Why Buy a Programmable Thermostat?
The top performers in our review are Nest Learning Thermostat, the Gold Award winner; eccobee3, the Silver Award winner; and ecobee Smart Si, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a programmable thermostat to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
The average household spends thousands of dollars each year on energy bills, and half of that money typically goes toward heating and cooling empty homes. In other words, you may be spending too much to heat and cool your home while wasting energy in the process. If your energy bills are overwhelming, a programmable thermostat is a great way to cut costs.
In general, programmable thermostats interact with the heating and cooling systems in your home. In the summer, programmable thermostats work with central air conditioning units to keep you cool. Likewise, they control your furnace in the winter to provide relief from freezing temperatures.
Sometimes, manufacturers include home automation functionality in Wi-Fi thermostats so they can communicate with popular smart home devices. For example, a connected smart lock can activate away mode when you lock the door, an IP camera can send you a video clip when someone adjusts the temperature, and a fitness tracker can send a signal to adjust the temperature while you are sleeping.
Programmable thermostats all have one thing in common: They let you schedule when to heat or cool your home. This feature allows the best programmable thermostats to reduce utility bills and extend the lifespan of your heating and cooling equipment. For more information, read our articles on programmable thermostats.
Programmable Thermostats: What We Tested, What We Found
As we evaluated programmable thermostats, we focused on two main considerations. Specifically, we looked at comfort control and energy management, and the best programmable thermostats in our review strike a balance between the two. We installed all of the thermostats we reviewed using the same HVAC system. This helped us determine how difficult it is to DIY-install each one. We downloaded all of the apps to determine how quickly the thermostats connected to Wi-Fi, how easy they were to use, and how effectively they control the temperature and comfort level in the home.
If you are like many people, the prospect of installing a programmable thermostat yourself is intimidating. There is certainly nothing wrong with opting to have a professional install it for you. In fact, some manufacturers require you to use a professional, at least if you want to get maximum warranty benefits. For the most part, however, you are free to install the thermostat yourself, and doing so is usually straightforward.
Most manufacturers provide helpful installation tutorials on their websites and YouTube channels to help you overcome any obstacles you may run into when installing your thermostat. Such tutorials take you through the process step by step. It's a good idea to consult the manual and video tutorials to ensure you connect the wires to the correct ports; you don't want to be liable for damaging the thermostat or your home's wiring if you install it incorrectly. You also need to confirm there are no stipulations in the warranty agreement. One thermostat in our lineup, the Carrier Cor, offers a five-year warranty if you have the thermostat professionally installed but only covers the device for three years if you do it yourself.
Most of the thermostats were easy to install and started up within a few minutes of installation. On average, it took us about 30 minutes to install each thermostat from beginning to end. Tutorials and manuals are always important reference tools, but some thermostats require more use of these tools than others. You may run into uncommon problems like wires that are not long enough to connect to the thermostat you are trying to install. In this instance, you may have to replace the wiring with a longer strand. Rather than mess with the wiring, you might be well-advised to pay an electrician to do it for you.
If a C, or common, wire is required, the installation process becomes somewhat more complex. Some thermostats, like the ecobee3, have a C-wire adaptor kit that lets you easily add a C wire to your system. Some homes, particularly older ones, have a four wire configuration that includes an R wire for power, a G wire for the fan, a Y wire for A/C and a W wire for heat. While a C wire can add a little time to the installation process, the C wire systems have the advantage of providing the thermostat with extra negative charges. This creates extra power for newer features like Wi-Fi and can extend the thermostat's battery life.
After we installed the thermostats, we assessed how long it took each one to connect to Wi-Fi, and once connected, how easy it was to navigate through the smartphone app and control the system's features. Some of the best thermostats in our lineup have apps that corresponded directly with the thermostat's interface. This makes activating the thermostat's features extremely easy and intuitive. We also looked for thermostats with built-in bubble levels that help you mount the device evenly on your wall. For the most part, installing a thermostat yourself should be relatively easy, especially given the number of resources available online to help you.
In our evaluation of comfort control, we assessed two things that define how a thermostat controls the environment inside your home. First, we looked at the thermostat's temperature swing, which activates the unit, either raising or lowering the temperature before your home gets uncomfortable. We found that a narrow temperature swing of a degree or less, which is common for most thermostats, provides optimum comfort but may cause your system to run more frequently than a thermostat with a wider swing. This can cause additional wear on heating and cooling equipment. A thermostat with a wide swing uses less energy since it allows the temperature to vary more before activating the system.
