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Earlier this month, Google-owned Nest released an affordable smart thermostat, the $130 Google Nest Thermostat, which is available for pre-order now and will ship out on Oct. 30. It joins the ranks of the company's Google Nest Learning Thermostat and Google Nest Smart Thermostat E, but at a significantly lower price than the former and still more affordable than the latter. If you're shopping to upgrade your own home with a smart thermostat, note that it's especially worth considering as we head into winter with an eye on reducing recurrent bills and minding the air quality in our homes.
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The smart thermostat is probably one of the most useful pieces of smart home technology you can buy. Smart thermostats work with smartphone apps so that you can be on your way to the airport and still dial down your central heating, conserving energy when you’re not around. But some of the biggest savings roll in during everyday use: You can program specific times for the thermostat to automatically set back heating or cooling while you’re away or at work — which is happening less frequently as more and more Americans are working remotely as part of the national response to the coronavirus illness COVID-19 — and also when you’re asleep . Advanced thermostat models will learn your schedule over time to automatically set optimal temperatures while minimizing energy consumption. But with various thermostats options out there, which is the right one for you? We consulted technology and energy experts to suss out the best smart thermostats to shop in 2020.
SKIP AHEAD Best smart thermostats
How to shop for the best smart thermostat
The first thing you’ll want to decide is how you plan to program your smart thermostat. After all, you may be content with an Internet-connected, manual thermostat. The Honeywell Home Programmable Thermostat, for example, allows you to set temperatures using an app over Wi-Fi and is relatively more affordable than the smart thermostats we’ll be describing below.
For consistent, comfortable temperatures, however, learning smart thermostats offer the best results, argues Daniel DiClerico, a smart home strategist with home services marketplace HomeAdvisor. “Learning thermostats build your schedule of temperature changes without manual input, offering the best convenience and energy savings,” he told NBC News.
In contrast to the manual thermostat above, learning thermostats are more costly, easily clocking in at more than $200. And while some are more DIY-friendly to connect to your home’s electrical wiring, others may require a professional installation, which DiClerico mirrors their cost, averaging about $200.
How to install a thermostat: Smart thermostats and your home heating system
Always check on the thermostat brand’s site that it supports your home energy system — look for the thermostat’s requirements or compatibility sections. More complex home heating and cooling systems — such as multi-stage boilers and heat pumps or dual-fuel systems — may require a more advanced smart thermostat that supports a wider range of heating types. Electric resistance systems are only supported by a few thermostats.
You’ll also need to check for a C-wire, the so-called “common” wire, segment of some thermostat wiring systems that provides consistent power to a smart thermostat for its Wi-Fi connection and digital display — features not found on manual thermostats, says DiClerico. While some smart thermostats can technically operate without a C-wire, DiClerico recommends professionally installing a new C-wire in older homes that may not have one. “There’s a small chance that operating a smart thermostat without a C-wire could damage the home’s mechanical systems,” he says.
Potential for electric bill savings
To ensure the device you’re getting could actually help you save on electricity use, look for thermostats with the Energy Star certification, says Hannah Bastian, a research analyst with the nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. “To be certified, the thermostat has to demonstrate energy savings with data from actual homes,” Bastian notes.
And if your energy plan is based on time-of-use rates that fluctuate depending on demand —rather than typical, fixed rates — you can further trim your monthly bill by picking a smart thermostat capable of preheating during off-peak (and more affordable) periods.
Smart thermostat home compatibility
It’s important to note that not every smart thermostat works with every other smart home device. It’s only late last year that tech giants Apple, Google, Amazon and other smart home stakeholders like IKEA banded together to form the Project Connected Home over IP, which promises to create a common standard for all smart home devices.
As of right now, all you need to worry about is checking compatibility of your preferred smart thermostat with whichever major smart home system you use, be it from Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung or otherwise. “Any of the popular, well-known brands are now focused on building a universal smart home ecosystem,” explains Mitchell Klein, executive director of Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of smart device companies.
You’ll likely be using your smart thermostat for a decade or two, DiClerico projects, so it’s best to go with an established brand. Consider the software, for example. “You can be confident of getting software updates that ensure ongoing connectivity and security,” DiClerico notes.
Reach and connectivity
Finally, if you live in a larger home, look for a thermostat with remote sensors. “Remote occupancy sensors help set more accurate temperatures in different zones of the house,” Klein explains. “Say no one’s downstairs after 8 p.m. — you can de-prioritize that zone for heating, which saves you energy while keeping your environment comfortable.”
