What is a Wi-Fi Thermostat?
A Wi-Fi thermostat—also known by the names smart thermostat or wireless thermostat—is a temperature-regulating device that comes with the added feature of internet connection. Instead of simply being a regular thermostat that hangs on the wall, it has a built-in wireless receiver that connects it to your home’s Wi-Fi system. Thanks to this wireless connection, you’re able to control all of the thermostat’s features via your smartphone, tablet, or even computer.
The thermostat has its own IP address (like any other internet-connected device), which allows you to access the device’s controls via the internet. In addition to the various built-in features—which often far exceed the features of a regular thermostat—the device often collects, stores, and transmits data that can help you to monitor and regulate your energy usage.
Some smart thermostats are able to do amazing things like adjust your HVAC system according to the weather of your city or use computer algorithms to “learn” your temperature preferences. The goal behind these devices is to eliminate the need for you to get up to adjust your thermostat, eventually possibly even eliminating the need for manual programming altogether.
Benefits of a Wi-Fi Thermostat
There are many things that make Wi-Fi thermostats very useful:
Keep a close eye on your home while you’re away. We all have those moments when we can’t remember if we switched off the stove or turned off the HVAC unit when we left the house. Rather than having to drive home or ask a neighbor to pop in, a Wi-Fi thermostat allows you to ensure the thermostat is switched off even if you’re away from home.
This is particularly useful for people who travel frequently. You’ll be able to simply log onto the app and check to make sure the HVAC unit in your home is off. You won’t ever have to wonder if you forgot to turn the heater/AC off because you can check it from anywhere in the world. All you need is a reliable Wi-Fi connection, and the mobile app, and you can access your Wi-Fi connected thermostat in seconds.
No need to stand up. There are few things more challenging than forcing yourself to get out of bed on a freezing cold winter morning to turn on the heater. With a Wi-Fi thermostat, you don’t have to! You can simply reach for your smartphone and switch the thermostat on from the comfort of your bed.
Too hot to relax and enjoy the Super Bowl, World Cup, or NBA Playoffs but don’t want to miss a moment of the big game? Simply reach for your phone to crank up the AC without getting up from your couch or leaving your man cave. Thanks to the Wi-Fi connection, you can adjust your thermostat from anywhere in the house without having to move from your comfortable position.
Quick and easy programming. Smart thermostat manufacturers realize how tough it can be to learn the User Interface (UI) of new devices, so they build their apps to be as user-friendly as possible. The app UIs are intended to help you find what you need with the least amount of effort.
Not only will you have an easier time finding the basic controls (turn the heater up or crank the AC to cool your home faster), but you’ll be able to master programming features much more easily. Everything is done via digital controls, so it’ll be a cinch to punch in a few numbers, set the timer, and adjust the programming from your smartphone.
“Smart” learning. This is one of the greatest benefits of a smart device! These thermostats are programmed with algorithms that will learn your daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly habits. Eventually, they’ll collect enough user data that they’ll be able to predict your preferences and automate the heating and cooling for you.
Learning thermostats (like ecoBee and Nest, among them) will learn your schedule, track the daily weather forecast, and monitor your preferences. They can even monitor your location (via the GPS in your app) to switch on the heat/cooling before you get home or shut it off automatically when you leave. It will make your life much easier and require far less direct input from you as it learns your habits and preferences.
Monitor efficiency. The goal of these smart thermostats isn’t just to make you more comfortable and to reduce work, but also to save energy. They’re designed to maximize the efficiency of your HVAC unit so you can get the best possible cooling/heating with the lowest possible energy consumption.
Most Wi-Fi thermostats will monitor your energy use when heating/cooling your home, and they will often make recommendations of what you can do to improve energy efficiency. They may even be able to alert you if the air filter is dirty, the refrigerant is running low, the condenser coils are clogged, or a window is open. These devices will help you to enhance energy efficiency and thereby save on energy costs.
