Maintaining a comfortable temperature in the house is one of the things that makes it feel like a home. Kieran Alger explains what smart heating control can do for you
Until now, thermostats meant fiddling with dodgy heating interfaces that feature more foibles than 1980s VCR. In the past that’s also meant yet another thing to remember to set when you’re going away for any period of time. But not anymore, smart thermostats change everything.
The idea behind making your home’s climate controls smart isn’t just to make it connected to the internet for more accessible control, but to save money and help the environment too.
Thanks to Wi-Fi connected smart thermostats it’s now possible to control your home from anywhere in the world. Gone away during winter and forgotten to leave heat on to avoid the pipes bursting? Your smart thermostat has you covered. Spending too much on heating bills during winter by leaving the heating on when you’re not at home? It’ll take care of that too.
The even better news is that it’s not actually that complicated to upgrade. The days where making your heating smart involved tricky and expensive plumbing are about to be a thing of the past.
To help you understand how you can make bring your heating bang up to date, this smart thermostat beginner’s guide will let you know what smart thermostats are, the pros and cons of smart thermostat systems, how they work, why you might want them, the best smart thermostats to buy. We’ll also give you the lowdown on how to approach smart thermostat installation and everything else you need to know before you make the change and upgrade for a better future and a smarter home.
What is a smart thermostat?
A smart thermostat works similarly to a normal thermostat, only it’s far more connected and by comparison, aware. Comparing the two is like putting a new smartphone next to the first Nokia mobile phone, it’s that much more advanced.
For starters a smart thermostat is Wi-Fi connected. This means that using an accompanying smart thermostat app you’ll be able to turn up the heat using a smartphone, tablet or computer from anywhere in the world.
Controlling the thermostat when it comes to schedules is easier too. No more moving bits of plastic on dials or tapping endlessly to drill down into menus to set on and off times. Now using an app on a connected phone you can simply setup a schedule with easy touch controls. Then if you ever need to amend it there’s no longer the fear of messing up and starting it all over again, it’s as easy as a few swipes and taps.
Another big plus for smart thermostats is that, even though it’s easier, you shouldn’t need to adjust the schedule so much. Smart thermostats can learn. They can work out your patterns and adapt your heating to suit what’s needed, reflecting how you and your family actually use your house.
This not only means a constant temperature that’s comfortable whenever your home, but savings when you’re not.
Smart thermostats: how much do they cost and will they save you money?
Let’s start with the small number of reasons you might not want to upgrade. Primarily there will be an initial cost. You’ll need to buy the thermostat itself and in some cases pay someone to install it. Secondly, for some it might feel like you’re introducing added, unwanted complication.
Prices range from around £200 to £300 for the base unit plus installation, but there may be additional subscription charges as well.
However, if you take into account savings made based on smarter heating timings, that initial outlay can be offset as an investment. Some companies claim savings of up to £200 a year but this will depend very much on your current usage habits.
Smart thermostats: in use
As for the complications, most apps are very simple to use, even when they do offer more controls to play around with. Plus, when compared with traditional systems, it’s hard to call these more complicated.
For some people the aesthetics of smart thermostats are also a big draw – they just look nicer. A big digital display on the wall, often with plenty of glass and metal, looks like something from the future. It makes your home look better. So rather than hiding away heating controls under the stairs you can proudly display them in the hallway. This is a double win as they can often also detect movement in the home, so when you go out they’ll shut down the heat to save you money, automatically.
So if you’ve decided a smart thermostat is for you it’s time to start thinking about how to actually get that upgrade.
Smart thermostats: should I DIY or get an installer?
Unless you’re a plumber or electrician, or both, it’s probably best not to attempt to install a smart thermostat yourself in most cases.
Their installations can vary based on boiler type for a start, or whether you require more complex setups like underfloor or multi-zone heating. These are intricate bits of kit that connect to your mains electrics and plumbing.
If however you are simply replacing your existing thermostat and are comfortable working around your mains electricity, it can be fairly straightforward DIY job.
If not, you’re left with two options: either pay your energy supplier for their thermostat and installation to get upgraded or buy one yourself and get a professional to install it. The major thermostat suppliers all offer accredited home installers on their websites, or you can find your own local one with a quick Google.
The smart thermostat will be intelligent enough to work with both combi boilers as well as water tank run boilers, so it shouldn’t matter if your system isn’t all that new. Your installer can advise.
As mentioned previously some units are able to detect movement and adjust heating based on people being home or away. If you want to take advantage of that function you’ll need to find a good place to either wall mount or place the unit on a stand. Luckily some units offer wireless use through battery power. But since you don’t want to be worrying about another thing to charge, or change batteries in, it’s usually best to try and have it wired into the mains for always on power.
How many smart thermostats do you need?
Smart thermostat makers will tell you that the best idea is to divide your home into zones – that is, separate areas with their own heating profile/set temperatures/heating times. Depending on the size of your house, that could mean separate thermostats for the upstairs vs the downstairs, or living room vs dining area. Manufacturers recommend one thermostat per zone which can ramp the price considerably.
