Smart Thermostat Systems. There is a lot of noise today in the news about the hacking of the “Internet of things”.  And many people immediately think that smart thermostats have to be connected to the Internet. They can and there are many new tools to keep your home secure. This is so only you can get into it. We will review some ways of keeping your connected home safe at the end of this post.

First of all, smart thermostats certainly aren’t cheap. They can have a $200-$300 price tag. And that can make one wonder why you would replace your currently functioning “dumb” thermostat with a smart thermostat.

Smart Thermostat Pros and Cons:

We will start our discussion by talking about the Pros, Advantages, Benefits, and Features of Smart Thermostats

Smart Thermostat Systems Saves Energy

The primary reason for the smart thermostat innovation is to promote more efficient energy usage. It doesn’t only save dollars on the average residential fuel bills.  Some energy suppliers also provide incentives for time-shifting energy consumption, encouraging less use during the day and more usage at night.  These thermostats can be set to conform to these incentive plans, further augmenting your energy savings.

Smart Thermostat Systems Increases Comfort

This is because these digital devices offer, by default, a smaller temperature differential (the temperature that the unit turns off the furnace, minus the turn-on temperature).  Most models have a 1-degree temperature differential. This means that when it is set to maintain the room at 71 degrees, the furnace comes on when that falls to 70.5 degrees, and turns off when it rises to 72.5 degrees.  Older, mechanically-based thermostats typically have a three to five-degree differential.  Smart/programmable thermostats, however, minimize these temperature swings with their tight differentials.  Many models allow you to adjust the temperature differential as well.

Can be Monitored and Controlled Remotely

The Internet-enabled smart/thermostats can be accessed and manipulated from anywhere, on the internet via a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or another computer.  This means you control the setting of the current temperature. Plus the scheduling of future temperature changes. This technology also allows you to see what the current temperature in your home is, as well as check the proper operation of your climate control system.

Keeps Track of Furnace Maintenance Needs

Most smart thermostats count how many hours the furnace has run since the last time the filter was changed. They also note how long it’s been since the media pad in a central humidifier was replaced. Not to mention how long it’s been since the last maintenance check by a qualified technician.  Alerts (either via beeps, texts, or emails) can then be issued after settable times, to let you know that it’s time to change the filter or have your furnace checked.  With older manual thermostats, you have to remember when to call the tech.  Programmable units offload this work from you, and simply notify you that the work should be done.

You Might Want to Consider Smart Thermostats If…

  •  You don’t own any other smart home technology; at least you can control the temperature remotely at work or on vacation.
  • You want to save money.  Smart thermostats generally pay for themselves after the first two years.  That means an average of $145 annual savings.
  • Your local utility company will give you a rebate.  Give your utility company a call to see if you can get any money back for installing a programmable/smart thermostat.
  • You want to customize the heating and cooling of each room in a way that makes sense for you.  Certain models of smart thermostats have remote sensors that can measure temperature and humidity. The sensors monitor which rooms you use the most to make sure it heats/cools the areas where you spend your time.  Smart thermostats have advanced technology. They can learn from your habits and adapt the temperature to save you money.  With a smart thermostat, the data on the apps you to check how much you are spending (or saving).

Smart Thermostat Cons:

Now, to be fair, let’s look at the Cons, Disadvantages, Limitations, and Problems associated with smart thermostats

Smart Thermostats Cost More to Buy

The conventional, non-programmable thermostats typically cost less than thirty dollars, while the programmable digital versions, even introductory models, typically could cost well over a hundred dollars.  However, climate control via computer scheduling can quickly return the initial investment, in significantly lower energy bills. And if you are concerned about hacking – it is still possible to get a setback programmable smart thermostat that is not connected to the Internet

Smart Thermostat Programming Can be Complex

Many complain that smart thermostats are difficult to learn how to use.  Indeed, many families that live in homes equipped with them do not actually use the scheduling temperature adjustments feature, because they do not learn how to do it.  Many resist learning how to use devices like these because they might be afraid of breaking something, or they simply wish not to “waste the time,” reading through the manual.

You Might Want to Avoid Smart Thermostats If…

  • You already have a programmable thermostat.  If you’re already using a programmable thermostat scheduled to change the temperature at certain times of the day, then you are already saving money.  A smart thermostat will just help you find ways to save even more by monitoring your usage, but you may not see significant savings compared to your programmable thermostat.
  • Your home isn’t compatible.  You will have to determine if your HVAC system will work with a smart thermostat.  Check out each manufacturer to see what types of HVAC systems are compatible.
  • You do not want to “teach technology”.  Since smart thermostats learn a schedule based on your programming, the first week while using a smart thermostat will require a bit of work from you.  It typically means “tweaking” the air to different comfort levels at different times of the day.  Skipping this step might lead to frustration with a smart thermostat.
  • If you feel weird about the idea of a smart thermostat technology provider knowing when you are home or away by what temperature it is in your home, you may not want to make the switch to a smart thermostat.

