home thermostat excels. It’s smart because it “thinks” and remembers for you. It learns your normal schedule by observing your movements, and turns itself off when nobody is home. Some models can even detect occupancy in different rooms of the house and adjust temperatures accordingly. And of course, it provides you the ability to change things on the fly from wherever you are (via smart phone, tablet or laptop) when your schedule changes.

That being said, if you are going to invest in this new technology, it pays to understand some of the latest features in the smart home thermostat and which you should look for depending on your home, your preferences, and your HVAC systems.

New (and not so new but still great) features to look for in a smart home thermostat

You’ll find certain “standard” features in just about any smart home thermostat, including the ability to set temperatures based on your schedule (in many cases, differently for each day of the week). You’ll have the ability to quickly turn off all schedules when away from home, and to control your system via a Wi-Fi app. Most include motion sensors that detect when no one is home and adjust the temperature settings accordingly. Most also provide some level of alerts to let you know when your HVAC system needs attention (such as changing filters).

Beyond these standard features, there is a wide range of sophisticated features that vary by brand and model. Here are some important functions to look for (that may not be so prominently featured in the advertising, but can significantly impact your experience with the smart home thermostat):

“Learning” mode. This is the feature that has made the Nest smart home thermostat so popular. After your control the device manually for a period of time, the system “learns” your daily habits and sets itself automatically.

Integration with whole-home automation systems. If you are like many homeowners who love technology, you might want to control more than your home’s temperature with Wi-Fi apps. Look for a smart home thermostat that integrates with home automation systems that control lighting, appliances and more. Some offer integration with Apple’s HomeKit which uses Siri voice control and coordinates with other HomeKit-enabled devices. So, for example, you can turn down the thermostat and control lighting at the same time.

Geofencing. How would you like a smart home thermostat that knows when you’re coming home (even off-schedule) and adjusts your home’s temperature automatically, so you don’t even have to bother with the Wi-Fi app? That’s what the geofencing function does. It uses your GPS location on your smartphone to figure out when you’re almost home.

Occupancy sensors. If you have a large and/or multi-story home (think older townhomes like brownstones) with only a single thermostat, this feature could be important. If your thermostat is in an out of the way location, not near where you spend most of your time, it can mistakenly think no one is home. When your smart home thermostat includes additional sensors placed throughout high occupancy areas of your home, that problem is eliminated.

Energy monitoring & alerts. Want to monitor your energy usage without having to compare bills every month? Choose a smart home thermostat that monitors your usage and allows you to see reports that show your usage over time. You can even get alerts on your phone that let you know how you’re doing.

Humidity control. Especially in the summer, it’s not just the temperature that makes your home uncomfortable. Look for a smart home thermostat that monitors humidity conditions and turns on your air conditioning when it’s too humid.

HVAC system compatibility. If you’ve got a sophisticated HVAC system (such as a VRF system), you need a smart home thermostat that supports multiple heating and cooling stages. You also need to check how your system is wired; some smart home thermostats have specific wiring requirements. Check with an HVAC expert to make sure the model you’re looking at will well work with your system.

Related article: Residential Air Conditioning: What is a VRF System?

Design features. The top smart home thermostat brands not only do cool things, they look cool hanging there on your wall as well. For the stylish home, that can be an important consideration. When comparing, don’t forget to look at the design of the controls and the Wi-Fi apps as well.

Which smart home thermostat is the best?

The answer to this question of course, depends on what features you need and what’s most important to you. To help you compare and figure that out, these are some quality reviews that provide excellent information about the top brands:

Smart Thermostat Reviews: Nest Learning & Honeywell Wi-Fi
The Sweet Home: Best Smart Thermostat
CNET: Smart thermostat roundup

ONE CAVEAT: In some cases, it might pay to consider other options beyond the top-rated brands. Particularly if you are installing a brand-new sophisticated HVAC system such as a VRF system, you should consider the smart home thermostat offered by the manufacturer of your new system. These may not have the cool design features of the top brands, but since they are specifically designed for your equipment they can offer more diagnostic functionality and even better efficiency.

Actually, we do have one more caveat. To get the most efficiency benefits from any smart home thermostat, don’t neglect preventative maintenance on your HVAC equipment. Regular service (typically performed twice a year) keeps your system running efficiently and reliably, which saves energy and lowers your bills. To learn more about how maintenance actually SAVES you money, take a look at this helpful guide: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Poor HVAC Maintenance.

Get the guide to understanding your HVAC System's hidden costs.