Learning how to effectively use your house’s thermostat can help you slash those utility bills this winter.
The average household spends roughly $2,000 a year on energy bills, according to Energy Star, an efficiency program managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. Nearly one-third of that money goes for heating.
Though steps such as sealing air leaks and changing furnace filters can help you conserve energy, knowing how to wield your home’s thermostat is one of the better ways to clamp down on heating costs, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts will increase this winter because of colder weather.
Here’s what you need to know about thermostats to stay warm this winter without overheating your budget.
Which is right for you?
An old-fashioned manual thermostat lets you adjust the temperature by moving a needle or pressing “up” and “down” buttons. These thermostats, which generally cost $15 to $35, are common in older homes, and they might be sufficient for people who spend most of their time at home, says Stacey Higginbotham, a home technology expert.
But a simple thermostat can be replaced by a programmable or smart thermostat. If you’re not confident in your DIY skills, most manufacturers offer professional installation, though it can be costly. You also can get installation quotes on service websites such as Thumbtack.
A programmable thermostat is essentially a “set-it-and-forget-it” product that lets you create a preset schedule for when your home’s heating or air-conditioning system turns on. Proper use of a programmable thermostat helps the average household save about $180 a year in energy costs, the EPA says. For most homeowners, a programmable thermostat is worth the upfront investment, as it only costs about $20 to $150, HomeAdvisor says.
A smart thermostat offers even greater convenience. They let you adjust settings remotely from an app on your phone. Some even can detect when you’re away from your house by tracking your phone’s location.
“If you’re gone, (a smart thermostat) can set the temperature to an energy-saving ‘away’ setting. Then, when it detects you are back in your home, it will resume the regular temperature setting,” says Eric Blank, editor at the Smart Cave, a smart-home product review website. “This can be a big energy saver.”
Some smart thermostats also will connect to your home’s voice assistant, so you can tell Alexa to adjust the heat without leaving your couch. But smart thermostats, which cost $200 to $300 or more, aren’t right for everyone.
“I think it depends on the homeowner’s habits,” Higginbotham says. “The best candidates for smart thermostats are people who leave their house often, since they can raise or lower their heating and cooling as need be.”
Smart thermostats are also better suited for homeowners who are tech-savvy, says Pascale Maslin, owner of Energy Efficiency Experts, an energy auditing company. “You need to be able to understand the technology,” Maslin says.
Blank agrees: “I would say a decent litmus test for technological competence would be being able to set up your home’s wireless router,” Blank says. If you pass that test, you should be able to learn how to operate a smart thermostat without losing your mind, he says.
No matter what type of thermostat you have, you should adjust the temperature before you sleep, Maslin says. You can save as much as 10 percent a year by adjusting your thermostat setting by 7 to 10 degrees from its normal setting for eight hours a day, according to the Energy Department.
If your house has more than one heating or cooling zone, installing a separate thermostat for each system can save more money, because some rooms (such as the basement or attic) tend to require more heating or air conditioning than others.
In addition, you’ll want to install your thermostat away from heating or cooling registers to ensure it gets an accurate reading. A thermostat placed in the kitchen, for example, could make your device “think” your house is warmer than it is.
Here are three products, among the many, to help you pick the right one for your needs:
Simple thermostat: Though most of these devices are created equal, Honeywell’s digital non-programmable thermostat ($24.97 at Home Depot) is “a reliable option for those with only basic heating and cooling needs,” says Eric Murrell, author of At Home in the Future, a smart home and technology blog.
Programmable thermostat: Murrell likes Orbit’s Clear Comfort programmable thermostat ($39.85 at Home Depot) because the large controls and display make it easy to program.
Smart thermostat: “While Nest used to be the leader of the smart thermostat pack, other players in the market, like Ecobee and Honeywell, have definitely caught up,” says Murrell, who recommends the Ecobee4 smart thermostat ($249 on Amazon.com). It has a built-in Amazon Alexa that lets you use voice commands to not only adjust the temperature but also play music, hear the news or set a timer, among other functions. Plus, the Ecobee4 comes with a room monitor that can sense where you are in your home and adjust the temperature in your house accordingly.