Shrink Your Carbon Footprint with a Smart Thermostat

Make saving energy easy and fun.

Nest Thermostat What is in the Box

You can stay warm (or cool) in your home, use less energy, and save money by replacing your old thermostat with an easy to use learning (smart) thermostat. The operative word here is easy.

With a little training from you, a smart thermostat will learn your household’s temperature preferences, adjust to changes in your schedules, and suggest settings to save energy.

For instance, during the winter a smart thermostat will learn what time to turn your furnace down at night while your household is sleeping. On a hot day, a smart thermostat will learn when to turn on your air conditioning so that your home cools down before your kids get home from school or you arrive home from work. If you sign up for an account and download the app, you can control your thermostat using your smartphone and get detailed information about your home heating and cooling energy use.

A smart thermostat is likely to cost you between $150-$250, plus sales tax and possibly shipping if you buy it online. You may be able to install it yourself or with the help of a friend, but if not, hiring an installer will add to the cost. Most manufacturers claim that a smart thermostat could reduce your home heating and cooling energy use by at least 10-15% and that the thermostat will pay for itself in energy savings in two years or less.

2015 Residential Energy Use Pie Chart
2015 Residential Energy Use Pie Chart – Source The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration

There are probably 100 million thermostats hanging out in hallways across the United States. Imagine if every household had a smart thermostat. We could be comfortable in our homes, save some money, and most importantly decrease our reliance on burning fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes. When millions of people make even a small change, it can really add up to make a significant positive impact.

That all sounds wonderful so smart thermostats should be flying off store shelves, right?

I am highly motivated to curtail my energy use and yet it took me five years to decide to buy a smart thermostat because I was evaluating the purchase using outdated cost/benefit thinking.

Is a Smart Thermostat a Good Investment?

I have been eyeing smart thermostats since 2012 when I wrote about them in the post Use Your Thermostat to Save Energy and Money. At that time, I did the math and decided that replacing our old thermostat with a smart thermostat did not pencil out, meaning it did not seem like a good investment.

My spouse and I both work out of our home office so since we are home during the workday we use energy all day. However, we live in a temperate climate where the average winter temperature during the day is in the 50s and we do not have air conditioning. If we managed to save 10% a year on our natural gas bill, I estimated it would take at least four years or more for the energy savings to equal the cost of the smart thermostat.

So, what changed my mind?

First, I had to admit to myself that I was never going to learn how to use our existing programmable thermostat and that manually turning it on and off and adjusting the temperature when I thought about it was not an energy saving practice.

Programmable Thermostat Inner Workings
The Incomprehensible Inner Workings of Our Old Programmable Thermostat

Once or twice during the ten years, we have lived in our current home, I opened the thermostat cover and looked inside with the intent of learning how to program it. The inner workings seemed complicated and difficult to use. I sighed and closed the cover feeling defeated. I know I could have tried to find the instruction guide online, but I never did.

Then there was the argument that our current thermostat was operational so it would be wasteful to get rid of it. Eventually, I realized that using more natural gas than we need to is much more wasteful especially considering that extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels is harming people and the planet. We need to get off burning fossil fuels sooner rather than later and decreasing our own use is a step in the right direction.

The seemingly long payback period made me hesitant to spend $200 on a new thermostat. My only excuse for that holding me back is that I spent a couple of decades working in corporate America where every product purchase was evaluated based on how long it would take to pay for itself in either sales revenue or cost savings. Every decision was made with an eye on the financial bottom line.

My narrow thinking kept me from buying a smart thermostat until near the end of last year when I was researching and then writing about why you should learn to read your natural gas and electricity bills. My purpose was to empower readers to understand their own energy use and be responsible for decreasing their fossil fuel use. While I was editing my posts, I realized that I could and should do more than I was doing to reduce our household energy use by purchasing a smart thermostat.

Smart Thermostat Installation

Fortunately, my spouse agreed that we should move the dial forward on our goal to reduce our home energy use by purchasing a smart thermostat.

