A Guide to Using Smart Thermostats

Someone controlling their smart thermostat using their phone.

“It’s freezing in here!” – I was conducting room audits on my college campus as a summer project RA. As I keyed into each room, I cringed and shivered at the cold air blowing through the vacated space. What a waste of energy and money to refrigerate these dorm rooms when no one is here? I grew up in China, where most homes didn’t have central air units; instead, many relied on wall-mounted AC units that were rarely used. When I moved to the US, I was shocked to find people heating and cooling their homes 24/7. 

In the past few years, smart thermostats have become popular among environmentally-conscious homeowners. With them, homeowners become more energy efficient – making the most out of their HVAC unit while saving energy and money without compromising the comfort level of their home. In fact, many smart thermostats are ENERGY STAR®-certified for their critical role in building performance. 

Since your thermostat controls almost half of your monthly energy bills, installing a smart one may be something worth looking into. Today, most manual (analog) thermostats are being phased out and replaced by systems with up-to-date technologies and higher temperature accuracies. Most homes in the US have conventional programmable thermostats; however more than half of these homeowners don’t (or don’t know how to) take advantage of the programming features. On the other hand, smart thermostats’ user-friendly interfaces, WIFI compatibility, and integrated accessories eliminate human error and auto-adjusts to learn your preferences. 

Simply put, programmable smart thermostats operate on a preset schedule, only heating or cooling spaces when and where they are occupied. Each unit is highly customizable to fit the season, climate, and user temperature preferences and daily schedules. Most smart thermostat brands come with smart phone apps that allow you to remotely control the thermostat and receive energy reports, tips, and notifications. Some even feature noteworthy technologies such as voice control, machine learning, GPS location tracking, and weather forecasting that allow them to make decisions with minimal human intervention. For example, the thermostat might predict an early arrival and turn up the heat minutes before your return so that your house is warm and ready for you. What’s more, many brands also offer demand response reward programs through your utility to help you save even more money! 

Here’s a guide to getting your own smart thermostat: 

Buy & Install 

  • Compatibility – Before you submit your order, make sure your HVAC system is compatible with the model you’d like to purchase! To do this, visit EcobeeHoneywell, and Nest compatibility check websites
  • Accessories – Some brands offer thermostat accessories like voice control mics, motion sensors, and temperature sensors that help the system detect occupancy and hot/cold spots in different parts of the home. If you have a large house with many rooms, these accessories might come in handy. 
  • App – Once you’ve installed your unit, download the smart thermostat app on your phone and register your device to be controlled remotely

Program (note: these settings may not be applicable to all smart thermostat brands.)  

  • Do Not Skip This! – If you don’t program your thermostat, you won’t be able to fully enjoy the energy efficiency and money-saving benefits of a smart thermostat. 
  • Presets – Customize your fan settings to keep the air circulating even when the AC and heating functions are off. Depending on where you live, you might also want to input your safety temperature/humidity levels (ex. if you live in a colder region, set your minimum safety temperature to ~55° F to keep your pipes from freezing; if you live in a humid region, set your maximum humidity level to ~55% to prevent mold growth). Also be sure to enable protection settings that shut off your HVAC system when carbon monoxide or smoke is detected. 
  • Comfort Settings – Let the thermostat know what temperatures you’d like your home to be when you’re at home, away, and sleeping. Oftentimes, the thermostat will ask you to input a temperature range so it can automatically cool or heat the space to stay within that range. For extra energy savings, widen the range as much as possible to relieve the cooling and heating burden on the system during the summer and winter. Some thermostats even come with eco modes or let you know when the temperatures you’ve set are environmentally friendly. 
  • Schedule – Input the times of the week you’re usually home, away, or asleep so that the correct comfort setting kicks in at the right times. You can change this anytime or enable the thermostat to make adjustments for you as it learns your routine. 
  • Vacations – Schedule in dates and times for future vacations so the thermostat will know you’re away. If you leave on a whim or come home early, you can manually make changes to override your schedule. 
  • Alerts & Reminders – Enable alerts and reminders on your smartphone or thermostat so it can notify you about a potential problem in the system, remind you to change your filters, and advise you to schedule your next maintenance appointment. 

Save More Money 

  • Heating/Cooling History – Once up and running, the system will send you reports to let you know the number of hours your HVAC system has been operating. Checking your history allows you to track down times where you can cut down on energy consumption even more. 
  • Reward Programs – Google NestEcobee, and other brands offer demand response programs that relieve grid congestion at peak demand hours by rewarding customers (ex. energy bill credit) for the seasons during which they choose to participate. 

So, are you ready to install a smart thermostat and start saving? According to Fixr, the average smart thermostat today costs between $250-$300. While these systems come with a large price tag, you will soon earn back your investment through energy bill savings that follow. Not only is this an investment that pays for itself in the long run, it’s also a worthy purchase for the convenience and environmental benefits it brings. 

This post was written by NCSEA’s Communications Fellow Stacy Chen.  

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