1. “Connected” smart thermostats
The term “connected” refers to WiFi-enabled smart thermostats that allow users to control temperature settings remotely from a smartphone or computer. While models on the market vary, most also offer touchscreen displays that track energy usage in real-time and over given time intervals – providing useful feedback and helping users save. You can install some units yourself, while others should be installed by a professional.
WiFi-enabled units are especially useful for homeowners who often forget to pre-set their programmable thermostats or have unpredictable or irregular schedules, Daken says.
“[WiFi connectivity] can be more than convenience; it really can be an energy-saving feature,” Daken says. “It means that if users are rushing out the door and forget to set back their HVAC…they haven’t lost the opportunity to save for that period.”
Many homeowners also consider scheduling their temperature levels to be more user-friendly on a computer, especially when compared to fiddling with tiny buttons on a standard programmable thermostat. Most “connected” models also come equipped with smartphone apps for an even more interactive experience.
“Users have the ability to program the thermostat while sitting at a computer instead of standing in front of the product on the wall,” Daken says. “On the whole, it’s more likely that it’s easier to figure out how to set up your schedule if you can access it from a computer…instead of standing in front of a thermostat.”
For most homeowners, the major drawback of connected thermostats is price and installation. Pricing varies (typically between $100 and $500 – plus the cost of professional installation if necessary). Up-front costs can be easily offset if a connected model jives well with your lifestyle, but make sure the unit of your choice will provide significant energy savings before shelling out big bucks.
2. “Learning” smart thermostats
As the name implies, “learning” smart thermostats claim to learn your daily habits and automatically schedule temperature levels accordingly. Such models often come equipped with additional features such as sensors that monitor motion, light and humidity.
All learning models on the market are also WiFi-enabled. So, if you’re stuck at work later than usual, you can easily let your system know via smartphone or computer and prevent it from cooling an unoccupied home, Daken says.
While connected models offer greater benefits to homeowners with irregular schedules, learning thermostats require some semblance of regularity to function at their best, Daken says. These models are better suited for users with fairly set schedules but who often forget (or simply don’t want to) fidget with their thermostat before leaving the house.
“If you’re somebody who is willing to shell out the cash for a thermostat that will learn your habits, but you’re never going to program one yourself…then something like a learning thermostat really could be very valuable,” Daken says.
Like their “connected” cousins, learning thermostats can be pricey (The Nest learning thermostat pictured above retails for $249). If you’re currently using an older, non-programmable thermostat, the energy savings you’ll reap from switching to a learning model could quickly offset its cost.
However, learning units haven’t been on the market for very long – meaning it’s difficult to say for certain just how much energy you’ll save by making the switch. The bottom-line is: If you’re already using your programmable thermostat properly, you’re unlikely to see significant savings by switching to a learning model, Daken says. But if you tend to neglect your programmable settings, opting for a thermostat that adjusts automatically could be just what you need to cut energy costs.
3. “Smart Grid” technology
Smart Grid technologies are steadily gaining popularity in the U.S., with smart meter installations expected to reach more than 40 percent of the nation’s electric customers by the end of the year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Whether or not you have access to Smart Grid systems and services is dependent on local government and utilities. When Smart Grid systems move into the neighborhood your local utility will likely install an advanced meter on the exterior of your home – which may lead to some changes in your bill because you will be billed more accurately, Daken says. Some utilities will provide you with a new thermostat and some will not.
But the big energy-saver is not the equipment but the programs local utilities put in place when converting to the Smart Grid. These programs vary greatly from city to city. So, check with your local utility to find out which Smart Grid services are available in your area.
“There’s a lot of really interesting thinking going on right now about how to provide consumers with the better program, the better thermostat, the better service,” Daken says. “As utilities have been moving forward with these various programs, it is clear that there are some strategies which better balance the desires of consumers and the need to limit demand on the grid.”
To find out more about what the Smart Grid means for you, check out SmartGrid.gov – an online resource compiled by the Department of Energy.