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Climate Change

Smart Thermostats: A Climate Solution That Saves Energy and Money

January 25, 2019

Some intelligent answers to climate change can appear to be remote possibilities, but smart thermostats are a solution that is close at hand.

What do incubating eggs have to do with climate change? In 1620, Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel invented an oven to incubate eggs. His invention utilized a mercury thermostat and an air intake to control the incubator temperature by regulating larger or smaller amounts of hot air passing through the oven. This is believed to be the origin of the first thermostat.

About three centuries later, Warren Johnson, a professor in Wisconsin, grew frustrated with the temperatures in his classrooms (note: Wisconsin winter!). Because a basement furnace heated the building he taught in, he needed to track down the building’s janitor who physically made the temperature changes to turn up the heat. This frustration led him to create the first electric thermostat in 1883. Johnson’s new invention featured a bell that alerted the janitor to adjust the furnace damper. He didn’t stop there, as he started the Johnson Electric Service Company that is now known as Johnson Controls, a Fortune 500 company.

Smart Thermostats

Cornelius and Warren found innovative solutions to heating and cooling problems. Their work laid the foundation for a new and improved solution to one of the greatest challenges we face: climate change. This solution is the smart thermostat.

What is a thermostat?

The word thermostat is a combination of two ancient Greek terms: ‘thermos’ (meaning heat) and ‘statos’ (meaning stationary). Thus, a thermostat is something that maintains a temperature. A thermostat is not a thermometer, which simply measures the temperature. A thermostat is used in any device that regulates heating and cooling. They are found in building heating, central heating, air conditioners, HVAC systems, water heaters, ovens, refrigerators, and medical and scientific incubators.

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Mechanical and electronic are the two most common types of thermostats. The temperature sensor in a mechanical thermostat is made up of two pieces of metal. When air interacts with these metal pieces, they expand or contract unevenly, which signals the thermostat to regulate the temperature range in the room or building. Thus, mechanical thermostats are calibrated to closely coincide with the actual room temperature. Temperatures can be 5 degrees higher or lower than the thermostat’s set point. Think of a mechanical thermostat as an on/off switch.

In contrast, electronic thermostats have digital sensors that read an area’s temperature. More accurate and responsive than the mechanical, they typically don’t exceed 1 degree above or below the thermostat setting. This smaller range of temperature fluctuations can help reduce energy use too. Moreover, electronic thermostats are programmable for different times of the day and the week. Thus, saving money and energy by eliminating the need to keep a building warm or cool when no one is inside.

What makes a thermostat smart?

Smart thermostats (also called ‘learning’ or ‘wi-fi’ thermostats) take temperature control and response to a whole other level. These internet-connected devices utilize algorithms and sensors to gather and analyze large amounts of heating and cooling data. Temperature adjustments can still be made up or down, but the smart thermostat remembers temperature choices and adjustments and memorizes energy use routines.

The latest smart thermostats feature on demand response and can reduce energy use at peak times of consumption, pricing, and carbon emissions.

They can detect when a building is occupied, learn inhabitants’ preferences and help point the way toward more energy efficient behavior. The latest smart thermostats feature on demand response and can reduce energy use at peak times of consumption, pricing, and carbon emissions. They can also have remote control features that allow users to make changes from a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

How is a smart thermostat one solution to climate change?

Greenhouse gas emissions occur anytime non-renewable energy is used to heat or cool a building. Smart thermostats provide the means to make intelligent choices that cut down on the use of fossil-fuel energy sources by learning our heating and cooling preferences. For example, during summer months, a smart thermostat will learn when to turn on the air conditioning so a home cools down before your family gets home. 

Choices like this can lower the demand for electricity produced by power plants and, in turn, reduce global warming causing carbon emissions. Smart thermostats reveal that the amount of fossil fuel consumed can be more than is actually needed—helping users identify wasted energy. Such revelations lead to changes in behavior helping to reduce costs, reduce energy consumption, and reduce the demand for fossil fuels that harm people and the planet.

We project that smart thermostats could grow from .4 % to 46% of households with internet access by 2050. In this scenario, 704 million homes would have them. Reduced energy use could avoid 2.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. Return on investment is high: smart thermostats can save their owners $640 billion on utility bills in 2050.

Project Drawdown

Who could have imagined that Drebbel’s chicken egg incubator thermostat from 400 years ago would help hatch a climate solution to create a brighter future? It is time to get smart about energy efficiency by utilizing modern and innovative solutions because personal decisions, like using a smart thermostat in your home, can make a global impact.

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