Thermostats

Many people getting started with home automation dive right in to choosing hubs and z-wave light switches. However, I like to advise people to start with a different part of their home: the thermostat. This recommendation stems from a philosophy I have that entering the world of smart homes should be like getting into a hot tub, do it slowly! Making many drastic changes to your house at once can cause confusion and frustration if things don’t work perfectly and can sour you (or your housemates) on home automation altogether.

Many of the top rated thermostats are excellent, standalone systems and work without any hubs. That’s right, they are wifi. Remember when we mentioned that wifi devices have a place in your home? This is one of those places. They are typically controlled by well-designed mobile apps and web sites and are very easy to get started with and program. This means that once you set up your thermostat, you’ll start to experience the convenience of controlling a vital part of your home remotely and you start to see the potential for how a smart home can be beneficial. This realization, formed by experience rather than research, is what gets people hooked on smart home technology. For many, thermostats are the gateway drug to home automation.

When choosing a smart thermostat, there are several questions to consider.

  • Compatibility: Is the thermostat designed to work with your home’s heating and cooling system? Some homes have a furnace, others boilers, and still others have heat pumps. Can the thermostat manage these different systems?
  • Installation: How easy is it to install? Does your home have the wires necessary to power the thermostat? Most smart thermostats require a wire called the “c or common wire” or common wire to help provide power to the thermostat so it can run its pretty screen and wifi radios.
  • Features: Does the thermostat have the specific bells and whistles you find useful in your home?
  • Control: How easy is it to control and program the thermostat? Is there a mobile app or website? Is it compatible with your home automation hub (if you have one)?


There are many thermostats to choose from but there a 2 clear front runners in the space: Nest and Ecobee. Let’s look at them one at a time. Nest, owned by Google, has 2 current models, the Nest E and the Nest 3rd Gen. The feature set of both of these is similar, but different configurations of boiler, furnace and A/C might mean that you have to go with the more expensive 3rd Gen rather than the cheaper E. Nest provides a Compatibility Checker on the web  and in their app that helps you figure out if you can get the E. Even if both models are compatible with your system, I’d still recommend the 3rd Gen over the E due to the much higher-end, metal look it has vs the E’s plastic-y aesthetic.

Installation of the Nest is very easy. It is usually a matter of removing your old thermostat, attaching the Nest’s mounting plate and reattaching the color coded wires, and then snapping your new thermostat into place. However, many older homes do not have a C wire. Nest is one of the few smart thermostats that claims not to need a C wire. If one isn’t attached, the Nest will charge its internal battery when your system is on. If your system is not on for an extended period of time, the Nest will turn it on for short bursts to “steal” power to keep itself charged. Many installers will tell you that these short cycles of your HVAC system can damage it and strongly recommend attaching a C wire. If your house does not have a C wire, you’ll have to choose between running the Nest in power-stealing mode, having an electrician run a new wire for you, or using a special modulator  to fake that extra wire by running two signals over a single wire. We’ll talk about the C wire and add-a-wire kits in a separate post.

One of the marquee features of the Nest is its learning capabilities. It observes the manual temperature changes you make and learns the temperature that you prefer for various days and times. Once it learns your patterns, you don’t have to make manual adjustments any more, the smart thermostat does it for you. In practice, however, homeowners find themselves touching the thermostat whenever they aren’t conforming to the learned schedule. Some people find the learning mode unpredictable and turn it off completely.

The Nest has a round, beautiful screen that turns on when someone moves toward it. This feature, called Farsight, can be disabled if desired and the screen can be set to go on only when there is motion directly in front of the thermostat or when the screen is pressed. Using the screen press option (as would be required for Shabbat observers) means that your thermostat is usually showing a blank screen with no visible information about your home’s temperature.

If your thermostat is in a hallway or in a spot that might be extra hot or cold, Nest sells remote sensors that measure the temperature in other parts of your house and allow the heat or a/c to come on based on that location’s temperature. Nest provides four non-configurable time slots throughout the day and allows you to set each timeslot to be controlled by the temperature readings from one of your sensors. You don’t get to change the times for those timeslots (!!) so unless they correspond to your schedule, the remote sensors might not be very useful to you.

The Nest app is very well made and looks great. It allows you to program your thermostat and manually control it from your phone. If you have other Nest products such as cameras or a doorbell, those can all be controlled within the same app.

