What’s the best thermostat?
More often than not, you’ll hear HVAC companies say that “it depends” when asked what the best equipment is. There are valid reasons for that response, but it can be frustrating to hear.
Believe it or not, sometimes there really are “best” versions of things in HVAC. One air conditioner might have a higher SEER rating (a measure of efficiency) than another, so it’s reasonable to say it’s the “better” model. Or a particular model of humidifier might provide moisture to the same sized home, but at a fraction of the daily cost.
The reason “it depends,” though, is that the better equipment might not be better for you. That high-efficiency air conditioner might be beyond your budget. Or you might be moving in less than five years, which means you won’t reap the long-term benefits of its higher efficiency.
So back to thermostats: which is the best? If pressed, I’d say that communicating, “smart” thermostats that are connected to all major HVAC equipment in your home are the “best.” There are various models and brands that have this functionality, so there isn’t a single model that is objectively the best, but these have by far the most options packed into them.
However, those thermostats might not be the best for you. We talk to customers every day who don’t need or want all the bells and whistles on the “best” models, which allows them to save money on excellent alternatives.
This article is to explain the different types of thermostats available to you and help you figure out what functions you do and don’t need. By the end, you’ll have a clear picture of what you’re looking for in your ideal home comfort system.
Thermostats: Features vs. Brands
We’ll name some specific brands near the bottom, but I want you to start thinking more about features rather than specific brands or models.
Why is this? Because the programmable Ecobee thermostat in one home is going to be similar to the programmable Aprilaire thermostat in the next, and similar to the Trane thermostat in the next. And so on.
Yes, there are differences between brands, and a few considerations below will touch on this. But in general, what you’re choosing is a set of features when you buy a thermostat. Everything else is mostly price and looks.
Not every modern thermostat is programmable, but most are.
Programmable thermostats, as the name implies, allow you to set heating and cooling patterns for your home. Often, this coincides with a typical 8-5 workday or weekend vs. weekday schedule. But if you’re not in this traditional work model, you can customize it to your liking.
And what if you don’t want a programmable thermostat? Are you required to upgrade from your existing thermostat?
Not necessarily, though we usually recommend it. For one, older dial thermostats are often less accurate. Additionally, they can often be hard to read, especially on ones where the numbers are small or faded from years of use. Even low-end modern digital thermostats have large numbers that are easy to read and incredibly accurate.
Below, we’ll talk about times where you really do have to upgrade, usually when installing more sophisticated, high-end air conditioners, heat pumps or furnaces.
Wifi thermostats are generally a step up from programmable ones in terms of features. As the name implies, a wifi thermostat can connect wirelessly to various devices.
Primarily, this means that you’ll be able to control the thermostat from your phone or other mobile device. Need to reprogram the temperature due to a last-minute change in plans? This will take seconds, even remotely.
Wifi capability is also a prerequisite for connecting to smart-home technology, which we’ll talk about more in the next section.
What other options do many wifi thermostats have?
- Geofencing. With this, you create a perimeter around your home using GPS. Then, whenever you enter the perimeter, the wifi signal will detect it and your HVAC system will automatically turn on. This is great for those with sporadic work or school schedules who can’t program exact schedules but don’t want to waste money.
- Motion sensors. This works similarly to geofencing, but in your home. A motion sensor will detect movement in the home, indicating that there are people in the house. The thermostat will react accordingly. The downside to this is that occasionally the sensors won’t detect movement (if you’re reading or in bed, for example), so it’s not a foolproof system of heating and cooling your home.
Exact functions can change slightly depending on the model. But these should give you a good indication of the possibilities inherent in wifi thermostats.
Communicating & Learning Thermostats
Most homeowners stop at the two types above. What else could there be after wifi-enabled thermostats?
The answer is communicating—or learning—thermostats.
Traditional Thermostat Operation
The temperature dips outside and your thermostat makes a call for heat, which triggers the furnace. The furnace operates until the desired indoor temperature is reached, then it shuts off. This cycle will repeat as needed.
The communication here is one way: thermostat to heating and cooling equipment. With a communicating thermostat, as we’ll see, this communication works both ways.
Communicating Thermostat Operation
In that same scenario, the thermostat will make a call for heat and the furnace will start up. With a communicating system, however, other steps may occur that will make the process more efficient.
Is it a mildly chilly spring day? Or are we in the deepest part of winter? The difference matters. With a communicating system, the outdoor equipment will relay the temperature to the thermostat. Then, if it’s only a little bit chilly, it can tell the furnace to operate at less than 100% power. But if it’s 10 degrees and snowing, the furnace will be instructed to operate at 100% capacity.
