Smart Thermostats: Make Life Easier With These Features
August 14, 2022
Thanks to all who shared comments and questions on last week’s post ‘Let’s Talk about The ROI on Solar ….’ There was a lot of great exchange that has gotten me even more excited about installing solar and in-home batteries connected to the SPAN smart electrical panel I’d planned on installing anyway. I’ll be following up with more on all this so stay tuned.
I mention last week as I was in Massachusetts over the weekend with my college buddies. While I was there they were experiencing extremely high temperatures (as many parts of the country were) and it seemed everyone was complaining about it. It made me realize living in Canyon, TX wasn’t so bad, especially considering our elevation (3,600 ft) and relative dryness. And I say they were complaining about the heat but it was more about the oppressive humidity. Interestingly, many homes in the northern states don’t have air conditioning and leave the windows open during the summer, especially at night to cool for comfortable sleeping.
As last month I covered smart thermostats in my post ‘Let’s Get ‘Smart’ About the Summer Heat …’ I’ll assume all of you who didn’t have a smart thermostat ran out and bought one and have installed it by now. So now let’s make sure you’re taking advantage of all the best features of the new smart technology in your home to ensure comfort, reduce home heating/cooling costs and automate those processes.
Lots of folks get a smart thermostat because they were offered one as part of an energy rebate from their utility company or, in newer homes with more advanced HVAC systems, it just came with the house. If you didn’t go out of your way to research everything there is to know about smart thermostats and your particular model, you’ve likely overlooked a ton of great features. And with so many features, even if you did your homework, you may have missed a few. Now may be a perfect time to check what smart thermostat you have and read through the manual or online help files. That will help you identify all the features and learn how to use them.
Increasingly, many of these great features just happen thanks to intuitive design in the background once you’ve installed your thermostat. But many of them require you to either opt-in, toggle a setting, or otherwise enable the feature to realize the full benefits. Don’t assume that a feature is on by default just because it’s advertised as available on your particular smart thermostat.
Let’s take a look at scheduling your smart thermostat. There are a couple big ways smart thermostats make setting a schedule easier. First, if you want to manually set a schedule (or multiple schedules) it’s so much easier to do so with the app or web interface than it used to be with old programmable thermostats. With the app, it’s easy to set a schedule and to change the schedule if the need arises.
But better yet, many smart thermostats have smart scheduling functions where they adapt over time to the patterns of your household. Your thermostat can learn your work and recreation schedule, adapting accordingly.
As our world slowly moves toward a future where all the different smart devices and sensors in our homes work together, configuring a smart thermostat will become more automated. In order to take advantage of these integrations with your smart thermostat, you will need to install the app, set up any necessary accounts, and link your thermostat to your smart home.
Doing so opens up a world of possibilities from the very basic, like controlling your thermostat from a smart display in your kitchen, to the more advanced like integrating your smart thermostat into more complex routines with IFTTT routines.
And, with the rollout of the Matter smart home standard later this year, the smart thermostat will play an even bigger role in the emerging ecosystem of sensors available for smart homes.
The ‘Away Mode’ generally found in smart thermostats is closely related to the smart scheduling function. One of the downsides of set schedules and old programmable thermostats is that, while they were an improvement over never adjusting the thermostat, they weren’t adaptive. Smart thermostats offer an adaptive system where the home is heated and cooled not based on a schedule or a manual setting, but based on physical presence in the home.
It might not seem like a big deal, but a great example is an old programmable thermostat. You set the temperatures for Saturday and Sunday to be very comfortable in the middle of the day because you anticipate being home on the weekend. But would you re-set the thermostat every time you end up going somewhere on a Saturday afternoon? Probably not. With occupancy sensing on a smart thermostat it’ll automatically adjust the system when it detects the home is empty. No adjust on your behalf is necessary. We have a similar automation set with occupancy sensing for our Roomba vacuum to activate when we leave the house.
Thermostats that support the occupancy function typically have a motion sensor built into the front of the thermostat. Others will have that, plus smart sensors for better coverage of the home. There is also usually the option to use geofencing with your smartphone. In this case, the smart thermostat will use the presence of your phone to determine if the home is occupied or not.
What the features are called varies from brand to brand, but the majority of smart thermostats have a long list of efficiency and comfort functions related to optimizing airflow and humidifying (or dehumidifying) your living space. Look through the settings for options that run the fan for a period of time after every heating or cooling cycle to help circulate air and even out the temperature in your home. There are also usually options to hit target dehumidification goals in the summer and humidification goals in the winter to keep your living space comfortable.
Smart sensors are another option. We used them very successfully with our Ecobee smart thermostat in our home in Minnesota as it had a finished basement. We placed a smart sensor in the basement as it had a tendency to be cooler in the winter. If the sensor detected occupancy it would activate the HVAC system to add additional heat in the basement. Smart sensors aren’t a replacement for an actual multi-zone HVAC system, but they offer enough benefits that it’s worth looking into the smart sensor options for your particular thermostat.