A “smarter” home overall. Thanks to the Wi-Fi connection, you will usually be able to integrate your smart thermostat with other home automation devices and whole-home automation systems. This integration will make it easier for you to remotely control your thermostat along with your smart lights, home security system, Wi-Fi garage door opener, and all other smart home systems.
The goal behind a “smart” home is convenience, enhanced security, and more energy efficiency. With a Wi-Fi thermostat, you’ll focus mostly on keeping energy costs low while making sure your home is as warm/cool as you want.
Is a Wi-Fi Thermostat a Worthwhile Investment?
A lot of people balk when they see the price tag on smart Wi-Fi thermostats. With prices ranging from $150 to $500 (yep, the highest-end Ecobee can be pricey!), of course it’s a larger initial expense than they might like.
But the question is: is it worth the cost? Are you going to save money in the long run by investing in a smart thermostat?
The answer is an unequivocal yes!
According to the EPA, using a programmable thermostat can save you around $180 per year on energy usage. The EPA makes very clear that it will only work through “proper use of pre-programmed settings”, and particularly for people who spend hours away from home every day. However, they recommend using a programmable thermostat on their primary “Energy Savings at Home” page on the website.
One Lifehacker was able to use the data he collected via his thermostat (and other home devices) to monitor consumption. With a smart Wi-Fi thermostat, you’ll be able to monitor data to find out when you use the most energy (which months, what time of day, etc.). Then, you’ll be able to find ways to cut energy use—in this Lifehacker’s case, he went with running fans, turning off heat-generating electronics, and opening windows to generate a cooling breeze during the heat of summer. Having that raw data is particularly useful after a year or two so you can see energy use trends.
The people at Nest compared energy bills for people in 41 states, and evaluated their energy consumption before and after they purchased a Nest Learning Thermostat. They found that Nest saved up to 15% on home cooling (during the hotter months) and 10-12% on home heating (during the colder months). They estimated an average yearly savings of $131 to $145—slightly less than the EPA’s estimate, but still excellent in terms of saving.
Nest published the white paper documenting their research, including a breakdown of their analysis. They even compared the average savings according to the type of energy used:
- For natural gas users, energy savings were anywhere from 7.5 to 11.7%
- For electricity users, energy savings ranged from 14.6 to 20.4%
Not bad, right? If using a smart thermostat can cut your electric bill back by even just 10% per month, that’s enough to justify the expense for sure! By this calculation, the Nest (or any smart thermostat) would pay for itself within two years. Over the course of your lifetime, you’d see significant energy savings thanks to the programmable, learning features of a Wi-Fi thermostat.
Of course, there are a number of factors that will affect your energy efficiency (and savings) using a smart thermostat:
- Your usage. If you’re already trying your best to be energy-efficient with your thermostat, you may not see drastic savings because you’re close to optimal use of your HVAC system. However, if you’re the sort of person that leaves the heater or AC running all day long even when you’re out and about, prepare to see some significant savings!
- Cost of utilities. The amount you save each year will depend on the cost of natural gas and electricity in your area. The energy expenditure won’t change, simply how much you pay for that energy.
- HVAC system. If your HVAC system has a leak, isn’t installed efficiently, or is in dire need of maintenance, using a smart thermostat will be like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. These savings will be realized if your HVAC system is running at maximum efficiency.
- Your home. If your home isn’t weatherproofed, you’re still going to end up wasting a lot of energy to heat or cool it no matter how smart your thermostat is.
- Climate. If you live in a place where air conditioning or heating isn’t required, your energy savings will be much smaller simply because you require the use of far less energy to keep your home cool or warm.
- Seasonal variations – Some years you’ll get a mild winter or summer, while other years may be marked by heat waves and drastic cold fronts. You’ll have to crank up the AC or heater to deal with these extremes, which will use more energy.
Let’s just say that on average a smart thermostat will slash your energy costs. Definitely worth the expense if you ask us!
Can You Use Multiple Smart Thermostats?
Yes, you can!
Homes with multiple thermostats can be upgraded using Wi-Fi thermostats to control the various zones in your house. You can replace one of the thermostats with a smart device, or replace all of your home thermostats if you so desire.