Second, we looked to see if a unit supports multistage heating and cooling. When a thermostat has multiple stages, it can activate heating and cooling in low, medium or high increments, which uses energy more effectively. Instead of just turning on or off, which happens with one-stage thermostats, this heating system is more complex. If one stage doesn't heat to a comfortable level in the desired time, the next stage kicks in and adjusts to a comfortable room temperature.
While programmable thermostats are designed to conserve energy, there are some features that take energy conservation to the next level for additional savings. One feature we looked at is auto scheduling. A thermostat with this feature observes your habits and local weather patterns, or it may ask you simple questions to determine your preferences. We found that this feature works best when a thermostat has at least one of the following: a built-in motion sensor, geofencing or a usage report.
Motion sensors allow the unit to detect and react appropriately if you come home outside of your regular schedule. This is especially an advantage if you don't plan to interact with your thermostat very often. Similarly, thermostats with geofencing set up a zone around your home that works in tandem with your smartphone's location. This allows thermostats like the Honeywell Lyric to adjust to away mode when you go outside of the zone and turn back on when you enter it so your home is comfortable when you return. This way, energy isn’t wasted heating or cooling an empty house.
Finally, we found that usage reports give you a good idea of how much you're saving on energy costs. The best smart thermostats, like the ecobee Smart Si, keep comprehensive records of your energy use all the way back to when you first activated the unit. Reports for some thermostats, like Nest's Leaf icon, encourage you to consciously conserve energy.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Types & Benefits of Programmable Thermostats
Many programmable thermostats use smart technology to regulate temperatures and conserve energy, but a programmable thermostat and a smart thermostat are not the same thing. A smart thermostat takes the features of a programmable thermostat, learns your family's routines and regulates your home's temperature over time with increasing effectiveness. All programmable thermostats have a built-in clock that control the temperature in your home.
Programmable thermostats vary in how much smart technology they are equipped with. Some programmable thermostats have preprogrammed schedules that change your home's temperature based on the time of day, while others let you customize a schedule to correspond with your personal preferences. Setting a schedule up is fairly simple, but most manufacturers have excellent technical support you can contact either by email, phone or live chat to walk you through the process.
The more smart technology your programmable thermostat has, the easier it is to regulate your home's temperature, which leads to better energy conservation and lower utility bills. A smart thermostat takes all the features of a programmable thermostat and adds such extras as automatic scheduling and energy savings feedback. Smart technology can be turned off and on as you wish, in case any of the smart features don't work with your lifestyle.
In Sync With Smart Home Technology
A smart thermostat with auto scheduling takes the settings you program into it and improves on them by adding set points and changing temperatures. Automatic scheduling works great for houses with predictable daily schedules. On the other hand, a thermostat with this feature may not be useful in a vacation home because you likely aren’t there enough for it to detect patterns.
You can also program your digital thermostat to automatically respond to your daily activities. It can switch into away mode when you leave the house and then have the house back to normal temperatures when you come home.
A fitness tracker with smart home functionality can work in sync with your thermostat to adjust the temperature when it detects you are working out. It can also activate a fan to bring fresh air into your workout facility. Syncing with smart lighting, the thermostat can automatically turn up air conditioning when it senses a party is about to begin. It adjusts to your lifestyle instead of the other way around, and in the process, it saves you time and money while conserving energy.
Energy savings feedback is your smart thermostat’s way of communicating with you and letting you know what is happening with your home's temperature regulation and general energy history. If it detects there is a problem with the furnace, for instance, it sends you a text alerting you to the issue. Smart thermostats, like the Nest Learning Thermostat, also provide a monthly report with an energy history and a list of problems you have already been alerted to via text. This communication with your smart thermostat lets you monitor your savings over time so you are never in the dark.
Programmable Thermostats: Buying Tips
Once the thermostat is set up and regulating the heating and air conditioning systems in your home, energy conservation happens naturally, and you shouldn’t have to think about it often. You should choose a thermostat with an easy-to-use design and reliable technical support.
The best programmable thermostats excel at temperature control. When choosing a smart home thermostat, look for a unit that supports programmable fans, which lets the thermostat run your air conditioner's fan for a short while after the compressor turns off. This uses leftover cold air in your system or draws fresh air into your home. Auto changeover allows your thermostat to shift between heating and cooling when needed, and a keypad lock prevents unwanted changes to your home's temperature.
