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Thermostat Choices – A Brief Selection Guide

By Tom Tate

Thermostats have come a long way since their invention by Cornelius Drebbel around 1620 in England. Yes, you read that correctly, 1620. It was a mercury device designed to control heat to a chicken incubator. Thermostats to control room heat for humans first appeared in 1883 when Warren S. Johnson invented an electric room ‘stat in Wisconsin. Albert Butz was the first to patent an electric thermostat in 1886. Perhaps the most recognizable thermostat was the Honeywell round design introduced in 1953.

Today, you can choose from a wide array of thermostats ranging from simple dials to control a section of baseboard electric heat to sophisticated smart thermostats connected to the Internet and integrated with other home controls and systems. If you have read some of my other articles you may sense a theme, “Boy, there are a lot of choices.”

Choice can be a good thing, especially when you have a fondness for gadgets. If, however, you are only interested in turning your heat or cooling system up and down, you can satisfy that need too. A search for “thermostats” at Amazon yielded 167 pages of results! Talk about choices. So let me give a little buying guidance below.

For heating and cooling, you need to know you if have a regular furnace, air conditioner or heat pump. Heat pumps require a more sophisticated thermostat.

If you have baseboard electric heat, you will need a line voltage thermostat. Choices here are pretty basic, I am sad to say.

Typical programmable thermostats allow you to set four programs per day. They include: Wake, Leave, Return, Sleep or some variation thereof. Then you have these choices:

5-2: You set your programs for Monday – Friday (the 5) and Saturday-Sunday (the 2).

5-1-1: Same as above for weekdays with ability to set different schedules for Saturday and Sunday.

7: You can set a different schedule for each day of the week.

Smart: These adapt to your schedule and living patterns, requiring only that you set minimum and maximum acceptable temperatures. In this category are the Nest and Lyric with more coming every day.

So, what do you want to accomplish? Simply turn the heat up and down as the need arises? Then go with a standard digital non-programmable model. These will have minimal controls and a simple display of temperature.

If you want more control and to save some energy, the programmable option is the right choice. All you have to decide is how involved you want to be in the programming. On a budget and not interested in a lot of programming? Look for models that come preprogrammed with the EPA recommended temperature settings. Easy peasy.

Want to fine tune the way your systems run? Opt for the 7 day programmable model or, if your budget allows, go for a smart model. These often allow hour by hour programming capability. That said, to me the beauty of the smart models is their “set it and forget it” capability. Program two temperatures and leave the rest to them. However, they are expensive, over $200 in most cases.

Even if all you want to do is simply adjust your temperature up and down when you feel the need, I still encourage you to consider a programmable thermostat. Set up can take a little longer but once you have your program set, you can let the thermostat do its thing and enjoy up to 10% savings on your annual heating and cooling bill (according to the EPA and numerous other studies.) And the most basic thermostat in this class will cost between $50 and $100. If you have it installed by a professional there will be that added cost. But definitely a good investment.