Ask Carley: How Does a Smart Thermostat Work?

HGTV Smart Home 2016 tech consultant, Carley Knobloch shares the advantages of using a smart thermostat in your home.
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It can warm up the house before you feel chilly, cool the place before you start to sweat, and save you more than a hundred bucks a year on average. It’s a smart thermostat, and it’s a major departure from the thermostats most of us have always known. Have you ever wondered how they work, and whether you’d enjoy using one? Here’s a breakdown:

It senses what you’re doing.

Each brand functions a little differently, but they all use motion sensors to pick up on your daily routines so they can maintain a comfortable temperature when someone is home, and save energy when no one’s around. Changing the temperature manually will “teach” smart thermostats your patterns, too. All of this means you have to do less work to get your thermostat to maintain your preferred temperature, and its settings can be more sophisticated and sensitive than the average thermostat can be.

Moreover, some models combine internal motion sensors with information from your home environment and from local weather stations in order to create an ideal heating and cooling schedule (they receive weather information via Wi-Fi). Other models use external motion sensors that you can place throughout your house, so they’ll detect which rooms are occupied, and warm or cool those rooms.

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Potential minus: if you’re napping or watching a movie, the thermostat might think you’re out, requiring a manual adjustment. Certain models use “geo-fence technology” to recognize your smartphone, so the thermostat “knows” when you enter and exit the house—though if you don’t always have your phone with you, that could be a drawback. 

So is it creepy that my thermostat is checking on my whereabouts? It seemed that way at first, but the truth is a thermostat’s intelligence is based on algorithms, not actual people-tracking.

Is it safe? Smart thermostats use encryption and “bank-level” security. That said, even banks sometimes get hacked, so whether or not you want your thermostat collecting personal information about your home-habits is up to you.

It takes care of the place when you’re away.

Smart thermostats will automatically adjust the temperature if your house becomes too hot or too cold while you’re out, so you can avoid freezing pipes, a too-hot pet…or just a cupboard full of melted chocolate. Conversely, you won’t be heating or cooling an empty house— your house will go into “away” mode if it senses you’re not around, or you can tell it you’re going on vacation while you’re heading to the airport. 

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It can be controlled from afar.

Rocking your baby and can’t get up to reach the thermostat? Or maybe you’re home in bed with the flu? Most smart thermostats can be controlled from your phone, so you can dial in a temperature adjustment from anywhere in the house or beyond. Imagine heating up your home up you land at the airport, so it’s nice and toasty when you get home, or checking on the house’s temperature when you’re on vacation.

It keeps in touch.

Your thermostat is constantly communicating with you. If your home’s temperature suddenly spikes or dips, you’ll receive a text so you’re the first to know. You’ll also get a monthly report on how much energy you’ve saved, and how you can save more in the future. Being more eco-friendly truly becomes an interactive experience.

It saves you money.

This is the big payoff: Smart thermostats are a bit of an up-front investment, so won’t start paying for themselves before at least a year and a half of use, on average. Once you’re past that milestone, you’ll be coming out ahead with paying smaller energy bills forever after. 

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