It’s up to you how far you want to go in the pursuit of perfect temperature, so with all that set aside you’re ready to go. Now you just need to pick the right smart thermostat for you.
What do the best Smart thermostats offer?
While smart thermostats are still a relatively new phenomenon there are already plenty of options to choose from. That said, if you’re going through your electricity supplier they’ll likely either have their own unit or a brand they tend to use. But you can always change to suit what you want so don’t let that hinder your decision-making. So what’s available right now?
Nest Learning Thermostat
Created by former Apple employees and backed by Google, this is a minimalist, smart and attractive option. The Nest Learning Thermostat was one of the first on the scene and so has had plenty of time to learn and develop into the perfect smart thermostat. The result is a metal rim that moves as a control unit and a large glass covered display – it’s industrial design-level gorgeous.
As the name suggests the Nest will learn your heating and cooling habits and adapt its schedule to suit. So clever is the Nest, it’ll even learn how long it takes your boiler to get the house to the right temperature and can adapt start times based on that. So if you set it to 19 degrees at 9am, it’ll have hit exactly that temperature at that time. Nest even knows the weather outside thanks to its Wi-Fi connection and if anyone’s home based on its 150-degree sensor so it can act accordingly.
The Auto Away setting is where you’ll save money on bills as it recognises patterns of when nobody is home, or if there’s no movement, and can turn off the boiler. In fact Nest makers claim it’ll save an average 10 to 12 per cent on heating bills. Not bad when the thermostat itself is £250 and you can set it up yourself to save on installation.
- Read our six month verdict on whether the Nest is any good.
Hive Active Heating 2
This is the British Gas smart thermostat that you’ll likely be given if you opt to go smart as a customer of that supplier. That is in no way a bad thing, this has come on leaps and bounds since the first model. For a start it looks great, Nest level excellent.
One of the great pulls of this thermostat is that it can be setup to run wirelessly meaning you can place it pretty much wherever you like. But, since this is a British Gas setup you’ll need to have it installed professionally. That said the installation is included in the £250 price.
Hive has been around for a while now so the apps are easy to use and offer plenty of features. This also fits into the Hive ecosystem. Each unit knows which room it works in and extra units can be added for £99 each. That Hive Multizone setup means you can not only control your home from anywhere but also specify which parts you want heated.
That ecosystem spans even wider and if you have enough units setup, on the boiler, router and thermostat itself you can control more Hive smart offerings. For example this Hive Hub lets the thermostat talk to the boiler and allows for smartphone control of things like the Hive Active Plug and sensor, so you could even turn on a lamp from outside the home remotely – ideal for security.
Hive also tracks your location via your phone so it’ll know when your leaving or returning and can adjust the heat to suit.
- Read our Hive 2 Active Heating reader verdict
The Honeywell Evohome system is a really bespoke setup that not only lets you control heating from your phone, but lets you control each room. Thanks to a connection with the boiler and each radiator everything can be adjusted to perfection, in up to 12 zones.
The downside to this level of intricate control is cost. Each zone you want to add means buying a new unit at £77 to attach to the system and with that starting at £250 this total cost can add up fast.
Despite offering detailed controls, doing things simply is an option too as there are Quick Action controls. These allow you to do things like reduce the entire house by a few degrees at the touch of an icon on your phone, for example.
Since the entire system works with ITTT you can also do cool things like set the heating to turn off when the sun comes up outside.
The only real downside, other than cost, is you need to do all the settings manually as the system won’t learn and adapt. But perhaps that’s something that will be added in the future with a software update.
The Tado 2.0 smart thermostat is a simple looking device that uses LED lights for an at a glance temperature readout. But delve a little deeper and there’s a cloud-based control system that frees up access from anywhere on the planet.
This is the second version of the system which has added the ability to supplement a second zone. This could be useful for those with two floors that want varied heat on each, say having upstairs cool in the day.
Tado is able to track the owner’s smartphone location, monitor weather and learn the requested temperature for when that person arrives back. The result is what Tado calls Model Predictive Control, which is essentially smart learning that can adapt to suit the user. By knowing how long it takes you to get home, seeing the weather and being aware of how long it takes to get the house to temperature it should be perfect every time you step through the front door.
Tado 2.0 will set you back £200 but it can also be rented for £5 per month for a year and £8 thereafter.
Designed by Philipe Starck, so it has the right design chops, this smart thermostat can be controlled by the usual app or via the thermostat itself, and thanks to its HomeKit integration, will also respond to Siri as well, so you can tell your system to, “turn the temperature to 20 degrees”. It doesn’t necessarily require a professional install either.
There’s an option to buy the Netatmo Weather Station as well, and doing this adds an extra layer of heat management intelligence to your system. For example, by measuring both the exterior and interior temperatures, it can work out how much extra time it might take to warm the house and adjust its scheduling accordingly.
The Thermostat will set you back £150 and doesn’t require a subscription.
- Read our reader’s verdict on the Netatmo Thermostat
- Now take a look at all our smart heating coverage.
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