Typically when you think of trying to improve the efficiency in your home heating or cooling system, you’re talking about making major changes and big replacements – from overhauling your ducts to weatherproofing your home or even getting an entirely new furnace or air conditioner. But one of the simplest and most dramatic changes you can make to your energy bill is replacing the one little part that most people never think about: Your thermostat. After all, thermostats are what control the temperature in your home, and the better they can do it, the more efficiently your HVAC system will run and the lower your monthly bills will be. So what’s the difference between a new, programmable thermostat and one that’s ten or twenty years old?

Most importantly, newer thermostats have the ability to control themselves. With an old dial-style thermostat, or even an older digital model, you have to manually set the temperature every time you want to adjust it. But newer, programmable thermostats remember what temperature you want your home to be at different times of the day and automatically adjust your temperature accordingly. There are three main types of programmable thermostats designed to fit a variety of schedules. The most common have two settings: weekday and weekend. Others are programmed for weekdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and some can have a unique setting for each day of the week. All three allow you to set a heating and cooling temperature and a start time for each part of the day – morning, day, evening, and night. That means you’ll wake up to a comfortable house in the morning and come home to one after work no matter what your schedule.

This has a dual benefit over older thermostats. Not only will you never have to tiptoe across a cold tile floor to turn on your heater again, but you’ll also never have to pay for heating or cooling you aren’t present (or awake) to enjoy. No more forgetting to turn off the heat at night and racking up your bills, and no more struggling to cool your house all the way down after turning your AC off for the day. And because a sophisticated thermostat will correct your temperature quickly (and without putting any extra strain on your AC or furnace, which is a common misconception), you really won’t ever notice the difference.

For the greatest energy savings, you want to lower your heat setting and raise your cooling setting by at least 5 degrees during “off” periods. Even if there’s someone in your home all day, changing your night time settings alone can significantly reduce your monthly energy use. This is something that’s outright impossible on old dial thermostats, and while there are older clock style thermostats that do have programmable “zones,” there’s usually only a single “hot” and “cold” setting, which can actually lead to more discomfort as they’re not designed to fit your schedule. On the other hand, a newer programmable thermostat is designed to keep your home comfortable year round, through all portions of the day, with only a single programming.

But the benefits of a new programmable thermostat don’t stop there. Some high end thermostats don’t just give you control over time and temperature, but also let you choose where that heating or cooling is going. With multiple temperature sensors in several different areas of your home, these sophisticated thermostats allow you manage the temperature on a room by room basis. For example, if you tend to spend your evenings in a den or your afternoons in a home office, a multi-zone thermostat allows you to control the temperature in those spaces specifically without having to heat or cool your entire home to get a single room the way you want it. As well, modern thermostats are much, much better about controlling the humidity in your home, and many can actually be specifically programmed to attain and maintain a specific humidity level either throughout your entire home or in a specific area.

Perhaps the most significant difference between an old thermostat and a new one is that the nicest, newest, highest end thermostats do a lot more than control your home’s climate. Because they’re linked directly to your heating and cooling system, newer thermostats can actually help you maintain your whole system, checking for air quality and giving you periodic maintenance reminders. Many of them can even sense when your air filters need to be replaced! And as with a lot of new technology, the newest thermostats are much sleeker and more modern looking, and are much more intuitive to use. Some of them can even be linked to your smartphone, allowing you to receive maintenance updates directly. More importantly, this setup lets you to control your thermostat remotely, whether you’re planning on getting home early on a hot day and want to be greeted by some cool air, or if it’s a little too cold to get out of bed in the morning and you want to boost the heat from under a blanket.

Even if your old thermostat still seems to be working just fine, a newer one can make a bigger difference than you might think, not only in comfort and convenience, but also in your bottom line.

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