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A finger tapping a smart thermostat with a screen display reading

Choosing A Smart Thermostat: What Features To Look For

Smart thermostats can regulate your home's temperature, control your HVAC system and save you energy. This guide will walk you through the smart thermostat features to look for when shopping for one of these home automation devices.
Woman adjusting her smart thermostat while holding her smartphone with the thermostat app

What Is A Smart Thermostat?

Many people have become accustomed to living with a standard thermostat, as most homes and apartments are already furnished with them once you move in. But what if you want something more advanced? Are you seeking total control over the temperature in your home? Get this luxury, plus a variety of optimization settings, when you invest in a smart thermostat. A smart thermostat is just like a standard thermostat, only it's WiFi-enabled and gives you the power to adjust the heating and cooling in your home from connected smart devices like a phone, computer or tablet. They are often built with an LED touchscreen with limited on-display controls. These home automation gadgets are appealing as they offer remote access to your thermostat system, which is much more convenient than manually changing settings. In this article, we'll talk more about the smart thermostat features available and what to look for when choosing a smart thermostat model for your home.

Energy Star Certification

Plenty of products at Abt are ENERGY STAR Certified, which means they'll save you energy, money and protect the environment all at the same time. If this is something you're interested in, consider choosing a smart thermostat that's ENERGY STAR Certified. ENERGY STAR Certified smart thermostats still control your home's heating and cooling abilities, but they altogether reduce the use of your home's whole HVAC system. The average American household ends up spending more than $900 annually just on heating and cooling alone. When you choose a certified thermostat, you can save up to $100 a year on those utility bills. One of the smart thermostat requirements for receiving this certification is that the model must have a low-power standby mode that activates when your heating/cooling system is inactive. ENERGY STAR Certified smart thermostats also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an effect of human activity that contributes to dangerous climate change. According to the ENERGY STAR program, if every citizen in the U.S. were to use an ENERGY STAR Certified smart thermostat, $746 million and 56 trillion BTUs of energy would be saved every year, all while offsetting 13 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.
A person disconnecting a thermostat from the wall to expose the wires

HVAC Compatibility

While you may think purchasing and using a smart thermostat is as easy as screwing it into your wall, you'd be wrong. Making sure the device is compatible with your current HVAC system is vital before choosing a smart thermostat to invest in. Typically, smart thermostats will work with most forced-air HVAC systems installed after 1975. If your home is dependent on a furnace or an oil boiler, you may be in need of an adapter. Most smart thermostats made in the U.S. are incompatible with biofuels, baseboard heating and in-wall heaters. While they are quite easy to install for any average user, you will need to consult a professional if you have a heat pump or if your HVAC system is:
  • Separated for heating and cooling
  • Multi-stage
  • Variable speed
  • Zoned for different spaces in your home
A professional will know how best to handle those specific heating/cooling situations. Some HVAC systems may even require that you purchase your smart device from a specific manufacturer in order to be compatible. If you're still unsure about compatibility, call one of the experts at Abt to ensure you're choosing a smart thermostat that will pair correctly with your current HVAC system.

Voltage & Wires

Another way to determine if your current HVAC system is incompatible with a smart thermostat is by removing the cover of your old, standard model. If you see thicker wires for line-voltage control, your smart thermostat may not be able to work, as most models utilize thin, low-voltage wires. While programmable thermostats can power themselves through a battery, smart thermostats need something more reliable for functions like powering the screen and connecting to your WiFi. That's why most models require a C-wire or common wire, which acts as a constant power source from your HVAC control board. That being said, some high-end smart thermostats offer models that are completely wireless. While you can still install a smart thermostat in your home if you don't have a C-wire, the presence of one will definitely help in choosing a smart thermostat, as your wiring capabilities will narrow down the brands and models that work for your home. If you're set on a specific smart thermostat that requires a C-wire, you will require an adapter.
A person holding their smartphone, which shows a smart thermostat app with the temperature at 74 degrees.

Smartphone Compatibility & Controls

While most smart thermostats can work with almost any cell phone operating system, some models are only compatible with iOS alone, Android alone, etc. This is something to look out for when choosing a smart thermostat for your home. Every brand will have its own accompanying mobile app you can use to control your device in your home or remotely. They can even perform automatic updates anytime the thermostat software makes improvements. Some apps allow you to access all smart thermostat features for free, while others may offer certain features with a paid subscription. These apps usually allow you to adjust settings from your phone and can even send you alerts for things like temperature changes, furnace maintenance reminders or air filter cleaning reminders. If your model's mobile app offers different insight reports, you should take advantage of them to track exactly how you're using energy and how to save it even more in the future.