This is one example, but we could talk about several others like it. Your communicating thermostat will learn over time how to best heat and cool your home. Eventually, this results in a much more comfortable home and thousands in savings on your utility bills.
Nexia Thermostats and Real-Time Info
Trane has a brand of thermostat called Nexia, which has an additional option in their communicating systems. The Nexia thermostat is able to send information on HVAC system performance to your HVAC contractor. In this way, you have a professional monitoring your efficiency and performance. Many potential problems are caught this way, and it allows a company to proactively deal with minor issues before they become big, expensive ones.
This function is entirely optional, but is a nice peace of mind addition for many who want to get the most out of their system, and to prevent any problems before they occur.
When a Communicating Thermostat Is Required
We shy away from telling customers that they “need” any piece of equipment, but in this case, there are furnaces, heat pumps and air conditioners that will only work with a communicating thermostat.
This is generally tied to multi-stage equipment. In our examples above, we talked about the thermostat telling the furnace to operate at less than 100% power. Some furnaces only operate at 100%, so a communicating system would not be useful. But if you have a furnace with, say, six stages ranging from 40% capacity to 100%, you need a communicating thermostat in order to use the other stages.
Thermostat Apps & Add-Ons
If your thermostat is wifi-enabled, chances are there’s an app that will allow you to access it from your mobile devices. The functions available on these apps vary, but most include remote programming options and diagnostic options for your system.
Another example of apps that can make your life easier is the Kumo Cloud app. This is specifically for Mitsubishi ductless mini-split systems. These systems are traditionally controlled with a remote control. We’ve found that the app is a lifesaver for some homeowners, because we all know how easy it is to lose a remote control.
The remote can be reordered, but you might not be able to use your system until a new one arrives if you don’t have the app.
The Kumo Cloud app requires a small additional installation fee, which allows the installer to include the module through which the app controls the device.
Indoor Air Quality Products
Whole-home indoor air quality products can also be linked to your thermostat. What types of products are these. Humidifiers and dehumidifiers are the most common, as well as other devices like ducted air purifiers and remote temperature sensors in your home.
Whether or not a thermostat can support these additional products is usually a wiring issue. A good HVAC contractor can advise you on the type of thermostat you’ll need to be able to control each of these devices from your primary thermostat.
On rare occasions, setting this up will require an electrician. Usually, though, your HVAC installer can handle the necessary electrical work.
Thermostat Odds & Ends
Want to have a five-day forecast on your thermostat display? Or live radar? Or severe weather alerts that are sent directly to your phone? Several models come with each of those features.
Want customizable background colors in the digital display, to be able to match the paint or wallpaper in a room? Several come with that as well.
These all fall into the category of “nice to have, but probably not necessary.” However, if you have a system with one or more of these features, why not use it?
We’re always saddened when we meet homeowners who seem intimidated by the options on their thermostat. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and to explore the options through your thermostat user’s manual or by discussing it with your HVAC partner.
What Home Thermostat Do I Need?
Oh no, I have to say it: IT DEPENDS. But here are some questions to help you get to the best answer for you.
Do you work from home and are rarely far from your thermostat? You might be able to go with the bare minimum, one that’s not even programmable.
Do you want to be able to program your thermostat? Make sure it’s programmable.
Do you forget to turn the system on or off frequently? You’ll probably want a wifi thermostat with app functionality so that you can set it remotely.
Do you have (or want) high-end, multi-stage heating and cooling equipment? You’ll want to make sure you have a communicating thermostat.
Do you have trouble reading the numbers on your current thermostat? Most digital screens have much larger text than older dial thermostats, so you’ll be set with a variety of options.
These aren’t the only questions you can ask, but they can get you started. Only you know the ins and outs of your schedule and home needs, but hopefully the information here will help you settle on a solution that’s best for you.
Fire & Ice Thermostat Service Commitment
Any HVAC contractor can install a thermostat. We take pride in our installation practices, but we’re not going to BS you and say that our thermostats are prettier or better than the next company’s.
But we do have a couple practices that we believe in, which separate us from our competition.
First, we’ll include a new thermostat free of charge with the installation of a full HVAC system.
Second, we send one of our professionals to the home 1-4 weeks after installation to ensure that homeowners understand and are making the most out of their new thermostats and HVAC systems.
Many companies will run free thermostat promos that are similar to that first one. But almost no companies we know of are willing to come back after the sale just to make sure you understand every feature of your system. Why is that? Unfortunately, it’s because they already have your money, and there’s nothing left in it for them.
But it’s valuable to our customers, so we’ve built it into every job that we do.
If you’re ready to discuss your options, and you’re in our service area, we hope you’ll start with us. Give us a call or click below to get started. We’re excited to help you build your dream system!