WiFi thermostat manufacturers claim they can make sure you're not running the air conditioning too long in the summer or the heat too long in the winter, and ultimately generate energy bill savings. Are those savings enough to be worth the initial investment?

The novelty value of being able to control home temperature with your iPhone or iPad is high, but in terms of real dollars and cents, WiFi thermostats are expensive compared to normal programmable thermostats, especially if you require pro installation. The degree of energy savings will determine whether a WiFi thermostat is a worthwhile purchase, and we're going to help you figure that out.

Scheduling your WiFi thermostat

WiFi Thermostat scheduling

The core concept of saving energy in home heating and cooling is to leave your system off while you're asleep or away at work. Ultimately, you only want it running when you need it, with a little bit of wriggle room in the schedule so your home can reach a target temperature just in time. Both WiFi thermostats and regular programmable thermostats can pull this off, but so can a bit of diligence with an older manual model.

How much WiFi thermostats can save

Ecobee claims their thermostats saved owners an average of 23% in 2013, while Nest says they've saved 10 - 12%.

Let's take a look at the energy savings that WiFi thermostat manufacturers promote in their advertising, with the caveat that these numbers can vary wildly based on home size, insulation, local weather, type of climate control system, and how much time you spend out of the house.

As you might expect, the manufacturers are very clear that the savings numbers they offer are purely estimates and not guarantees. Ecobee claims their thermostats saved owners an average of 23% in heating and cooling costs in 2013, while Nest says they've saved 10 - 12% on heating and 15% on cooling between three studies, resulting in average annual savings of $131 - $145. Nest and Honeywell have savings calculators available where you can get a ballpark idea of how much money you can save. With these numbers, it would take at least a year for the thermostat to pay for itself in savings, and more likely two or three.

How much regular thermostats can save

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates homeowners save an average of 10% annually with a programmable thermostat.

Next let's figure out how much of those savings are attainable with a significantly cheaper programmable thermostat. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates homeowners save an average of 10% annually on their heating bill with a programmable thermostat versus a traditional one. A 2004 study of 25,000 Quebec homes shows a meager 3.6% energy savings with a programmable thermostat. A natural gas billing study from 2006 shows a 6.3% savings with programmable thermostats. Saying a WiFi thermostat provided 10% more savings than a traditional programmable thermostat would be optimistic.

The aforementioned savings estimates from wifi thermostat makers are relative to the original thermostat used. In many of these estimates, they're assuming you have an old thermostat that's not programmable or a programmable thermostat that isn't set up.

It's clear that usability is a big issue that has cost homeowners a whole lot of money.

The latter scenario is apparently common. Out of 35,471 programmable thermostats monitored in New York and San Francisco in 2003, 53% were in "hold" mode and not programmed. Other studies back up this trend. Some researchers even posit that traditional programmable thermostats have wasted power because they haven't been set up properly, and that those with manual thermostats save just as much with good habits.

Conclusion

Overall, it's safe to say you can expect to save in the ballpark of 10% on your energy bill if you're using your thermostat right. It's clear that usability is a big issue in thermostats that has cost homeowners as an amalgam a whole lot of money. This latest breed of WiFi thermostats, though only marginally smarter than the previous generation when it comes to regulating home temperature, are infinitely easier and more intuitive to use. Sure, you can save a comparable amount with a lower-end thermostat, but that hinges entirely on whether or not you'll use it right, namely by turning the system down at night and before you head out for work. If it's not something you're doing already, odds are a hard-to-use system won't get you to start saving money, while a proper WiFi thermostat will.

Some great WiFi thermostats

There are plenty to pick from, but here are a few WiFi thermostats that we really like.

ecobee3

ecobee is the grand-daddy of WiFi thermostats. On top of monitoring the climate of the room in which the primary thermostat is installed, remote sensors relay the status of other rooms throughout the house, providing comprehensive data for ecobee to manage your home temperature. Automated intelligent adjustments are made based on your activity around the house, changes in energy prices, and local weather.

Nest

Nest is a hugely popular Google-owned WiFi thermostat. The slick design carries it a long way, but it's also quite smart. A leaf icon helps you identify when Nest has achieved particularly efficient home temperature management, and a log lets you see exactly what kind of adjustments it's making throughout the day on your behalf. Nest is a great fit for the connected home with direct service tie-ins with Philips hue, Dropcam, Whirlpool washers, and plenty more.