“My smart thermostat has really improved my home life” – said no one ever.
When smart ‘learning’ thermostats burst onto the scene in 2011, they did so to great fanfare. After all, they are smart. They learn. They will massively improve your home life… or so the marketing promised.
The reality is a lot more mundane: they take an hour or two to install (assuming you are competent to install it yourself) and they cost a decent amount of money to buy in the first place. Once installed, you play with the thermostat app a bit over the first week, and then forget about it.
Whilst there are some positives to smart thermostats, I wanted to be extra grumpy and explain 11 real reasons why smart thermostats are kind of pointless.
The video version of this article is embedded below:
If you prefer text, or you want some extra detail on some of the points that I raised, then please read on!
The Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd gen) currently sells for $240, and then getting a professional to install it will usually be $80 or more. That’s $320 spent on your thermostat right away, but will you recoup this investment quickly?
Well, Nest claim that 10-12% is saved on heating and 15% on cooling costs, leading to savings of $131 to $145 each year. This means that your smart thermostat pays for itself after two and a half years (or less than two years if you install it yourself).
That’s not too bad, assuming that you get the full cost savings that Nest claim. Of course, depending on your local climate and house construction type, you might save less than $131-$145 per year and then your pay-off period will be three of more years.
Equally if you had a new heating system installed in the last couple of decades, you probably already have a programmable thermostat (just not a ‘smart’ one). If you have set this up correctly, then unfortunately your cost savings with a smart thermostat will be minimal – if anything at all. In this case, the pay-off period will be measure in decades instead of years.
If you have a fairly modern heating system with a fairly modern wall-mounted thermostat, installing the Nest will probably be fairly straightforward. Of course, we should add that it’ll be straightforward for people who like DIY and are fairly good at electrics. Google’s own Nest install guide does openly talk about wiring diagrams and the need to turn off your power/guard against high voltage cables.
If you don’t like the sound of this, unfortunately you might struggle to install your smart thermostat. There are a lot of videos online showing how to install it, of course, but you do need to be moderately capable at DIY, electrics and then gadgets (to actually setup the thermostat and mobile phone app).
In rare cases (or with much older heating systems), you might also find that you need to run extra cables to the boiler – or make a change to the boiler side before Nest will work. This is thankfully not too common because Nest (and other smart thermostat) are built to be compatible with a wide range of heating systems, but this could make your install more complicated (and expensive).
Part of the point of smart thermostats is that they know when you’re likely to be out of the house, and will set the temperature to be lower. This sounds great, right? After all, why should you pay to literally heat an empty home? Well this is definitely a valid argument, however if the temperature is too low, it can lead to condensation and damp/mold build-up.
This might take the form of visible mold (in which case you can adjust the thermostat’s settings), but airborne mold is possible and inhaling this can be bad for your health – leading to a range of respiratory problems.
Naturally, smart thermostats do take steps to prevent this and they won’t simply set the ‘low’ temperature point to 30°F/4°C. It’ll be set to a fairly sensible setting for your local climate. However, some houses generally struggle with damp issues due to poor ventilation, too much (or not enough) insulation – or a dozen other reasons. A smart thermostat cannot know this, meaning that it might set the temperature to a sensible value for most houses in your area, but it’ll still be an incorrectly low temperature for your particular house.
As a final point, it’s easy to forget pets. You should make sure that your ‘away from home’ temperature is high enough to be suitably comfortable for your pets (at least 60°F/16°C). But it is easy to forget, especially if you get a pet after your smart thermostat system has been installed. And your pets won’t be able to tell you that they were freezing their butts off at 10am whilst you were at work!
One of the key selling points of smart thermostats is that they learn. If you wake-up daily at 6am to eat breakfast and keep raising the temperature of the thermostat to 70°F/21°, it will learn that you like it at this temperature (at this time) and pre-program itself in the future.
It will also start learning when you come home from work and go to bed, and ensure that your desired temperature is set then.
This is great, apart from the fact that people’s routines aren’t always fixed – especially in a household with multiple adults and children, all of whom might like slightly different temperatures. In this case, you might get ‘thermostat war’ where people are changing the temperature to suit their own needs (as has happened for decades, ever since thermostats first came out!).
This varied household routine coupled with different target temperatures (at the same time!) will mean that the learning modes will never be great. In-fact, in this case you might be better off with a simple multi-zone programmable (non-wifi) thermostat.
Nest has ‘Auto Away’, ecobee has ‘Smart Away’. These features use sensors and/or the GPS on mobile apps to detect when the last person has left the house and adjust the heating accordingly. This is perfect for those days when you all need to learn for business meetings (or school trip runs) an hour or two earlier than usual. And this feature does actually work quite well overall… a rare bit of positivity from me in this article!
However, they don’t work perfectly. The sensors are wide angle to detect smaller children too, however they can sometimes detect large pets by mistake. In this case, your ‘smart’ thermostat will think that an adult is in the house and turn the heating fully on. Great.
To help guard against this, you can set Home/Away/Assist to use your phone’s GPS location instead. This is a nice feature, however this can become buggy if you forget to leave your GPS on, or you get a new phone and install the app there – I’ve seen cases where Nest then thinks an extra adult is in the house (as the old phone – with the app still installed – is still in the house).
In short, be sure to double check your app quickly when away from the house just to check that the app doesn’t think there’s someone at home – burning extra gas for no reason.