Physical Installation & WiFi Connectivity

Smart thermostats can be installed by the user or by a professional, depending on your comfort level. Most models have color-coded wiring systems with labels to indicate where each wire should be placed. Even if the model you choose doesn't have a handy color-coded system, you can check the manufacturer's manual or snap a picture of your old thermostat wire setup to use as a reference when installing the new model. If you're looking to avoid any possible installation mishap, a professional is the way to go. If you have the ability to move the location of your thermostat closer to your WiFi router, this is ideal, as these devices depend on WiFi for connectivity and other special smart thermostat features. If relocation is impossible, consider investing in a WiFi range extender to ensure you're getting the best performance over time. Once your smart thermostat is physically installed, all you need to do is set up the accompanying app on your phone. From there, you will connect your thermostat to the WiFi in your home.

Smart Home Integration

If you're in the process of choosing a smart thermostat, you may also be interested in home automation. Home automation is the process of turning your living space into a "smart home". By investing in devices like smart hubs, smart smoke detectors, home speakers and home security systems, you can then connect them together to form a smart home system. Many smart thermostats these days can easily be integrated into smart home systems or with other smart devices. You may be wondering what the benefit of smart home integration is for a smart thermostat. If you connect your smart thermostat to a virtual assistant like Amazon Alexa, you can enjoy a completely hands-free experience, adjusting your temperature settings with a single voice command. If you have smart windows and connect them to your smart thermostat, it can automatically turn off your HVAC unit when it senses that the windows are open. Some smart thermostat apps can even control all your smart home devices, including your thermostat, from that one software base, making your at-home lifestyle all the more convenient.

Temperature & Motion Detection Sensors

When choosing a smart thermostat, it's important to keep in mind the types of sensors they have to offer. If you have a single HVAC system that controls the whole home, it's best to invest in a smart thermostat with temperature sensors. Temperature sensors monitor the rooms in your home for hot and cold spots due to sun exposure, lack of insulation, etc. They, then, communicate with the thermostat wirelessly in order to automatically adjust the temperature, combating all irregularities. Temperature sensors are especially beneficial for larger or older homes. Some smart thermostats also have motion sensors/occupancy sensors. Motion sensors can detect when your home is occupied and when it's empty, but additionally, they can determine which rooms and areas get the most daily traffic so that temperature can be prioritized. Some smart thermostat models come with built-in temperature and motion sensors, but if not, they can be purchased separately. When you purchase sensors separately, they should be placed in different rooms in the home, especially the spaces you have trouble regulating.
A round white smart thermostat with a black display and blue graphics reading 72 degrees

Other Smart Thermostat Features To Consider

  • AI Learning Capabilities: Some smart thermostat models have learning capabilities. They feature AI technology that's able to track your daily routines and remember your past temperature preferences. They use this information to establish an everyday heating/cooling schedule built to match your lifestyle.
  • Vacation Mode: When you purchase a smart thermostat that has a Vacation Mode setting, you can let your technology know when you'll be gone for longer periods of time in order to properly conserve energy in your home while you're away. Your thermostat will be able to prevent frozen pipes in the winter, overheating in the summer and plenty of other mishaps.
  • Music Streaming: Select smart thermostat models come with integrated speakers. Once you connect your cellphone or other smart device to your thermostat, you can use these speakers to stream all your favorite music at home.
  • Home Aesthetics: While the style and appearance of your smart thermostat is probably last on your list of priorities, it's important to note that different models come in different shapes, sizes and colors. If you're trying to have your device blend in with your home decor, you may want to take time choosing a smart thermostat model, using your home aesthetic as a guide. There are sleek, round thermostats, classic rectangular thermostats and many other styles to shop for.

Smart Thermostat Pricing

Smart thermostat prices can range anywhere from $50 to $300. The prices will vary depending on the amount of smart thermostat features they offer. While about $150 is fairly standard, if you're looking for the highest quality, we suggest choosing a smart thermostat in the $200-$300 range. These higher-quality models will be able to work more efficiently with more HVAC system types and they are built far more durably. If you are switching from a standard thermostat to a smart thermostat for the first time, some energy companies in certain regions will give you a rebate. For select smart thermostat models offered at Abt, for example, a rebate from ComEd may apply. Take a look at our Rebate Center to see what smart thermostat brands are available for these opportunities.

Shop Smart Thermostats at Abt

Smart thermostats are gaining more popularity as time goes on, as they make regulating the temperature of your living space easier for everyone in the household. Now that you're an expert on these devices, it's time to pick a model that works best for you. We have products for those seeking energy efficiency, smart home integration and different types of sensors, catering to customers of all budgets. You know your home better than we do, so we know you'll make the best investment with the helpful information in our guide. If you're unsure of what kind of heating and cooling system you have or you're seeking professional installation, Abt is happy to offer HVAC services to all local customers. To continue transitioning your home into a connected smart system, explore our home automation buying guide. Any additional questions about choosing a smart thermostat can be answered by our experts at 800-860-3577.