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Need a better thermostat? Look to your smartphone

Internet-connected dishwashers and TVs get lots of attention, but thermostats that can be remotely controlled bring new conveniences and help people actually use the scheduling features of programmable thermostats.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read
A friendlier way to make that programmable thermostat do what it's supposed to.
A friendlier way to make that programmable thermostat do what it's supposed to. EnergyHub

For many, the ballyhooed smart home of connected devices will start with the lowly thermostat.

Startup EnergyHub today is releasing data from a study of customers who bought a Wi-Fi enabled thermostats tied to EnergyHub's Web service. It found that letting consumers operate the thermostat from a familiar PC or smartphone application, rather than on the thermostat itself, makes a dramatic difference in how often the programmable features are used.

An Internet-connected thermostat also allows people to remotely control home heating and cooling. Being able to adjust home temperature from the office or commute, for example, appears to be driving much of the interest in smart thermostats, said EnergyHub CEO Seth Frader-Thompson.

"Most people want the convenience and the energy savings," he said. "Remote control is by far the biggest driver to make the initial purchase."

Typically, only about 10 percent of people who have a programmable thermostat actually create a schedule to, for example, turn down the heating when nobody's at home. In tests with about 100,000 users of thermostats, including the $99 3M-50 Filtrete Wi-Fi thermostat, EnergyHub found that about 85 percent of people made use of the scheduling features.

"We're not changing the way the thermostat works. We're getting it to do what it was designed to do 30 years ago," he said. "An easier interface is a huge part of it."

During set up, people choose from a range of five efficiency options and so far most people have chosen a "high efficiency" or higher. The software lets people see how much they can expect to spend or save when choosing different options in real time, which helps inform their decisions.

The EPA estimates that a programmable thermostat can cut energy use by 20 percent to 30 percent, which can be roughly $200 a year.

EnergyHub is also working with utilities and a cable company to provide more advanced features, such as generating recommendations based on analysis of a specific home's energy use.

The company's survey also found some regional differences in how people set their thermostats. People in Vermont, for example, appear to be more willing to put up with lower indoor temperatures than Texans.

Updated on January 23 with clarification regarding the thermostats in the trials.