HVAC Thermostats 101: Installation, Features & Controls

HVAC Thermostats 101: Installation, Features & Controls
Bryan Carnahan
Residential Sales Professional

I am a Residential Sales Professional for Fire & Ice. I meet with hundreds of homeowners a year to assist them in their HVAC comfort needs.

About This Article

Home thermostats offer a multitude of options and features. What’s involved in their installation and operation, and how can you pick the best thermostat for you?

Every HVAC system needs a thermostat, but that doesn’t mean all thermostats are the same.

Gone are the days when everyone had the rotating dial thermostats, or something similarly analog. Modern thermostats, by comparison, have myriad options, are programmable, connect to your Wifi, chat with the equipment in your home, and can even cook a turkey for you on Thanksgiving.

Ok, that last one about the turkey was a joke. The rest are real, though.

We’re here to walk you through modern thermostats. If you know what you need and want, and just as importantly what you don’t need or want, it can save you some hassle and potentially quite a bit of money.

To get started, we’re going to talk you through a new thermostat installation, and why installation considerations can (and should) start to inform what type of thermostat you buy.

Installing a thermostat

Installing a New Thermostat

First thing’s first: do you always need a new thermostat?

Not necessarily, but any good HVAC contractor will ensure that your thermostat is up to state and local codes. Many older thermostats are not, so it’s a legal necessity to have a new one installed if you replace your HVAC system. As we’ll see in a bit, this is a good thing, because new thermostats allow for a greater degree of control over your system.

The next thing an HVAC installer will be looking for is wiring. A thermostat needs to connect to your furnace and air conditioner or heat pump. But there is additional wiring needed depending on the complexity of the system, and whether or not you have ancillary equipment like humidity-control devices linked to the thermostat.

Most homes have the required wiring already set up. In a majority of installations, there’s no additional work needed. However, sometimes a new wire needs to be run between equipment and thermostat in order for it to function properly.

This generally won’t require the services of an electrician; your HVAC installer or service technician can handle it for you.

Thermostat Location

Due to the location of wiring in your home, the placement of your thermostat will rarely change. However, additions of new rooms or windows can sometimes turn a good spot for a thermostat into a bad one.

In general, thermostats should be situated on an inside wall on the main floor of the home, and not in direct sunlight.

Moving a thermostat is rare, and may require a bit more in labor costs. But if the addition of, say, an indoor patio or sunroof exposes it to direct sunlight, it can compromise the accuracy of the thermostat.

Smart home thermostat options

Thermostat Features

Now let’s talk about specific controls that you’ll find on many thermostats.

Please note, these features aren’t brand-specific. We’ll talk in a bit about brand compatibility, but these are features that you’ll want to consider regardless of which brand of HVAC equipment and what brand of thermostat you end up with.

Programmable Thermostats

Programmable features on thermostats are tools that most homeowners are familiar with. They will allow you to create schedules for varying the temperature.

There are a couple ways to program thermostats that are most common with this technology:

  1. Program by the day. For example, you might have a different schedule for Saturday than you do for Tuesday. For many on a typical work schedule, there will be a weekday and weekend schedule.
  2. Program by time of day. If you have more of a fixed schedule, you might program temperatures based on your sleep schedule or errands.

This is a basic level of control that will come with basically any modern thermostat, which is already a step up from many from the previous generation of HVAC equipment.

Wifi Thermostats

At this point, most homes have a wifi signal or phones that can access wifi at various businesses and wifi hotspots. A lot of devices are now able to connect to wifi, giving them internet access. Thermostats are no exception.

What’s the advantage of this? The primary one will be remote access to your system. Any wifi-capable thermostat will have an app associated with it, through which you can program, change or view your home system.

The classic example here is the family that forgets to turn off (or at least turn down) the system during a vacation. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars to heat or cool an empty home, you can remotely tell the system to shut down (or at least run less often).

On a day-to-day level, it allows for a lot of customization for those with unpredictable schedules.

Communicating Thermostats

So wait, a wifi thermostat isn’t communicating? So what does communicating mean?

In short, it means that all of your HVAC equipment “talks” to the thermostat, which then actively manages your comfort based on the parameters you set.

In practice, this is usually associated with variable-speed systems, which offer a much larger degree of control over your home’s airflow. Imagine cruise control on your car, and how the mph you set as the cruising speed stays steady, but the inner workings of your motor will change depending on the terrain and incline. Having a communicating thermostat is like having cruise control for your entire HVAC system.

A communicating thermostat will monitor temperature and humidity levels, communicate actively with your furnace, air conditioner, and blower motor to ensure optimal settings, and will adjust them to maintain efficiency and comfort.

Stated differently, it learns. It actively builds algorithms to maximize your comfort and keep your energy usage down.

RELATED: Nexia Thermostat Review: Benefits, Options & Price

Zoned Thermostats

This type of thermostat will be specific to a zoned home, meaning that the home has two or more “zones” that have separate ductwork and temperature controls.

Often, separate thermostats control the different zones. However, it’s possible for a single thermostat to do this work. Which is the better solution for you will depend on the setup of your system.

Most residential homes aren’t zoned, but for larger homes, it can be an occasional consideration.