Shifting over to the Ecobee, there are 3 models to choose from. There is the Ecobee 3, Ecobee 3 lite and the Ecobee 4. The 3 and 3 lite are virtually identical. The only difference is that the 3 supports 1 extra HVAC function like a whole house dehumidifier, humidifier, or ventilator. The 3 also has a built in occupancy sensor to detect if someone is home (and has walked by the thermostat recently). The 4 has the “extras” of the 3 and throws in the Alexa voice assistant. Yep, you can talk to Alexa, ask her questions and play music on your thermostat. What you cannot do, though, is use the Echo’s “drop-in” functionality that turns your Alexa device into an intercom. For me, this would be the only reason to have Alexa on my thermostat. Without drop-in functionality, Alexa is mostly useless in my hallways. I don’t need to play music or as her questions on my thermostat. The 4 is also a little thicker than the 3 and 3 lite.

Like Nest, Ecobee also provides an online compatibility checker that asks for your current wiring and tells you if it will work. The installation procedure is largely the same: remove the old thermostat, attach the Ecobee mount, attach the wires and snap on the thermostat. Unlike the Nest, the Ecobee cannot power-steal and requires a C-wire. If you do not have one, Ecobee provides their own add-a-wire kit called PEK (Power Extender Kit) that needs to be attached to your HVAC system to fake that C wire.

Ecobee’s screen is square and has a slightly lower resolution than Nest’s. It still looks great and can be set to always stay on. There is also an optional screen saver mode that can show a clock and the outside temperature at various brightness levels when no one is near the thermostat. Shabbat observers can disable the screen saver completely so that motion does not affect the screen at all.

Where Ecobee really shines is with their remote sensors. Although the 3 lite does not include sensors in the package, they can be purchased separately and will work with all Ecobee models. Ecobee allows you to create as many time slots as you like for each day for any arbitrary time of the day and then lets you decide which sensors should participate in each of those time slots. For example, if you spend your Friday afternoon cooking, this will artificially raises the temperature in your kitchen. You can tell Ecobee to ignore the kitchen sensor during that time so the rest of your house won’t be overly cooled. Or have the thermostat use the average of the bedroom temperatures at night and completely ignore your living room’s temp while you sleep. This is much more useful than Nest’s version. One more cool feature of Ecobee’s remote sensors is their Follow Me functionality. This tells your thermostat to automatically use room(s) in which motion has been detected when calculating the temperature. So in the evening when everyone is in the kitchen, the empty bedrooms are not considered when calculating your home’s temperature. This means that your home will be more comfortable in the rooms you are currently occupying.

Finally, Ecobee provides a great app and website to control your thermostat. Some settings (such as the screen saver) are only available on the unit itself but all temperature and programming can be done from your phone or computer. Ecobee also provides reports on your energy usage relative to you neighborhood and state so you can get a sense for how energy-efficient your house is (or isn’t). These reports don’t always work quite right but are definitely cool to see when they are.


Nest
Ecobee
Compatibility
Most systems
Yes
Yes
Easy online Compatibility Checker
Yes
Yes
Installation
Guided via App
Yes
Yes
Requires a C-wire
No (power stealing)
No (PEK)
Features
Looks amazing
Yes
Looks Ok
Learning
Yes (not that great)
No
Remote sensors
Yes (not that great)
Yes
Color screen
Yes
Yes
Shabbat Friendly
Somewhat
Yes
Control
Great app
Yes
Yes
Requires internet for remote control (via app or hub)
Yes
Yes
Can be automated via Hub
No**
Yes



As you can see from the chart above, both options are really good. The remote sensors and Shabbat friendliness are what pushed me toward Ecobee. There are other options like Honeywell’s Lyric T5 or Round but they fall short of our top contenders. There are Z-Wave thermostats that are controlled by your home automation hub which can harness the power of your existing automations but they tend to be ugly beige boxes and require an existing home automation setup to use. The Nest and Ecobee also work with most hubs (albeit over the internet), look great and work well as standalone systems. Which thermostat are you installing in your home?

**Update (5/8/2019): Google has announced the deprecation of the "Works with Nest" program. This means that all 3rd party integrations with Nest (i.e. any non-Google hub like SmartThings or smart speaker like Amazon's Echo will not be able to control Nest products after August 1st. This makes automating the Nest thermostat much more difficult. We'll keep an eye on how the community responds to this news.

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