Programmable thermostats can trim about $180 a year from your energy bills by automatically reducing heating and cooling needs when you’re away or asleep. Sounds simple, but not necessarily. While some of the 30 models Consumer Reports tested were easy to set and use, others were so complicated that you might give up in frustration and end up spending more, not less.
That’s pretty much what was happening across the country, which is why you won’t find the Energy Star on any thermostats. The program stopped certifying them in 2009 mostly because they were hard to use. New standards that factor in ease of use are being developed.
But you don’t have to wait. Consumer Reports’ testers rated ease of use based on how simple each thermostat was to set up and make routine adjustments to before reading the manual and then, if needed, with the manual. Most thermostats can keep rooms close to the chosen temperature, and all the thermostats rated have basic pre-programmed settings. Here’s what else Consumer Reports’ testing found:
Displays and prompts improve. The top three models have colorful interactive touchscreen displays that were especially easy to use and see. You can zip through the prompts on the top-rated Venstar ColorTouch, $170. The Honeywell Prestige $250, and the Ecobee, $300, let you program them using prompts or by answering questions about your daily habits. And if you get stuck at work, you can adjust the Ecobee’s settings, using your computer or smartphone, to turn the heat on later.
Smarter isn’t always better. The Nest, $250, is a learning thermostat. It continually senses whether you are at home and automatically adjusts its program based on changes you made the first week. From then on, it takes in your preferences and schedules and continually readjusts. It’s also improving: Nest recently alerted customers of software updates done automatically via Wi-Fi. You can program the Nest yourself, but Consumer Reports’ panelists found the round, ultra-sleek model wasn’t as intuitive as the top-rated thermostats. Like the Ecobee, you can remotely adjust the settings on the Nest using your computer or smartphone. You can also set the Nest to send you e-mail updates.
Some models mystify testers. You have to push a combination of buttons and hold them for several seconds to program the bottom-rated Venstar Wireless Remote, $105. But there’s no indication that you’re pushing the right buttons unless you use the manual. The buttons and onscreen prompts on the Filtrete 3M-22, $45, may leave you wondering what to do next. Both thermostats also have tiny screens that are relatively hard to read.
How to choose
Almost all of the tested models work with common heating and cooling systems, but check the box for exceptions. Then:
Look at your lifestyle. Most let you program different settings for each day. If you’re on a regular routine, consider a thermostat that offers one schedule for weekdays and one or two for weekends.
Think about installation. Most attach to heating and cooling systems with a few low-voltage wires, so you can replace your old one in about an hour. If it’s more than a simple replacement, call a pro.