During the long and complicated quest to make a house green and sustainable, homeowners are often faced with options they do not entirely understand. Take the concept of the smart thermostat, as a prime example. What is it? How does it differ from the programmable thermostats that have been used for decades? Are users (and the environment) really reaping any benefits from these costlier units?
Since 2007, when ecobee introduced the world to the first real smart thermostat, consumers have wrestled with the idea of replacing the wall-mounted units they have become used to using with a more complicated device. With any new technology, it is important to pick apart its many facets to ensure it works as advertised. However, smart thermostats have been around long enough for there to be sufficient data of their perks and effects on energy consumption.
How Do Smart Thermostats Work?
Before getting too deep into what a smart thermostat can do for a home, it may help to understand what it does and how it works. Digital Trends describes basic smart thermostats in the simplest terms, as a unit “that can be controlled with a phone, tablet, smart speaker, or other Internet-connected devices.” To adjust the heating and cooling in a home, smart thermostats, much like programmable or traditional ones, use temperature to gauge when it should run a fan or turn heating and cooling off. Based on the interior temperature and the desired temperature, the unit will switch individual components on and off.
Smart thermostats are very similar to programmable models, though they also integrate Wi-Fi that gives the user another means of adjusting the temperature. Using an integrated app or compatible skill on Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, users can raise or lower the temperature without being home. The smart thermostat will receive the new programming via the Wi-Fi network and change accordingly.
There are many helpful elements to smart thermostats, which is what elevates the concept from the standard thermostat. The question is, though, just how “smart” are these components?
How "Smart" are Smart Thermostats?
Average, lower-cost smart thermostats, like the Sensi Smart Thermostat (UP500W), are going to run just over $100. More expensive, feature-rich models like the ecobee4, carry a price tag of over $200. Compared to standard programmable thermostats, that’s about a $75 to $100 difference in price, which may make consumers wonder just how “smart” a smart thermostat is to justify the drastic cost increase.
What may be the most appealing feature of a smart thermostat is the ability to control it from a mobile device or tablet. That means homeowners don’t have to rely on neighbors ever again when they forget to turn down the heat while on a family vacation. It may be the core feature that all smart thermostats tout, but some options, like the Honeywell Home Smart Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat, can also link up to local weather information to display outdoor humidity and temperature.
Nest’s Learning Thermostat takes the notion of “smart” quite literally. After a period of frequent and steady use, the thermostat is able to learn heating and cooling patterns. Using information compiled over days and weeks of use, the thermostat will alter the temperature based on behavior patterns. Intuitive technology, like the Learning Thermostat, offers homeowners the freedom to forget about their heating and cooling needs while remaining energy efficient.
Maybe most crucial to homeowners looking for a green solution to managing heating and cooling, many smart thermostats provide energy data. Knowing how energy is being used and when the peak use is for heating and cooling can help fine-tune conservation and determine any instances of waste.
An Important Tool to Promote Energy Efficiency and Comfort
Homeowners that fill their residences with energy-efficient appliances and stock up on LED lighting will want to consider smart thermostat technology as another means of “going green.” While it is true that the thermostat is at its best when the user engages its features, smart thermostats, especially those that learn usage patterns, are important for energy efficiency.
According to Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that focuses on climate solutions, it is estimated that 9% of all energy consumption in the United States is from residential heating and cooling. Drawdown claims that if approximately 60% of all households owned a smart thermostat, it would reduce 7.0-7.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. Those same homeowners would also benefit from upwards of $2.1 trillion collectively in savings on utility bills over the lifespan of the thermostat.
Along with helping reduce the carbon footprint of humanity, consumers that use smart thermostats should start to see a reduction in monthly energy costs. The Energy Department states that homeowners can save 10% a year on energy use just by changing their normal temperature by 7°-10° for only eight hours a day. Using a smart thermostat makes this easier to accomplish, even when nowhere near home.
Smart thermostats also give utility companies a direct link to a home’s HVAC system. Models that feature “smart grid” support or are “grid-responsive” can alter usage based on peak hour data provided by the electric company. When electricity is most expensive, the thermostat will reduce HVAC use to save consumer’s money.
Smart thermostats are effective in making homeowners more proactive in their push for energy efficiency. They provide a user-friendly implement that can be accessed virtually anywhere, where running on data or WiFi. Many units also feature geofencing, which triggers the thermostat when a user is close to the home. Geofencing adjusts the temperature to match the user’s preferences. Nest’s “Home/Away Assist” links to a specific device a activates if that device’s cell or Wi-Fi signal is nearby. Features like “Home/Away Assist” a thermostat for kicking on the HVAC system when the home is empty.
Are the Savings Really There?
After spending upwards of $245 on a smart thermostat, homeowners will want to see the investment pay off. While some opportunity for savings is up to the user properly utilizing the smart thermostat, some unit features directly relate to saving money on utility bills while reducing energy consumption.
According to a Nest Labs white paper from 2015, homeowners can save approximately $131-145 a year. Similar data from ecobee supports the presence of savings, though the Canadian home automation company claims that United States’ customers “saved up to 23% on their heating and cooling costs.” Honeywell’s Resideo Technologies even has an Energy Savings Calculator to help customers understand how much a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat will save based on specific weekly schedules.
Within two years, the unit has paid for itself. Everything after is cash in hand that would otherwise be spent on utilities. While the annual savings may not be astronomical, the return and additional environmental benefits of smart thermostats make them worthy investments.
Smart thermostats are just one component in
the worldwide effort to go green. Though they may cost more than traditional
programmable thermostats, smart options can reduce a household’s emissions
while providing the owner savings over years of use. A multitude of options
make it easier to find a model that best suits specific needs, but all smart
thermostats are helpful in the efforts to make a home energy efficient.
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