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Comparing Different Types of Thermostats

by on July 22, 2014

There are three main types of thermostats: manual (or dumb), programmable, and smart. Let’s go through them one by one so you can have a good understanding of each and be better suited to pick the best one for your needs.

What is a manual thermostat?

This used to be your thermostat. You tell it how hot or cold you want it to be (desired indoor temperature) by rotating the dial, and keeps your heating or cooling equipment running to reach and maintain that temperature. If you want to change the desired indoor temperature, you have to walk up to it and rotate the dial.

There are also digital manual thermostats. The only difference is you use up down arrows to set your desired indoor temperature instead of a dial.

What is a programmable thermostat?

A programmable thermostat allows you to give the thermostat a schedule to operate by. These thermostats come with all sorts of limitations and caveats depending on which model you buy. For example, some thermostats only allow you to have 1 schedule, and you must have the same schedule every day of the week. That doesn’t exactly work unless you’re a robot.

Others let you have 1 schedule for all weekdays and a separate one for the weekend. That’s better but still not ideal. Depending on the model, a thermostat may only allow you to have a limited number of program periods per day. 4 program periods might be enough for you but it’s a little inflexible for most people.

What is a smart Wi-Fi thermostat?

A smart thermostat fixes all the problems with the programmable thermostat and introduces a lot of innovation on top of it.

With a smart thermostat you can have a completely custom schedule for every day of the week, and have as many activity periods per day as you want. This gives you complete control over when your home’s heating and cooling equipment runs. By eliminating unnecessary heating and cooling of your home, you save money.

In addition to a flexible schedule, smart thermostats are Wi-Fi enabled and you can use smartphones, tablets, and computers to remotely monitor them and make changes. For example, if you take a half-day at work you can remotely turn your heating or cooling on and come home to a comfortable temperature even though it wasn’t in your schedule.

The great thing about smart thermostats (and to an extent, programmable thermostats) is that you save money by eliminating unnecessary use, so your comfort or lifestyle isn’t compromised to get the savings.

You should definitely check out my writeup on the importance of the smart thermostat schedule for a deeper understanding of program periods, or activities as we call them. They are the main way you use smart thermostats to save money on home energy use.

What other types of thermostats are there?

Instead of relying on a user-inputted schedule and activities, Learning thermostats start with a base setting of 68ºF for heating and 75ºF for cooling, and then learn the user’s schedule and desired indoor temperature based on any changes the user makes by interacting with the device. This requires constant interaction with the thermostat over a period of weeks before the thermostat can learn your patterns.

An important difference between smart thermostats and the Learning Thermostat is the reliance on a user-inputted schedule versus the requirement of teaching the thermostat your schedule over weeks of interaction.