Picking the right smart thermostat
Smart home technology doesn’t have to be complex or intimidating. In fact, it’s engineered to make life easier, not the other way around. And while a lot of smart electronics are geared toward convenient TV viewing and web browsing, some are far more practical.
For example, smart doorbells, door locks and security cameras are great for keeping you safe and adding peace of mind. But one of the most helpful places to install a smart home device is your heating and cooling system.
Smart thermostats come with wide varieties of features, but their purpose boils down to just a couple of points. They excel at keeping people comfortable and can lower electricity bills. The best ones can do both with minimal user input and next to no frustration or confusion. In fact, the hardest part about using a smart thermostat might just be deciding which one to buy.
How smart are smart thermostats?
Despite today’s rampant overuse of the term “artificial intelligence,” smart home devices don’t use true AI (nothing does, yet) and most aren’t all that smart. What it really means is that a device offers Wi-Fi or other wireless network connectivity, and can be programmed in depth with various complex features turned on or off. In other words, you don’t need the HAL 9000 supercomputer from “2001: A Space Odyssey” in your wall just to field commands like, “Turn on the humidifier.”
Smart thermostat safety
To install any thermostat, you’ll need to work with electrical wiring. This requires you to cut the power to a specific part of your home at the circuit breaker. If you don’t have electrical experience or just aren’t comfortable working with home wiring, that’s OK. There’s no shame in hiring a professional to do the job, which ensures you’ll get a reliable installation. After all, it can be extremely dangerous to work with electrical wiring if you’ve never done so before.
Useful smart thermostat features
The ability to adjust temperature and, in some systems, humidity, by simply talking to the thermostat is one of the most prized features. Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are the major voice assistants. If you’ve already invested in any smart home electronics, you’ve probably settled on one of those three. So, if the thermostat isn’t the first smart device in your home, make sure the one you get supports your chosen ecosystem.
Alexa was the first voice assistant with widespread adoption and there are more devices compatible with it than any other. Google Assistant is a close second, though, with the company’s world-class engineering supporting a high-functioning, user-friendly network of electronics. For complete Siri compatibility, you’ll likely need Apple HomeKit compatibility. It’s the rarest ecosystem for smart devices to support, but fans of Apple products boast that it’s often the most powerful and convenient.
If you want to control a multi-zone HVAC system or tailor the use of a single-zone setup to certain rooms, you’ll need a thermostat with remote sensor access. They’re often more than simple temperature sensors, too, as many smart HVAC sensors also detect humidity levels and simple room occupancy. That is, an advanced thermostat sensor can tell when someone walks into a room, and activate the preset environmental controls accordingly. If you have an apartment or one-story home, remote sensors won’t be as influential as they would in a large, multi-story building.
Note that if you do have a high-end, multi-zone system that can heat and cool individual rooms, that’s an extra function on top of simple remote sensor support. If that describes your HVAC system accurately, pay special attention to which thermostats support true multi-zone control.
Since true AI is off the table, you’ll have to change some settings and set pre-programmed routines yourself most of the time. Many smart home device manufacturers have their hands in all kinds of home technology, with lineups of smart lighting, speakers, cameras, thermostats and even refrigerators all connecting to the same network.
Some manufacturers leave this programmability mostly up to wider ecosystem controls, such as the Google Home app. Others, such as Wyze, offer their own highly user-friendly apps with in-depth control of a number of appliance types.
One important piece of software and programming community, called If This Then That or IFTTT, lets you connect a huge range of smart devices with third-party electronics from completely unrelated companies. With IFTTT, you can create a remarkable variety of preset programs and contingency plans between various home systems. In fact, it’s one of the most important protocols to keep in mind if you plan on integrating a large number of smart devices within your home.
Here’s where the smartest models prove how smart they really are. Instead of constantly micromanaging your home’s thermostat settings, learning algorithms allow you to set a target temperature (and sometimes humidity) and let the computer do the work. Based on whether you’re home, what time you normally wake up and adjust the temperature and what season it is, a learning thermostat can keep you comfortable without requiring you to lift a finger.
The downside to learning algorithms is that they’re rarely perfect, so you’ll still need to manage them manually from time to time. They also take a while to learn your habits and preferences, so you won’t get peak performance right away after they’re installed.
Air quality control
Science is constantly discovering new ways that pollution is bad for the human body. For that reason, high-quality indoor air filtration is more popular than ever. Advanced smart thermostats work with air quality sensors to enforce the right amount of treatment, and let you know as soon as any filters need replacing.
Precise reporting on energy usage ensures you’re getting the most for your smart home investment. It also helps you plan and experiment to improve efficiency even further. Most smart thermostats offer these reports via their mated smartphone app, computer program or email service. Some, however, can deliver daily and monthly energy reports right on the unit’s display, saving you an extra step.
Best smart thermostats
This is just about the most full-featured choice, and supports Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, in addition to the Samsung SmartThings ecosystem. Aside from thermostat duties, it can also serve as a whole-home monitoring hub when paired with the right smoke detectors and break-in alarms. There’s even an integrated microphone that adds voice control to your network without any extra speakers.
This is the simplest and most affordable smart thermostat available, and despite its price, it does a good job in adding wireless connectivity and voice control to a home HVAC system. As you might expect, though, it doesn’t support any ecosystem aside from Amazon’s or any voice assistant other than Alexa.
The algorithms it’s built around will, over time, pick up on your tendencies and automatically manage your heating and cooling to keep you comfortable with next to no active user input. It’s as easy to configure as they get and supports most major ecosystems, but not the Apple HomeKit.
Its straightforward operation and support for a large number of remote sensors make it the next best thing to a high-cost, multi-zone HVAC system. It’s easy to program and access remotely, providing in-depth control without the confusing extras of some smart devices.
It has many of the same features as its more premium relative, but without the learning algorithms that not everybody needs. It’s also confirmed to eventually support Google’s upcoming smart ecosystem, called Matter.
When equipped with the appropriate number of remote sensors, this is the best multi-zone HVAC controller for home use and it doesn’t even cost very much.
If you want to add smart functionality to an in-wall or window AC unit (for example, if you live in an apartment), this is the best way to do so. Note that it only works with models that support infrared remotes.
Owners of high-efficiency baseboard heating systems will appreciate this one, as it’s one of the rare models to support the 100-volt configuration that most such systems use.
Sold by Amazon
It can do most of the HVAC-related things the Premium version can do but costs significantly less. However, you’ll have to set up a custom IFTTT contingency to use location-based geofencing, as the feature isn’t built into the unit itself.
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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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