In the Internet Age, it seems like almost anything is possible. There are cars that can drive themselves, microwaves that you can talk to and, of course, smart thermostats. For the average homeowner, that last one might not sound all that special, but there’s really a lot of “neat” coming out of that weird little thing that hangs on your wall and controls the complicated HVAC system in your home.
But have smart thermostats lived up to the hype? Or are they really just vanity gadgets that you can use to one-up your buddies when they come over to visit?
What Can a Smart Thermostat Really Do?
There are two things every thermostat has to be exceptionally good at or it’s just not worth the effort: first, it must be able to tell what the temperature is where it’s located. Secondly, it needs to be able to turn the HVAC system on and off. Considering these two basic functions, nearly any thermostat is a pretty good one by some standards.
Your basic tilt-switch based thermostat (sometimes called Mercury thermostats because at one point they pretty much all contained the metal that’s liquid at room temperature) can get the job done, but it relies on you to do an awful lot of work if you hope to maintain any sort of efficient usage of your heating and cooling equipment.
Do you remember to turn the thermostat down when you go to bed or leave the house? It’s ok, most people have too many other things on their mind to keep track of where their thermostats are. They just set ‘em and forget ‘em. That’s where the problem lies, really.
When you have a smart thermostat, “set it and forget it” doesn’t mean that your furnace or air conditioner runs all day while you’re gone just so it’s a decent temperature inside when you finally get home from work. It means that your thermostat puts itself in economy mode when it knows you’ve left, and works the temperature back to perfection when it expects you’re on your way back.
Smart Thermostats and WiFi
Every smart thermostat on the market takes advantage of WiFi to both connect with you via your smartphone and, with most models, download the weather and other information that can be used with other smart home tools. And, of course, so you can pre-heat the house on chilly mornings without getting out of bed.
Your smart thermostat can also update its own software without bothering you via that same WiFi connection. They are very self-sufficient devices. However, any “always on” device like a smart thermostat can have problematic relationships with network security.
When they were first released, a few nefarious types found a way to hack into individual private networks using the weakest link — a smart thermostat or other smart device that hadn’t been built with security in mind. Most devices you’ll buy today are designed to protect themselves and other denizens of their network from hacking. They’re also constantly patching themselves to shield against newly discovered bugs.
But Do They Save Me Money?
According to one major smart thermostat manufacturer, their device saves users 10 to 12 percent on their heating and 15 percent on their cooling bills annually. That’s $131 to $145 a year. For a lot of smart thermostats, that means that just two years in operation will be enough for the clever little device to pay for itself.
Of course, with a smart thermostat that can learn your patterns, the longer you use it, the smarter it gets. It’s almost as good as having a robot maid — almost.
Smart thermostats have consistently earned Energy Star certifications and many utility companies will help you buy one. These days, there are plenty to choose between so you can definitely find a device you love to look at, that is compatible with your other smart devices and that has the sort of tools that help you get the most out of your HVAC dollars.