Best smart thermostats
To help you find the best thermostat for your needs, here are some of the leading options to choose from at every price point.
Best easy-to-use smart thermostat: Honeywell
If you live in an older home without a C-wire, that’s not a dealbreaker for the T9 - it comes with a C-wire power adapter that you can install alongside the thermostat. “The C-wire adapter is as good as an actual C-wire,” says DiClerico.
It uses occupancy, humidity and temperature to regulate the indoor climate, while an autochangeover mode automatically switches between heating and cooling systems. “With drastic temperature changes within a day — which you might experience in a desert climate — autochangeover maximizes the efficiency of energy use,” explains DiClerico.
The thermostat also supports additional remote sensors with a 200-foot range and capabilities like detecting temperature, occupancy and humidity to help control heating based on actual usage in different parts of the house. A seven-day heating schedule can be manually programmed to turn on and off, or you can allow the system to automatically kickstart systems when it detects your smartphone approaching. For optimal energy saving, Bastian recommends minimizing overriding and allowing smart thermostats to just do their thing.
Best all-around smart thermostat: ecobee
If you’re after something with all the bells and whistles, ecobee’s latest learning thermostat offers a ton of features in a sleek glass touch-sensitive ovoid. Built-in Alexa means it can act as a smart home hub on top of a thermostat. You can use voice commands to order the thermostat to turn up the heat or control devices other Alexa-enabled devices like smart lights or a video doorbell, as well as make calls and read messages. Support for Spotify and other streaming services — plus a built-in speaker — allow you to use it like any other fully functioning smart assistant device.
The thermostat’s built-in humidity sensor help it set energy-saving temperatures, working on the assumption that a drier atmosphere is cooler. It also comes with a remote temperature and occupancy sensor whose 60-foot range will work well for larger homes. If you’re relying on time-of-use energy, the ecobee can automatically preheat or precool the home during off-peak times, helping reduce how much you spend on electricity. Vacation and autochangeover modes boost energy efficiency when you’re out of town or during changing seasons.
Best feature-packed and stylish smart thermometer: Google Nest
For a good-looking addition to the home, consider the Nest Learning and its circular glass face in a stainless steel casing — you get a choice of seven colors. Along with smart learning capabilities and humidity sensors, its built-in activity sensor detects when people are home to adjust heating accordingly, as well. And its display comes to life when someone enters the room to show temperature or time. External sensors — available separately for $39, or $95 for a three-pack — detect temperature, allowing you to create heating zones for consistent temperatures, or to save energy in empty rooms. The Nest can be scheduled to heat or cool in low-demand times when energy costs less to answer the demands of time-of-use subscribers. And for those planning on evolving their smart homes further, there’s a whole range of Nest devices guaranteed to play nice.
Best affordable smart thermostat: Google Nest
For smaller homes, this budget-friendly take on the Nest is ideal. Though its display is plastic and simply shows the current temperature when someone enters the room, its learning capabilities match its bigger cousin’s. If it’s humid indoors, the Nest E can also activate the air-conditioning for cooler, drier air. Like the Nest, it sends smartphone alerts of sudden temperature changes, along with monthly energy usage reports. The main difference between the two: the Nest E supports less home setups than the learning thermostat so triple check your space’s compatibility before ordering this one.
Best smart thermostat for electric systems: Mysa
One of the few smart thermostats for electric baseboard and in-floor systems, the stylish Mysa plays well with Amazon, Google, Apple and Samsung smart home hubs. You can program your own heating schedule or let the app set up a schedule based on your answers to questions about routine and preferences. Along with an eco mode that automatically sets energy-saving temperatures, the app can also chart energy consumption to show you possible areas of improvement.
The thermostat tracks humidity and temperature and can turn the heater on and off based on whether it detects your smartphone. You’ll need multiple thermostats to control electric heaters in different rooms — in this case, you can group them in zones that receive the same temperature adjustments.
Best affordable smart thermostat with sensor add-on: ecobee
Another learning thermostat that’s great for smaller homes as a standalone unit, the ecobee3 lite supports remote sensors that detect occupancy as well as temperature, allowing it to automatically turn off heating or cooling in empty rooms - which ups its convenience factor.
Like the Nest E, it can work with air conditioning to lower indoor humidity in the absence of a dehumidifier, while monthly reports show energy use compared to neighbors. Where the Nest E works with Amazon, Google and Samsung smart home systems, the ecobee3 lite additionally integrates with Apple’s HomeKit. The deciding factor could be how well you get on with the smartphone app, says Bastian, who recommends consumers test thermostat apps to see which interfaces suit them best.
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