All of the digital thermostats in our review have seven-day scheduling and away features so you can decide which heating patterns work best for your schedule. The away feature allows you to override the thermostat's preset plan to save on utilities when you're on vacation. Top thermostats also tell you how long it takes for your home to reach a target temperature. For instance, when you set the thermostat for 71 degrees, it will tell you how many minutes it will take to get to that temperature.
Sensors are integral to any programmable thermostat. You want to look for a thermostat that detects and informs you of equipment problems or regular maintenance needs. Thermostats with humidity sensors can work with your home's humidifier or dehumidifier so your main system runs effectively.
Design & Setup
Home automation systems are becoming more prevalent in homes, so it's good to check if a thermostat works with your smart home system before you purchase it. A thermostat's Wi-Fi enables it to connect to your tablet or smartphone over the internet so you can change settings while on vacation. You should look for a thermostat that is easy to use with simple controls and a mobile app that mimics the physical controls so you only have to learn one control scheme.
Though you can always opt for professional installation, you can self-install many of the best thermostats. Look for a company that offers installation tutorials so you don't get overwhelmed. If you're unsure about system compatibility, many companies provide an online tool to check if a wireless thermostat works with your HVAC system. A built-in level makes installation easy and prevents your thermostat from being crooked on the wall.
Help & Support
The best Wi-Fi thermostats offer complete customer service options, including email, phone and live-chat support. Some companies provide online forums so you can talk with technical support and other users about problems or how you use your thermostat. It is important that you have a variety of methods of contact to the company for information about different tasks and troubleshooting when you need it.
Since you can self-install many of the thermostats we reviewed, technical support is especially important. You can contact a customer service representative to get answers to questions as you set up your new device. Customer service for programmable thermostats tends to be very good. The best programmable thermostats come with warranties of two or more years. Some of the thermostats in our review have warranties of up to five years.
Programmable Thermostats: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The top five products in our Wi-Fi thermostat review earned our Excellence Award for programmable thermostats. The three best options for programmable thermostats are Nest Learning Thermostat, ecobee3 and ecobee Smart Si
The Nest Learning Thermostat incorporates smart technology that learns your habits over time and adjusts to your lifestyle and schedule. The longer you use it, the more your utility bills will fall. The mobile app that comes with the Nest Learning Thermostat stands out because it lets you change your settings from wherever you are via your smartphone. Another nice feature of the Nest Thermostat is that it is compatible with other Nest Protect products, which detect smoke, carbon monoxide and other things related to home security.
The ecobee3 helps you and your family conserve energy in your home while protecting the environment. It implements four heating stages (most thermostats only have three) to configure separate heating zones in your home. This specialized distribution contributes to near flawless temperature control while helping reduce your carbon footprint. Like Apple products, ecobee3 has a touchscreen interface that is consistent with its mobile app. This makes it easy to switch between devices. It also supports Apple's HomeKit-certified devices without special software, thus simplifying home automation.
The ecobee Smart Si implements DataRhythm technology which gathers historical data, weather and run times to make automatic adjustments to your heating and cooling plan. This results in energy conservation and reduced utility bills. It doesn't require a C wire like the ecobee3, which means less time spent on installation. Along with its user-friendly phone app, the ecobee Smart Si has a sophisticated web portal that lets you see your home's overall energy picture with charts showing the thermostat's heating and cooling efficiency.
Another product in our thermostat reviews, the Radio Thermostat CT-80, is a good option for most home automation systems. While it's not a well-known name in programmable thermostats, it has some nice features that make it worth a look. Like the Honeywell Lyric, it has geofencing, so it detects when you come and go and adjusts your home's temperature accordingly.
The Emerson Sensi and the Carrier Cor rival the top products in our review because of how easy they are to use. The Emerson Sensei has stellar temperature control functionality that includes seven-day scheduling and a humidity sensor. With the Carrier Cor, you simply program temperature settings for Away, Home, Wake, Sleep and Vacation, and it automatically adjusts to the settings at the appropriate time. The Cor phone app's layout and design directly correspond with the thermostat's interface, making them mutually intuitive the more you use them.
Programming a thermostat is an affordable way to keep your home comfortable for your family and conserve energy. By choosing the right thermostat, you can make sure you never spend money on wasted energy. Using less energy allows you to help the environment and may even qualify you for added financial incentives from the government or your utility company.