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Energy Adviser: Save with a smart thermostat

Thermostats aren’t usually the first topic of conversation as summer approaches. But with heating and cooling taking up the bulk of your energy bill, it’s worth it to pay attention. The smartest thermostats today can learn the comings and goings of your family and tune the temperature to your household’s lifestyle. The savings can add up.

The idea of thermostats controlling heat dates from about 1620 when someone built a heating controller for a chicken coup. More than 250 years later, Albert Butz filed for the first thermostat patent. By the early 1900s, manufacturers sold “fuel savers” for homes. These clunky mechanical contraptions were complex and more of a luxury at that time.

But designs improved. Manufacturers eventually reduced the inner controls to mercury “bubble” switches or bimetal strips that bent at different rates to turn the furnace temperature up or down. Normally, folks adjusted their thermostats twice a year, turning them up in the winter and down in the summer. The more energy conscious adjusted the settings when they left their homes for more than a day. This saved a few of their energy dollars, but not many. Back then, energy was cheaper.

As costs rose, engineers devised programmable mechanical units. But despite being heralded as “energy savers,” they too seemed awfully complex for many households to manage daily. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when semiconductor technology arrived that thermostat programmability became easier and more reliable. This new breed of thermostat promised homeowners lower energy bills. They had fewer parts, battery backups and digital readouts. Digital control ensured homeowners precision and savings–if used properly.

“Not long ago, we put a lot of effort into encouraging customers to install programmable thermostats,” said Matthew Babbitts, energy services project manager for Clark Public Utilities. “The energy savings, however, depended more on how well customers used the thermostats, not the technology alone.”

Consumer behaviour kept energy savings lower than manufacturers, utility companies and the government expected. Studies, including one by Energy Star, showed programmable thermostats fell short of their promise. Consumers seemed frustrated or confused. Many never programmed them. Others resorted to turning them up and down manually as with older mechanical styles.

Home automation championed the next wave of thermostats. Several facets of the home — heating and cooling, security and lighting — are now linked to the internet. For the first time, homeowners held home remote controls in their hands. Although these connected thermostats communicated over the internet, they gathered no data about energy use. Later, smart thermostats, that also connected to the internet with cables or Wi-Fi, did crunch and present the data of a home’s energy use.

In 2011, Nest Labs introduced its first smart thermostat with learning capacity. Today, the Nest Learning Thermostat and ecobee3 can learn your household habits and adjust heating and cooling accordingly. Any Android or iOS device, as well as any Wi-Fi enabled laptop, can remotely control them. However, they approach learning your household habits differently, which is something you should check out before deciding which is better for you. (If you’d like voice control, for instance, the ecobee3 pairs with Amazon’s Alexa.)

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