How to Get Started with Home Automation – Part 3: Thermostats

slide1-534b9f7617abd89c6bd8920ddc8804a7If you didn’t start automating your home with lighting, you probably started with your thermostats.  They are quite literally the moneymaker of home automation.  A smart thermostat can easily pay for itself in the first year of operation.  In fact, a cheap digital thermostat can pay for itself in the first month of operation as long as you take the time to set a schedule.

In my first house, when I was young and poor, we had a single analog thermostat.  Every day, the last person out of the house would raise or lower the temperature by hand to keep the AC or heat from running while we were gone.  It was an imperfect process and half the time we would forget to adjust it, costing us money we didn’t have.  We also had to deal with the joy of coming home to a freezing cold or scorching hot house, and then having to wait for it to heat up or cool down.

This continued for about a year, until mid summer the thermostat decided it only wanted to run the heat, all the time, at full blast.  After I hit it with a hammer in a fit of rage, I replaced it with a 5/2 digital thermostat.  The 5/2 indicates that you can set two schedules, one for Monday through Friday, and one for Saturday and Sunday when you are more likely to be around.  It also had the ability to be set to hold at a certain temperature if we were going to be home or away for an extended period of time.  From then on, we were cool when we wanted to be cool, warm when we wanted to be warm, saw a noticeable decrease in our utility bills and life was generally good.

Whether you plan to install a digital thermostat, or a smart thermostat, there are some common things to consider.  First is your price range.  Entry level wifi thermostats, such as the Honeywell RTH6580WF, are usually $75-$100.  The high end wifi thermostats, like Nest or Ecobee, are currently $199-$299.  And programmable digital thermostats with no connectivity, like this Honeywell are about $20.

The next thing you should consider is your current thermostat’s wiring.  The big deal here is the C or common wire.  If you have both heat and air conditioning, it is likely that you have a C wire, but better safe than sorry.  Remove the face plate from your existing thermostat and check your wiring.  If you only have two wires, you may need an external AC adapter or a battery operated thermostat.  Nest thermostats will run on a two wire configuration, but there is some debate about whether or not this is bad for the heating system.  I recommend that before you make a purchase, you check your wiring and then check the thermostat company’s website.  They all have interactive wiring tutorials ready to assist you.

Here are links to compatibility charts for the most commonly purchased thermostats:

Nest (click compatibility check)



Another thing to keep in mind when selecting a thermostat is whether or not you can get discounts for certain models.  Nest has a program called Nest Energy Partners that will actually pay you for letting the power company control your thermostat during peak hours.  This doesn’t mean they will shut your heat or air conditioning off, but they will be able to adjust it by a couple degrees to reduce the strain on the power grid.  Not all customers are eligible for this program, so check the Nest site before making a purchase.

You may also want to consider the style of your thermostat.  Nest rose to fame by making the thermostat pretty, as well as smart and functional.  Since the Nest is about the size of a hockey puck, it can fit in smaller spaces and doesn’t draw much attention.  Most of Honeywell’s smart thermostat’s (excluding the Lyric) are fairly large rectangular boxes up to 8.5″ x .8″ x 3.2″ in size, which is larger than an iPhone 6 Plus.  They usually either have a green backlit LCD or full color touch screen.  The ecobee3 is a stylish 4×4 black square with a full color touch screen, and is one of the only models that comes with wireless external sensors that can report the temperature in other rooms for more accurate heating and cooling.

Last, but certainly not least, if you are shopping for a new thermostat for your smart home, you should pay attention to the systems that they integrate with.  If you are building your smart home around Apple’s HomeKit, you will want to consider ecobee3, Honeywell Lyric, iDevices thermostat, or the Netatmo thermostat.  You will find that there are many more options available if you choose to build your home around more established standards like Z-wave, Zigbee or Insteon, including many Honeywell and Nest thermostats.  By the end of March 2016, all of the major players in smart thermostats will work with Alexa via Amazon Echo or Fire TV.  I highly recommend looking up the thermostats you are considering and making sure they fit into your home automation plans for the future.

There is no one size fits all solution for smart thermostats.  Many people want to claim that there is a “best” smart thermostat, but that would assume that all thermostats are suitable for all applications.  It wouldn’t make much sense to put a $200+ Nest in a cabin or seasonal rental where you just want remote control and monitoring of the temperature.  The Honeywell RTH6580WF is fantastic for rentals because it offers programmable hot and cold alerts, remote temperature control and it comes at an entry level price.  Nest is great for houses where the household has odd schedules, because it is constantly trying to figure out if anyone is home.  The Honeywell Lyric has out of the box geofencing, and can turn on the heat or air conditioning when you are a certain distance from home.  And the ecobee3 has the ability to work with multiple external sensors to keep your house more evenly heated and cooled.  Each of these may be the perfect complement to your smart home.


< Part 2: Lighting | Part 4: Coming Soon!