Remote Temperature Sensors

Remote sensors allow your thermostat to pull temperatures from multiple places in a home, to average them and make a more accurate assessment of its overall temperature. They can be used in zoned homes, but can also allow for a greater degree of control in any home.

When might it make sense to have remote sensors? Often it can help when there is a large discrepancy between one area of the home and another. This could be due to the placement of windows, the distance from the heating and cooling units, or the home’s ductwork. A master bedroom is a typical placement for a secondary sensor, especially in larger homes.

Not all thermostats can support this technology, so if you’re interested in remote sensors, it’s imperative that you choose a system and compatible thermostat that can communicate with each of the sensors.

Trane thermostat

Modern Thermostat Controls

You might have already known about many of the options above, but we talk to many homeowners - particularly first-time homeowners - who have never had to consider these options.

So it’s important to know what controls you need, what controls you’ll want, and how to use it. Some controls that many will be using for the first time with a modern thermostat including the following:

  1. Separate humidity controls. Humidity is as crucial to your comfort as temperature. By monitoring both, you can set parameters to maintain your comfort not just in any season, but in any climate.
  2. Precise temperature control. In older systems, there was no precision and you were essentially guessing, or giving it a range based on your settings. Many modern systems will also allow you to set a variance, so that you can keep a tight lock on a particular temperature, or give your equipment a little flexibility in how warm or cool things are.
  3. Fan speed. Particularly in variable-speed systems, the ability to adjust the fan speed can be important. Additionally, the ability to run the fan even when your system isn’t heating or cooling the air is also important. This will circulate air to ensure even distribution of temperature, and it also filters your air more frequently, which will make your home healthier and cleaner. The most sophisticated thermostats will allow you to run the fan on its own for set intervals each day or hour.

Thermostat System Compatibility

We’ll talk a little bit more about this below in the brands section, but it’s important that your thermostat has everything it needs to properly operate the equipment.

For example, if a thermostat doesn’t have the proper wiring and interface for a two-stage air conditioner, you’re wasting money (and sacrificing comfort) if you have a two-stage system.

Others will need wifi capability if you want them to provide real-time diagnostics of your system, either to an app you control or to your HVAC provider.

Your heating and cooling partner can guide you through these requirements, but it’s important to ask just in case.

Thermostat Brands

This article isn’t a brand guide, but we wanted to walk through many of the options we offer here at Fire & Ice. They provide a good cross-section of brands that have a range of programmable, wifi, and communicating models for any HVAC equipment.

Aprilaire Thermostats

The Aprilaire line of thermostats can integrate with a variety of HVAC brands, and the thermostats themselves offer a bevy of options. Our installation manager here at Fire & Ice actually uses one. The downside is that they can be a bit pricey, and aren’t always offered by contractors with specific agreements with other manufacturers.

Carrier Thermostats

The Carrier line of thermostats is intended for use with Carrier HVAC systems. Importantly, while non-Carrier thermostats can be used with some Carrier products, their most sophisticated line of air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces (the Infinity Series) require a compatible Infinity thermostat. This is due to the number of options and communicating functions of the equipment.

Ecobee Thermostats

Ecobees aren’t specific to a brand or manufacturer and are popular multi-use thermostats. One of the key features that some homeowners enjoy is that the Ecobee comes standard with a remote temperature sensor. While the other brands listed here all support remote temperature sensors, usually you’ll be required to pay extra.

Nest Thermostats

We install Nest thermostats less than the other brands listed. However, many enjoy the Nest’s small, sleek design, minimal aesthetic, and that it comes with the support of a company like Google. The devices are compatible with Google Home and Google Assistant, for easy access from a computer or mobile device. Additionally, much like the Ecobee, Nest thermostats are designed to be compatible with a wide range of HVAC brands. If you’re already running your life through Google products or want a simple solution for your thermostat, the Nest works well.

Trane Thermostats

The Trane line of thermostats is similar to the Carrier line, in that some advanced Trane systems require a Trane Comfortlink thermostat to function properly. Trane also has a popular line of Nexia thermostats, which links not just to an app but to your HVAC contractor. Nexia diagnostics will alert us to problems that affect the health of our clients’ systems, which often allows us to catch issues before they become major problems. This is only available with communicating systems, but is a major selling point for many customers.

RELATED: Nexia Thermostat Review: Benefits, Options & Price

Other HVAC Brands

The list there isn’t exhaustive but is indicative of the options you’ll have available to you. At higher levels of communicating sophistication, many brands require their own brand of thermostat to be able to function efficiently, while other systems can use a variety of thermostat brands.

Thermostat comfort control

Control Your Comfort

I’m excited to say that at Fire & Ice, we include a compatible thermostat free of charge with the installation of a full HVAC system. Compared to the cost of a full system installation, it might seem like a small thing, but the more advanced thermostats can routinely cost upwards of $500.

And if your system isn’t ready to be replaced but you’re still missing out on modern thermostat features, a new one can be installed at any time.

Your primary HVAC equipment (A/C or furnace unit) will always come first, but they’re going to be limited without a control system that gives you access to their full range of options.

If you’re excited about the prospect of what a modern thermostat can bring you, we hope you’ll give us a call or schedule a visit through our website. Start that process below, by checking to see if you’re in our service area. We look forward to helping you maximize your coziness with a new thermostat!

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April 15th, 2021

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