Smart Thermostat Technical Considerations

In line with the last item above, although you may not think about it, constantly-connected devices like thermostats, NAS devices, TVs, kitchen appliances, and home automation systems pass data to and from the internet all the time.  These gadgets fondly called the “internet of things,” like other internet-connected devices, are vulnerable to the rest of the world.  That means you should take a few precautions before you set any of them up including your smart thermostat.

You should never connect your smart thermostat/appliances to the internet without a firewall.  Most of us have a router at home that acts as a firewall by performing network address translation (NAT).  In simple terms, the router sends traffic that’s meant for a device to that device and drops traffic that’s unexpected, unwanted, or specifically malicious.  Most of us would never imagine connecting our computers directly to the internet without protecting our routers. Or at least having some kind of firewall in place to block malicious traffic and port scans.  There’s no reason you should assume that the tiny computer in your new smart thermostat is any different.  It may not store sensitive or personal information, but if it’s also on your home network, there’s no reason not to keep it behind your home router or firewall.

Passwords and Security

With any device, you should definitely use strong passwords to protect it, but you should still keep it locked down and behind a firewall, preferably with port forwarding configured so you can access them externally as needed.

Always check for firmware and security updates, and do it regularly.  The first thing you should do when you unpack and plug in that new internet-connected smart thermostat is check for firmware updates.  There’s likely been an update that offers security updates and feature improvements, and it may even contain some critical patches necessary to use it safely online.  Check the manufacturer’s website and look around for instructions to connect and update your device.  Even if there are no updates, at ­least you’ll know how to do it. And you can check back regularly to see when a security update has been posted.

Bugs and Network

With the severity of certain bugs like Shellshock and Heartbleed, one of the big problems uncovered was that many internet-connected devices like your smart thermostat are never monitored or updated.  They may be an “embedded” system that performs specific functions, without being checked until they break.  Learning how to regularly check for updates, even if your device doesn’t do it for you, will keep your inves­tment secure and at its peak performance.

A VPN, or virtual private network, gives you the ability to securely connect to your home network from afar.  While VPNs encrypt the information going to and from your smart thermostat, or any device for that matter, you can also use one to create a private connection between you and a trusted network (i.e., your home network). This is so you can turn the thermostat up or down without worrying that the rest of the internet can do the same thing.  This way you can open your smart thermostat/appliance up to your home network and not the internet at large. But still, access it from anywhere by logging in to your home network through your VPN.

So You Want a Smart Thermostat

If you are still with us at this point, it is safe to assume that you seriously want to have the benefits of a smart thermostat. Let’s take a look at some of the top features of smart thermostats. That way, you might pick out one that’s best suited to your needs.

System or Not?

Is a smart thermostat is going to be all you need? Then you don’t need to worry much about what wireless protocol it works on. Or what automation services have designed drivers for it.

Remote Access  

One of the main reasons people want smart thermostats is so they can adjust the temperature remotely. Wi-Fi thermostats let you control temperature over the internet via an app.  That same feature can save you money on those times you forgot to adjust the temperature to an economical setting before you left the house.  If remote access is all you really need, then you don’t necessarily have to go with an expensive model.  Many smart thermostats offer this same access, and some are a lot less expensive than others.

Scheduling and Programming

If your interest in a smart thermostat is to save you from the onerous task of programming an otherwise dumb thermostat, then there are some features you should look for.  The “Nest” (Google), for example, is famous for learning your heating and cooling preferences and then essentially programming itself.  With Honeywell’s Lyric, you can set up a virtual perimeter around your house. When the thermostat detects that you’ve left (actually, that your connected smartphone has left) the vicinity, it automatically goes into away mode. And furthermore, it will adjust the temperature.  Both systems, and others like it, have their pros and cons. The biggest con is that if you have a very irregular schedule, then your system will probably have trouble accommodating you.

Motion Sensors

Several smart thermostats include motion detection capabilities as an added way to figure out if anyone’s home.  These can come in handy. However, could also be a disadvantage if the thermostat is in a location you don’t walk by frequently.

All in all, the advantages of a smart thermostat appear to outweigh its disadvantages if installed properly.

Remember, You Can Call Us!

 If interested in a smart thermostat, be sure to hire an installer like Proudfoot Plumbing, Heating and Air that is familiar with these products and their installation.  Proudfoot, your favorite Pittsburgh plumbing company, has the necessary experience installing and servicing them.  Please give us a call at 1-888-461-2198 or Contact us.  We will be glad to help out and/or make recommendations for you on the installation and maintenance of your new smart thermostat.

Image Credits – Adobe Stock

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