Can smart thermostats save you money?

June 12, 2020

Can smart thermostats save you money this summer? How smart are they really?

A Nest smart thermostat.

In Texas, a good portion of our electric bill comes from running our HVAC systems, either heating or cooling our homes.  As the summer begins to crank up the heat, Texans need all the help we can get to cool our houses without breaking the bank. But can smart thermostats save you money? How smart are they really? We'll compare them to traditional thermostats and put them to the test, so read on!

How do regular thermostats work?

Thermostats have been around for a while now, and like most things, they have gone through a variety of changes over the years. 

If you have an older home, or have ever lived in an older apartment unit, you've probably experienced bi-metal coil thermostat systems. These were quite common, and featured a fairly basic design.

"Bi-metal coil" refers to a thermostat with a small, coiled piece of metal that expands and contracts as the air temperature changes. This coil is connected to a vile of mercury that tips back and forth when the coil expands, which flips the switch, turning your AC on or off. 

Because these types of thermostats are simple in design, they give no real options for programming. This means that once you set the temperature, it stays there until you change it. 

Most newer thermostats are completely electronic. They don't contain mechanical moving parts at all. They have electronic sensors that connect to a computer, which controls whether or not the HVAC system turns on or off. While not every electronic thermostat is programmable, many of them are, giving you a huge advantage over more basic designs, provided you make use of them. 

How do smart thermostats work?

Smart thermostats are electronic, but they generally come with quite a few more bells and whistles beyond the ability to program a schedule. 

What makes them "smart"? 

The difference between a smart thermostat and a regular electronic programmable thermostat is the software used to control it. Smart thermostats connect to your Wi-Fi, which gives you the ability to connect to them and control them from pretty much anywhere using your smartphone.

They also typically come with sensors that measure things beyond just hot and cold air temperature. For example, they may have motion sensors to detect when you're home and adjust accordingly. Some even feature humidity sensors, and can be connected to smoke alarms and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide detectors, too.

These additional sensors, like the the motion sensor, help the smart thermostat learn your routines. By learning when you are home and when you're out of the house, they are able to refine their schedule without you having to remember to set it, ensuring that your HVAC system isn't working when it doesn't need to. Certain brands can even use their connection with your smartphone to keep track of when you're home and away.

Finally, some smart thermostats give you the ability to look at your heating and cooling data over time, and even compare it to other such thermostats in your area. This can help you monitor your energy usage and make adjustments when possible. 

App and smart device integration

In addition to the ability to accurately refine the heating and cooling schedule, smart thermostats benefit from integration with apps on your smartphone. Most smart thermostats have their own proprietary app, which come with a range of features, such as monitoring and controlling the temperature remotely as well as altering the schedule. Many of these apps also track your energy use and can give you monthly or weekly reports.
You can even potentially pair your smart thermostat with other smart home or IoT (Internet of Things) devices. For example, you could set it up and control it with one of your smart home controllers, like Alexa or Google Home. This allows you to set up complex routines that make use of all sorts of things. You could set a night time routine, which powers down all of the lights, sets an alarm, and adjusts the thermostat to your perfect sleeping temperature, all with a simple voice command. 

How do they compare to normal programmable thermostats?

There is no comparison between a smart thermostat and an older, mechanical one, such as the bi-metal coil version we outlined previously. Without the ability to create a schedule, you have very little flexibility and thus, you're HVAC system isn't nearly as efficient. 

The real comparison is between a more modern programmable thermostat and a smart one. When you get down to it, the real benefit to having a smart thermostat is that you can optimize energy used for your heating and cooling without really having to do much. Many of us don't take advantage of our thermostat's scheduling function because, let's face it, it's kind of a hassle.

After reading through pages of instructions, you have to establish an initial schedule, pay attention to how it feels throughout the day, and constantly make adjustments. Even then, you may not be as precise as a smart thermostat. 

The combination of learning and measuring methods that are possible with a smart thermostat means you are being incredibly efficient, all without having to remember how all those buttons work.

So which one saves you more money?

If you're currently stuck with an older bi-metal (or otherwise unprogrammable) system, you're going to save money whether you choose a programmable thermostat or a smart thermostat. The ability to conserve energy when you don't need it can save you a significant amount of cash annually

If you like the idea of having remote temperature control and monitoring, and if you like the concept of connecting your thermostat to your larger smart home system, then there's no doubt about it - a smart thermostat is the best choice. 

However, a smart thermostat is only going to save you more money if you don't already make good use of your standard programmable system. Sure, there may be a few dollars saved here and there, but if you have your standard thermostat perfectly programmed, it won't be a lot. 

But if you're tired of trying to figure out how to do that, or simply don't want to spend the time to tweak it constantly, a smart thermostat is a great option. 

How much does a smart thermostat cost?

This greatly depends on what exactly you're looking for from your thermostat. They can range from as little as $79 (like the Honeywell Lyric T5) to $249 (like the 3rd Generation Nest). As the case often is, the more you're willing to spend, the more features you gain access to. 

More basic systems still provide the ability to connect to Wi-Fi, giving you the ability to control and schedule remotely. However, the low price usually comes at the cost of integration with other smart home systems. For example, more inexpensive models may not function well, or at all, with Amazon Alexa or Google Home Assistant. 

More expensive units often come with the ability to expand motion sensors to other rooms, like the Ecobee4, and support geofencing to detect when you're home using your smartphone. They can also support more advanced HVAC systems, such as two-stage air conditioners, and some even connect to humidifiers and dehumidifiers.

In conclusion...

When it comes to saving money on your electricity bill, smart thermostats can be a good investment. However, because of the initial upfront cost, it's usually only best to purchase one if you plan on staying at your current residence for a few years, as it might take that long for it to pay for itself. 

At the end of the day, the ease of use and ability to pair your thermostat with other devices makes a smart thermostat a great choice. However the energy savings aren't much different than what you can expect when properly using a standard programmable thermostat. Your choice will ultimately depend on your individual needs and preferences. 

A Nest smart thermostat displaying 74 degrees

Having a good programmable thermostat can save you a bundle on your energy bill. Germania Insurance can save you a bundle your home insurance! Request a free quote online or reach out to one of our trusted agents today!

Read More: Smart thermostats are part of the wide world of smart home devices that make life easier! But are they safe from hackers? Learn how to keep hackers out of your smart home and Internet of Things devices!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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