Punched by the “polar vortex”? A shopper’s guide to home thermostats

This week’s weather may not have the “polar vortex” edge of early January, but it’s not Nest_blogexactly tropical. Temperatures in the single digits tend to get people thinking about how to save money on electric and gas bills.

Finding the right thermostat plays a crucial role in regulating your heat—and bills.  But with a range of types and brands, picking one isn’t so simple. We’ve compiled a simple guide to figure out which thermostat fits your needs and budget:

1)      Smart thermostats

Example: the Nest ($250)

Oh, the Nest.  The crème de la crème of thermostats.  It learns your schedule.  It programs itself.  It can be controlled from your cellphone.  It cooks your breakfast (OK, maybe not that last one).  Only catch?  At $250, it is easily your priciest option.

But the savings may be worth the high up-front cost.  The Nest “learns” your usage and adjusts the temperature accordingly throughout the day.  At times of low use, it automatically lowers the temperature so you use less energy and, consequently, run a lower electric/gas bill.  Furthermore, with Wi-Fi capabilities, you can monitor and adjust usage from your computer or mobile device.  Imagine raising the temperature from your bed, rather than having to walk downstairs on a chilly night!

The Nest is not the only “smart” thermostat on the market, but it has definitely generated the most buzz, especially given the company’s recent acquisition by Google.

2)      Programmable thermostats

Example: Honeywell Wi-Fi 7-Day Programmable Thermostat ($100)

Most thermostats nowadays are programmable, meaning you program a digital thermostat to adjust heat/AC usage based on the day of the week and time of day.   A wide range of types exist with various features, such as backlighting, touchscreen, WiFi capabilities and battery backup.  They also come with a variety of programming schedules, including:

-5-2 programming: One schedule for the weekdays and another for the weekends

-5-1-1: one  schedule for weekdays, and then each individual weekend day

-7-day: individual schedules for each day of the week

-Weekly: same schedule for each day of the week

A regular programmable thermostat won’t be as finely tuned as the Nest, but by setting a schedule based on when you heat the most, you can still save money on your utility bill (about $180 per year, according to Consumer Reports) and avoid the up-front costs of a more expensive thermostat.

The upfront costs of such thermostats range from $20 to more than $200. Generally speaking, the more control you have over programming, the higher the cost– for example, a thermostat with a 7-day schedule is more expensive than a 5-2 program.

3)      Manual thermostats

Example: Lux Products Non-Programmable Digital Thermostat ($28)

These relics require manually setting the temperature throughout the day.  If you are likely to be home during the day, or are hyper-vigilant about monitoring and adjusting your electricity use, these thermostats can offer you more control.  It’s more likely, however, that you’ll set the temperature and forget about it, which can lead to energy waste throughout the day.  These thermostats are cheaper, on average, than programmable types—ranging from about $15 to $50, they have simple controls, and you can choose among digital and mechanical versions. But they’re not much help in reducing your utility bills.

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About Jim Chilsen

Jim is director of communications for the Citizens Utility Board (CUB)
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