We’ll be installing an Ecobee in our new smart home for the same reason but generally due to summer heat. Our guest bedrooms will be on the opposite end of the house and not occupied regularly so the use case is the same as our home in Minnesota. But with some neat new smart home automations to increase efficiency — like the use of fans as I outlined in last month’s post ‘Keep Your Cool In The Summer Heat’ or smart motorized window shades that can react to room temperature or late afternoon direct sunlight and automatically lower themselves.
Some sensors function as (and are directly marketed as) temperature and humidity sensors you add on to extend the reach of your thermostat. Several of the Ecobee smart thermostat models ship with an additional sensor, and you can pick up extras to expand the system.
The Ecobee SmartSensors not only monitor the conditions of the room, which is handy if you want to make sure a particular room stays comfortable, but also the occupancy of the home for smart home and away modes.
In other instances, the sensors are more limited but still useful. If you have a Nest thermostat, for example, every Nest smoke detector in your home also acts as an occupancy sensor. If your thermostat is in a lesser-used room it’s incredibly useful to have a sensor somewhere else that gives a more accurate insight into whether or not anybody is home.
In our new home, for example, the thermostat will be on the wall of a hallway leading to the Master Bedroom. This is definitely out of the regular flow of traffic in our new home but will conceal it from more open viewing by guests and give us a last check as we retire for the evening. But there will be sensors in the Great Room, a more heavily trafficked area and in the guest bedrooms as I described above. This will ensure that the away/home state of the thermostat is much more accurate.
You might have noticed your favorite weather app or local news station using terms like “Feels Like” or “Real Feel” when describing weather conditions. Those “Feels Like” temperature readings use variables like the actual temperature, the humidity, the wind speed, and the dew point to give you an approximation of what the weather outside actually feels like instead of just the raw temperature reading.
Some smart thermostats have a similar feature, but it works, more or less, in reverse. With the thermostat function you tell it what you want the “Feels Like” to be and it works to adjust the internal temperature and humidity of your home to match your expectation. That way, you get the feeling of 72°F on a pleasant fall day instead of 72°F on a muggy summer day.
Another great feature of smart thermostats is Time of Use Power Saving. There are several different approaches to “time of use” power-saving models available with smart thermostats. Some thermostats, like those in the Ecobee line, offer user-controlled time of use saving plans. You can enable a setting that will instruct your smart thermostat to work around the peak energy demands in your location.
For example, your thermostat might supercool your home at night to avoid running the AC when energy costs are at their peak in the middle of the day. Other thermostats, Ecobee models included, can link to your local utility company for automatic time of use adjustments and even some savings. Many utility companies offer discounted rates or even cash-back rewards for these programs, so that’s worth looking into.
Historically, it has been really difficult to track data and statistics about your HVAC system and energy usage. Old thermostats either lacked any tracking metrics at all or, if they had them, you would need to go to the thermostat and poke through menus on a little LCD display to get some basic information of limited utility.
Smart thermostats, however, offer much more sophisticated feedback. Not only do they learn and adapt quietly in the background but you can also look at reports to see if your usage is going up or down. You can also more easily correlate that data with any changes you’ve made around your home.
For example, if you put insulated blackout curtains up or purchased new windows, you can compare energy usage between two periods of the same season or even the past season to the present season with ease.
And the reports usually do some basic analysis for you, like displaying the outside temperature and conditions against your energy usage to help you determine if the reason you ran the AC so hard that week was that it was unusually hot or because there’s some issue you need to investigate.
Regarding issues to investigate, smart thermostats are much better at helping you identify problems than older models ever were. For example, if you have a Nest thermostat or a thermostat with similar functionality, it will monitor outcomes and alert you if unexpected things happen. If the thermostat is calling on the AC and running it for X hours per day, for instance, and the temperature of the home is not changing as expected, you’ll get a notice that something is wrong. Maybe the problem is easily remediated (like your kids left a door open) or maybe it’s more serious (like the coolant line has a leak).
You can also set up high and low-temperature alerts, humidity alerts, and even maintenance alerts and reminders. I can’t think of a good reason not to take advantage of the whole “better living through technology” aspect of having a smart thermostat and use these features.
While general warnings and alerts are great (and will work regardless of what kind of furnace or AC you have), there is an even more advanced feature you can take advantage of if your smart thermostat supports it.
Some thermostats support dealer integration for service alerts, where you can link your thermostat to the company that services your HVAC system. In this case, in addition to giving you a notice that something is wrong with your HVAC system, the system can also automatically forward the error report or warning to your dealer.
Rather than you having to figure out what the error means or schedule a call out to have a technician look at it in person, they can check things remotely and come better prepared to fix the problem. Even better, they can proactively alert you if a series of errors or issues appears to be foreshadowing a much bigger problem. The ‘ounce of prevention or pound of cure’ scenario where a small repair or replacement now avoids a much bigger repair later.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what smart thermostat features are right for you and your home, Everybody’s optimal setup will be different. I just love the flexibility and options available. Debbie and I already have some of our options planned but I’m curious what your ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’ might be.
Do you already have a smart thermostat? Which model? How do you like it? Would you buy it again? Did you read anything here that sounds interesting or that you’d like to try? Which ones are you already using?
Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. 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.’ Until next week …
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