Most smart thermostats are designed to connect to each other (via the mobile app and Wi-Fi) so you can use more than one thermostat to regulate the temperature in every part of your home.
Do Wi-Fi Thermostats Work with Zoned Systems?
If your home has a “zoned system”— a single HVAC system with multiple thermostats the control the distribution of hot/cold air to the various parts of the house—you’ll find that most smart Wi-Fi thermostats are able to control the zoned systems.
Be warned: you’ll need to install multiple thermostats in each zone in order to control the heating/cooling for that area. However, if you refer to the previous section, you’ll find that the thermostats can link up, so you’ll control all of them from the same device.
Using multiple thermostats for a zoned system will give you total control of the HVAC unit from your mobile device. However, if you want to start with just one smart thermostat to try it out (as recommended by Nest), you should set it in the central location (living room) so it can start learning your habits.
DIYing Your Thermostat Installation
Now comes the tricky part: installing the thermostat!
Unfortunately, smart thermostats aren’t just “plug and play” devices. You have to do some electrical work to connect the thermostat to your wiring, and you’ll likely need to install the mount to your wall before attaching the device.
If you’re not the world’s handiest person, you’ll be glad to know that many smart thermostat manufacturers offer installation. Nest, for example, charges $99 to $250 for the installation of the thermostat (depending on location and the complexity of the HVAC system). Prices may increase if you want to change the location of the thermostat, need new wiring, or have more complicated systems (like whole-home humidifiers/dehumidifiers of dual-fuel hybrid systems).
You can often find an electrician to do the work a bit cheaper—between $50 to $100, depending on labor costs in your city.
But if you want to DIY the installation, you’ll find that it’s a fairly simple step-by-step process:
Step 1: Shut off the power to the HVAC system (done at the circuit or fuse box) and switch off the old thermostat.
Step 2: Remove the thermostat, but leave the wall plate connected. The wall plate will have all of the connections so you can see which wire goes where. Make sure to label each of the wires NOT according to color (unimportant in this case) but according to the letter designation of its terminal. Most thermostats have pre-printed labels that make it clear which wire goes where. (If necessary, take a picture of the wall plate with its connected wires so you’ve got a reference once everything is disconnected.)
Step 3: Disconnect the wires from their terminals and remove the plastic wall plate. Make sure the wires don’t slip back into the wall—you can secure them by wrapping them around a pen/pencil or use tape to stick them to the wall.
Step 4: Mount the new thermostat’s wall plate. You may be able to use the existing screw holes from your old thermostat, or you may need to drill new ones. Use a bubble level to ensure the thermostat is level. Make sure to feed the wires through the hole in the wall plate BEFORE you fasten the plate to the wall.
Step 5: Connect the wires to their terminals according to their letters (or the instructions included in the thermostat’s package). Follow the instructions carefully to make sure you’re connecting the thermostat correctly—it may not work if you don’t, or you could be risking electrical problems if it’s incorrectly wired.
Step 6: Put batteries (if needed) into the new thermostat and clip it onto the wall plate. Switch on the thermostat, restore power to your HVAC unit, and follow the manufacturers’ instructions to begin using your new smart thermostat.
The electrical wiring is obviously the most complicated part of the process, so make sure you’ve got it right!
Smart Thermostats: Now With Voice Control?
Some select smart thermostats are compatible with voice-controlled devices like Amazon’s Echo. Nest has made the thermostat able to connect to your Echo, which allows you to adjust your thermostat using Alexa.
Tom’s Guide has a very useful walkthrough on how to connect your new Nest thermostat to your Echo, a process that is wonderfully easy and user-friendly.
With Alexa, you’ll be able to remote-control your thermostat not only from your smartphone, but from anywhere in the house where Alexa can pick up the sound of your voice. You’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, raise the temperature by X degrees” or “Alexa, turn up the heating by X degrees”, and your Echo will do the work of adjusting your smart thermostat.
Talk about a smarter home!