Smart thermostats are a ‘wow factor’ gimmick that aren’t needed in the majority of cases. There, I said it. Phew, I feel unburdened.
Okay, so unless you have an ancient thermostat or are too lazy (sorry, I meant to say busy) to spend 30 seconds programming your existing thermostat, you really won’t benefit all that much from a super duper smart thermostat.
After all, how smart does your thermostat need to be? The standard house’s usecase for their home temperature is simple:
- When at home in the morning/evening (usually based on the time of day), set a fairly high ‘cosy’ temperature.
- When away from home during the day (usually based on the time of day), set a fairly low temperature.
- When at home overnight/sleeping (usually based on the time of day), set a fairly low temperature.
That’s it. Simple. You can set this up quickly with a standard thermostat. In other words, an all-singing-all-dancing ‘smart’ thermostat which blows a $250 hole in your wallet probably isn’t needed.
Yes the smart thermostat looks cool on the wall, but so does a nice family picture or piece of art from HomeDepot – and they will cost a lot less than $250.
I sort of don’t want to make this point on this website, a website dedicated to techy people and techy gadgets after all. But, the reality is that some people find smart thermostats confusing. They aren’t as easy to change the temperature as a standard thermostat.
I know it seems as easy as plugging in a mouse to us techy folk, but new technology scares people who aren’t as clued up on gadgets.
So if you have a relative coming to stay who isn’t tech savvy, they might struggle to change the temperature when you aren’t around. This could mean them being uncomfortable in their own (temporary) home.
Equally if you move house but leave the smart thermostat behind (a topic for another point), the new homeowners might not understand or appreciate the smart thermostat.
A smart thermostat is fixed to the wall, and also wired in. When you move house, you will almost certainly have to leave it behind (unless you agree this upfront during the house sale). This isn’t great if you spent $320 for the device and installation a year or two ago: you will be moving house before it has paid for itself, and then the new owners will reap all the benefits. A lose-lose for you!
Equally, lodgers and renters will be unable to install a smart thermostat. This seems harsh on a large group of the population who might want to get some of the convenience and cost savings of a smart thermostat, but are legally not allowed to install them.
As a final point on this topic, when you do move house, you will need to deregister yourself (or your address) from the various smart apps. Failure to do this will mean that the new homeowners will be unable to register and use the apps for themselves – leading to phone calls and extra stress after a house sale. I guess the conclusion here is that if you are planning on moving house anytime soon, perhaps give installable smart devices (like thermostat) a miss.
We mention earlier that if you have a busy house life – with multiple children running around for example – they might all want to set different (contradictory) temperatures. The solution to this is a multi-zone heating setup.
This is a really nice solution for a modern family, because the playroom and children’s bedrooms could be one temperature (I’m thinking a tropical 75 °F/24°C ?!), the main living room could be another temperature and the kitchen/bathrooms might be another.
This sounds great and it does work well, however it can get expensive because each ‘zone’ is driven by a separate thermostat (otherwise the thermostat can’t know the ambient temperature for monitoring and regulating purposes). If you want three zones, that’s 3x$240 = $720 for three Nest thermostats. You won’t get much change of a grand if you also pay someone to install them.
Will this really save you money, especially if one (or more) of the zones are set to very high temperatures (“because I like it this warm”)? I doubt it.
Yes you can mix-and-match smart thermostats in with ordinary ones (i.e. having a Nest thermostat in one zone, and the normal thermostats in the other). But, this sort of defeats the object of having smart thermostats which are meant to learn all of your house’s routines and energy use: not just one part of it.
We’ve all seem enough futuristic and dystopian movies to know that technology can go rouge and murder (or at least mildly maim) everyone, right? Okay, maybe I’m watching different movies to the rest of you, but technology can fail. Whether it’s Windows crashing right before a work presentation, or the keyword of your $3k Macbook Pro being dodgy.
Equally, smart thermostats can fail due to software bugs – leaving the house occupants cold (not once, but multiple times). You would think that smart thermostats would fall back to being ‘dumb’ basic thermostats if they fail, but that’s not the cast.
After all, they’re designed to control everything. If they have a software (or hardware) bug, they obviously won’t know this and so they will act unexpectedly. This might mean too much or little heat, or weird humidity/climate settings.
Occasional software bugs are understandable and are fine to put up with for really useful technology, but do you really need to put up with them for a smart thermostat?
Everyone loves when their data is sold to advertisers, right? Wait, what do you mean that you don’t?
Well some smart thermostat providers have been known to harvest your house’s heating/climate data and sell this to advertisers and other companies. For example the New York Times report that Kinsa sold data to health companies so that they could find out which parts of the country have increased fever. The health companies then directed targeted adverts to those areas for things like disinfecting wipes. Creepy.
Nest originally had plans to ‘share’ (i.e. sell) energy usage data with energy firms and the situation doesn’t sound much better now that Nest are owned by Google (since Google are… well… Google). They are known to take liberties when it comes to people’s personal data – especially when it comes to using it for advertising. That’s why after viewing a product on Amazon, the internet is suddenly full of Google-powered adverts for that specific product.
“Under no circumstance do we share personal information for any commercial or marketing purpose unrelated to the activation and delivery of Nest Products and services without asking you first. Period. We do not rent or sell our customer lists.”
Which is sort of promising, although the “without asking you first” part means that they can share your personal data if you permit it. In other words, double check your marketing preferences – either via the app, or on nest.com (after logging into your account there).