Of course, there are many different makes and models of smart thermostats on the market in a variety of price ranges. We opted for a Nest Thermostat E for $169 because it has a cool looking design and seemed easy to install and to use (it was and it is).

The picture at the top of the post shows what comes in the box accompanied by an easy to follow instruction guide. My spouse installed the new thermostat, however, even though I am not mechanically inclined I think I could have done it.

An optional rectangular piece of plastic comes in the box so you can cover up the outline and screw holes left on your wall from your old thermostat. My spouse is very handy, so we decided to spackle and paint over the wall.

Sure, replacing our old thermostat with a smarter version is a small change but imagine if everyone did it. If we want to have a habitable planet to live on in the future, we had better expand our vision of what constitutes a good investment.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Nest Thermostat What Comes in the Box – Photo Credit Nest Corporation

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

7 thoughts on “Shrink Your Carbon Footprint with a Smart Thermostat”

  1. Excellent information. However, I would like to see what the directions look like to install the “cool” looking smart thermostat. Just seeing the different colored wires in the middle photo looked daunting to me. Is there a way to review them on line?

    1. You can look at the instruction guide on the Nest website and watch an installation video. The instruction guide that came with the thermostat had little labels you can stick on the wires as you disconnect them from your old thermostat so you don’t get them mixed up later. I think Nest did an excellent job providing installation instructions that are easy to read and follow.

  2. I cannot throw my trash out in the street and yet natural gas companies can inject toxins into the ground, poison water sources, and emit pollutants into the air free of charge.

  3. Hi Linda
    I’m not intending to be the “devil’s advocate” but this is something I have wondered. I work as an Energy Services Advisor for a municipal utility in Iowa. I am always looking for ways to help our customers eliminate wasted energy consumption. Here is my question/comment regarding smart thermostats. My current thermostat is a traditional programmable version (which I do have programmed) and I, like you, have contemplated installing a Nest (or similar product). I have no doubt that a smart thermostat will look nicer and be more user friendly but with the use of WiFi, how much energy is being used by the data center that my smart thermostat is communicating with 24/7/365 in order for me to see it on my smart phone? Will the energy consumption of the WiFi connection capabilities over the life of my smart thermostat be consuming more energy than what I would be saving converting from a properly programmed “traditional” thermostat to a smart one? Yes, a smart thermostat is likely more user friendly and yes, I had to research how to program my traditional one but is there truly a savings? I don’t doubt that you would see a savings from a non-programmable thermostat to a programmable one but I question how much I am reducing my true carbon footprint by choosing a smart thermostat over a traditional programmable one – properly programmed of course! And this doesn’t even get into the carbon/energy footprint of making a new smart thermostat to replace an existing, properly functioning programmable thermostat. Thoughts? Any feedback is greatly appreciated!

    1. Paul these are all good points. Our Nest is not connected to WiFi because the app is not compatible with my “ancient” smartphone (I refuse to upgrade until I have to). I do not know the answer to how much energy is consumed by the data center communicating with connected Nest thermostats (might be a good question for the Nest people). The embodied energy in making a new smart thermostat was a concern but I thought the benefits outweighed it. I believe we need to get off burning fossil fuels, but I realize that people will not just stop. I bought a smart thermostat because I wanted to reduce my own household natural gas use and encourage everyone else to do so. If making saving energy easy and even fun will get more people on board, then I am all for it.

      1. Thank you for your reply – I totally agree with your statement, “If making saving energy easy and even fun will get more people on board, then I am all for it”.

        I work with a lot of lower income families and I don’t want people thinking they need to spend $150-$200 to reduce their heating and cooling loads. I know the standard programmable thermostat is not as user friendly, but when set-up properly, they can sure make a difference. I still offer rebates to our customers for purchasing the standard ones, even though the push is towards the sexier version. Keep up the great work and have a wonderful afternoon Linda!

        1. You are right. A smart thermostat does not fit in everyone’s budget. Glad that you are offering rebates on standard programmable thermostats, too. In the related posts section, I included links to other posts that contain simple and low or no-cost ideas that sometimes people do not think about, like washing in cold water.

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