Smart Thermostats for Saving Energy: The Other Side of the Coin

Thermostats have long been on the radar among government agencies and utilities hoping to encourage consumers to be more energy efficient. The programmable thermostats of the 1970s and 1980s were promoted as a way to use less energy by automating temperature control. These days, we have moved from programmable thermostats to smart thermostats. The goal is essentially the same.

Most of what comes with smart thermostats is good from an energy conservation perspective. But as with just about everything, there is another side to the coin. There are negative aspects to the smart thermostat, aspects that should not be ignored.

Smart Thermostats Save Money

The positive side of the smart thermostat coin is that the devices should save money. They do in most cases, at least provided they are used properly. How so? By better controlling interior temperatures based on consumer needs.

We all know that it is impractical to heat or cool a house when no one is home. Likewise, the temperature inside a home can be modified during the overnight hours, when occupants are sleeping. Energy savings based on both scenarios are theoretically possible with a simple programmable thermostat. Yet the advantage of a smart thermostat is the ability to self-adjust.

Most of your mid-range and high-end smart thermostats have onboard artificial intelligence. They collect and analyze data from a variety of sensors around the house, data that creates a digital picture of a homeowner’s routine. If that routine conflicts with the original programming entered by the homeowner, the thermostat can adjust itself automatically.

Smart Thermostats Are Remotely Accessible

One of the features that makes a thermostat smart is remote access. Unfortunately, remote access is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that homeowners can control their thermostats even when they are not home. So let’s say a homeowner finds himself stuck at work for a few extra hours. He can override his thermostat’s programming with his cell phone.

By the same token, what if a homeowner has to leave work early because she’s sick? She can use her phone to override programming so as to heat or cool the house by the time she arrives. This is exactly the type of scenario companies like Vivint Smart Home point to when promoting the remote access angle.

The bad side of this is that homeowners aren’t the only ones who can access their thermostats, at least in certain cases where the thermostats are provided by local utilities. That leads us to the proverbial ‘other side of the coin’.

Taking Control of Thermostats

Local utilities are increasingly offering free smart thermostats to consumers willing to sign up for energy savings programs. In exchange for the thermostats, customers need to agree to allow their utilities to take control in the event of an energy emergency. It sounds reasonable until homeowners are locked out of their thermostats. It has happened on more than one occasion.

In late August 2022, thousands of consumers in Colorado were locked out of their thermostats for hours. Why? Because the local utility deemed it necessary thanks to a perceived energy emergency caused by high temperatures. Without having to prove anything, the utility determined their ability to provide electricity was jeopardized. So they took control of thousands of thermostats to prevent people from cooling their houses to a comfortable temperature.

Smart technology is generally good. But there are always risks associated with it. In the case of the smart thermostat, it is entirely possible that an outside entity could take control. The risk goes way up when thermostats are provided by utilities.