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Thermostat Buying Guide

Learn how to choose the best thermostat to control the temperature in your home for comfort and energy efficiency.

Holly Traffas
Holly Traffas
blue sky, white paper clouds, round device showing temperature.

Efficiently controlling the temperature inside the home not only keeps you comfortable, it can save money on utility bills. Whether you’re installing a new heating and cooling system, or just replacing an outdated thermostat, this guide will help you choose the right control for your home.

Where to Install Your Thermostat

two men smiling. One wearing service work shirt, programming thermostat.

A number of factors in and around your home can cause inaccurate temperature readings and make your thermostat switch on or off when it shouldn’t. For the most accurate temperature reading, install your thermostat on an interior wall near the center of your home, and make sure it’s placed away from heating/cooling vents, drafts, and direct sunlight.

System Compatibility

Not all thermostats work with all HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems. HVAC systems are either single-stage or multi-stage.

Single-stage HVAC systems are basically on/off operations. Regardless of the temperature in the home, they blow heated or cooled air at full blast. When the thermostat registers that the room has reached the desired temperature, the whole system shuts down.

Multi-stage HVAC systems blow air at varying intensities. A two-stage system could be thought of as low/high, and a three-stage system as low/medium/high. Multi-stage systems put out varying levels of power depending on need. If the temperature only has to go up or down a couple degrees, the lower power level is used, saving energy.

Single-stage and multi-stage systems have different wiring, so the correct thermostat must be installed. Once you’ve determined what type of HVAC system you have, shop for a compatible thermostat. The thermostat packaging and documentation will indicate if it is for use with a single-stage or multi-stage system.

Millivolt Thermostats

thermostat illustration with a flame and lighting bolt.

Millivolt thermostats work with low-voltage systems that get their power from the device they’re controlling — such as the pilot light on a gas fireplace.

How Does a Millivolt System Work?

Millivolt systems include thermocouples and thermopile sensors. When heated by the flame from a pilot light, the thermocouple produces a tiny amount of electricity (approximately 20-30 millivolts), which is enough to power the control system. A millivolt is one one-thousandth of a volt (1/1000).

Programmable Thermostats

brown wall with white digital thermostat. Woman and daughter in kitchen.

Automating the temperature in your home is a smart way to save time and money. Rather than wasting energy by heating and cooling an empty house, a programmable thermostat can be set reduce usage when you’re away at work, or while you sleep. You can program your heating and cooling schedule in advance, then let the thermostat take over. The programs can be adjusted if your schedule changes, and it’s easy to override the system for one-time events like a day off of work.  

Scheduling Programs

Many programmable thermostats have preset programs based on typical usage over the course of seven days. Here are some popular presets:

  • 7-Day Program allows you to set a different heating and cooling schedule for each day of the week. This is ideal for people who need flexibility because their work or school schedule varies from day to day.
  • 5-2 Program lets you set one schedule for Monday through Friday, and a second schedule for the weekend.
  • 5-1-1 Program uses one heating/cooling schedule for Monday through Friday, another for Saturday, and a third for Sunday.

Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Programmable Thermostat

  • Set your ideal-comfort temperature for the hours when you are home and awake
  • Adjust the thermostat to reduce energy use when you’re away or asleep.
  • Plan for which events you want to adjust the temperature, for example: waking up, going to bed, leaving for work, and returning home.
  • Set temperature adjustments in advance of events: reduce heating and cooling about 30 minutes before you leave the house each day or about 60 minutes before bedtime, and set the thermostat to your desired temperature 20-30 minutes before you’re scheduled to return home.
  • Remember to override regular temperature programming when you’ll be away from home for an extended period of time.

Smart Thermostats

teal illustration of smart phone, controlling thermostat device.

Smart Thermostats are wifi enabled for maximum convenience and flexibility. Each comes with an app to control the temperature from anywhere, or get reports on your usage. These thermostats also can be connected to virtual assistants, such as Alexa or Google Home, so you can adjust the temp with your voice.

Select smart thermostats don’t rely on preset programs for efficiency. Over time, they actually learn your schedule and preferences. Users manually adjust their preferred temperature over a period of days, then the thermostat uses that data to automatically create an energy efficient program.

Manual Thermostats

hand illustration, manual thermostat.

These low-tech thermostats use a dial or lever to set the temperature. Users must manually adjust the thermostat any time they want to change the temperature. Though these units have a much lower upfront cost, they do not provide the convenience or long-term energy savings of programmable models.

Zone-Control Panels

3 rooms in bubbles around thermostat device showing zones.

Zone-control panels allow you to individually control the temperature in separate rooms (or levels) of your home. Each zone has its own thermostat, and all zones are controlled from the centralized panel. The ducts leading to each zone are outfitted with dampers that open or close to regulate airflow and adjust to the temperature in that zone as set at the control panel. The advantage of this type of setup is that you won’t waste energy heating and cooling unoccupied areas. It’s especially useful for multi-story houses, or large homes were certain areas are infrequently used.

Thermostat Covers

hand with a key and lock.

Thermostat covers let you limit who can adjust the temperature in offices, commercial buildings, or multi-resident dwellings. The covers fit over an existing thermostat and include a locking mechanism so only the keyholder can open the cover and adjust the settings. Typically, these covers are made of a durable, clear plastic, which allows you to view the thermostat, but prevent tampering. Steel guard covers are also available for maximum control. Thermostat covers are vented to allow air to flow inside so the temperature can be accurately read.

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