Smart Home Thermostats 101

Tod Caflisch
7 min readMar 28, 2023

March 28, 2023

Smart Home technology can be a wonderful way to automate and simplify life for you. But the shear volume of options can be daunting. From lighting to video doorbells to sensors the amount of potential solutions can make your head spin.

One of the areas I initially struggled with when Debbie and I started making our home ‘smart’ was replacing our old, analog thermostat. There were so many brands out there to choose from with so many features and possible integration points. We were looking to automate our heating and cooling based on the ambient temperature throughout our home with sensors, control smart blinds to open/close based on specific room temperature, save us money when we weren’t home and other appropriate capabilities that fit our needs. Debbie particularly liked the ability to fire up the heater as she’d arrive home or use Alexa to raise the temperature a few degrees by simply asking. But where to start?

I was not a thermostat expert when we started looking into making our home ‘smart.’ Does anyone spend their free time reading about thermostats? So, when it came time to actually buy one, words like ‘programmable,’ ‘smart’ and ‘learning can be a little confusing. What do these words mean for your smart home plans and what kind of thermostat should you buy?

Let’s start by clarifying these common categories of smart thermostats. Most thermostats sold today, including smart and learning thermostats, are programmable. As the name suggests, a programmable thermostat lets you ‘schedule’ different temperature settings, usually through a weekly schedule. So you can save electricity while you’re away from home, or automate your home’s temperature throughout the day. This was what our existing analog thermostat could do so why replace it?

Breaking down how I define each of the different types of thermostats:

  • Programmable thermostats — Any ‘offline’ thermostat that aren’t paired to your WiFi network and you can’t control them remotely through your phone or voice assistant.
  • Smart thermostats — These do connect to your WiFi network. You can control them via your phone or voice assistant, and you can program their schedule through an app. Some smart thermostats, like the ecobee SmartThermostat, offer deep controls and smart-home support for granular automation. And, even the cheapest smart thermostats, like the Honeywell Lyric T5, support geofencing — a protocol that tracks your location and automatically adjusts the temperature when you’re leaving or returning home.
  • Learning thermostats — These are ‘smart’ and offer the same smart home support and scheduling as typical smart thermostats. But they also contain a specialized AI (Artificial Intelligence) that ‘learns’ your temperature preferences and habits. Over time, a learning thermostat can take full control of your home’s temperature, which saves you from having to adjust anything dynamically or modify any schedules.

Currently, the Google Nest Learning Thermostat is the only learning thermostat for sale. However, ecobee’s thermostats are inheriting some learning-type features and other thermostat brands may move that direction in the future. The Google Nest Learning Thermostat learns your preferences and automatically adjusts your home’s temperature. It has some advanced scheduling features, but it’s made specifically for people who don’t want to constantly adjust their thermostat.

Admittedly, learning thermostats sound like the ultimate smart-home solution. But they aren’t necessarily the best option for everyone. As every household is different, some people may prefer to stick with typical smart thermostats or even analog programmable options.

I’ve covered this in my previous post ‘Smart Thermostats: Make Life Easier With These Features.’ The Google Nest Learning Thermostat is perfect for anyone who hates to adjust the temperature or setting schedules, but its manual programming features aren’t as robust as some basic smart thermostats like the ecobee SmartThermostat.

I’m not saying that learning thermostats are bad. Actually, they’re the simplest temperature solution for most homes. But not all homes need a ‘simple’ temperature solution. Situations are different across the board — size of homes, resident needs/preferences, solution complexity and smart home integrations, to name a few.

That’s where smart thermostats come in as they offer manual controls and granular automation through an app or voice assistant. Some even have some AI (Artificial Intelligence) features to make things easier. A great example from ecobee is the ‘Feels Like’ feature, which automatically factors humidity into your manual or scheduled temperature settings.

However, if you don’t need or want to adjust your thermostat from a smartphone or voice assistant, then you can probably skip a smart thermostat. Regular programmable thermostats are very affordable, and a few minutes of scheduling can still help you save on your electric bill. If the cost of a smart or learning thermostat is the issue then you might look into getting a ‘free’ one. Check out my post ‘How About a FREE Smart Thermostat?

Again, the Google Nest Learning Thermostat is the only learning thermostat on the market. If your goal is to never touch a thermostat again, then this is the path that you’re fated to travel. The Google Nest Learning Thermostat starts out as a blank slate, and slowly observes and learns your preferences over time. It can be a bit fussy at first, but in the end it’ll save you time and money.

If you want to save a little cash on a Nest Learning Thermostat, then you could always buy the less expensive Google Nest Thermostat E. Its HVAC compatibility is a bit limited, but it has all the same features as its big brother. The only real difference (aside from aesthetics) is that the Nest Thermostat E comes with a preloaded schedule. You’ll have to adjust (or delete) the schedule as the thermostat learns your habits. Also, keep in mind that Google Nest products work with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT, but they don’t work with Apple HomeKit or SmartThings.

The ecobee SmartThermostat looks to be the most robust non-learning smart thermostat on the market right now. Everything on the ecobee is adjustable, and it works beautifully with even the most obscure Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT and SmartThings routines. Plus, it has a built-in Alexa smart speaker, it works with Alexa drop-in, and it’s sold with a remote temperature sensor that makes temperature adjustments and ‘away’ modes more accurate. But all those features come with a price.

If $219 is a budget buster for you, you can get the older ecobee3 for $149. It’s missing some features, like Alexa drop-in and Spotify Connect, but it’s still one of the most user-friendly smart thermostats on the market. If those options are still too expensive, then you could always buy the Honeywell Lyric T5, which plays nice with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT and SmartThings, but lacks some of the higher end features of the ecobee.

And, if you’re just looking for a programmable thermostat, then we suggest buying the Honeywell T4. It’s affordable at $43, has a modern look, and its large display makes programming pretty simple.

Obviously lot’s to consider here. A major factor may be where you currently are in your smart home journey. If you’re just starting out you may not need or want all the bells and whistles. On the other end of the scale you may already be using a high end model. I’d love to hear your feedback if you already have a thermostat integrated into your smart home. Is it one of the models I covered here? If not, which did you opt for and why? How do you like it? How easy was it to install? Would you do anything different?

Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails what you think. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’

SmartHomeOnTheRange.com

SmartHomeOnTheRange.com

In full disclosure, I’m not an affiliate marketer with links to any online retailer on my website. When people read what I’ve written about a particular product and then click on those links and buy something from the retailer, I earn nothing from the retailer. The links are strictly a convenience for my readers.

--

--

Tod Caflisch

Smart Home technology thought leader with passion for out of the box solutions for smart home integrations, focusing on efficiency, safety and sustainability.