Wi-Fi Thermostat vs. Smart Thermostat – What’s the Difference?

Technology has come a long way in the heating and cooling industry. Newly available upgrades focus on efficiency and cost saving, introducing new features to protect you from high energy bills and headaches – and thermostat technology is no different.

Smart thermostats have been around since 2007. Only 15 years have passed since the first smart thermostat was made available to the public, and in that short time smart thermostat technology has surged forward, integrating into millions of homes across America. With smart thermostat manufacturers battling to create the shiniest, newest, smartest thermostat, it’s no surprise that the tech just keeps improving.

However, a major problem with this type of technological arms race is that it typically leaves consumers far behind, with very little explanation of what exactly this new technology is and how it can improve their lives. The jargon regarding Wi-Fi and smart thermostats has exploded, and their definitions, standards, and features are blurred. The terms seem to be used interchangeably, leaving consumers to engage in a costly trial-by-error to figure out what features will actually benefit them.

What is a Wi-Fi thermostat? What is a Smart thermostat? What’s the difference, and how are you as a homeowner supposed to know what’s best for your family?

Here, we try to clear some of the muddied water surrounding Wi-Fi and Smart Thermostats to tell you what you really need to look for when considering a new thermostat.

Categories of Thermostats

There are two broad categories of thermostats: non-programmable and programmable. Non-programmable thermostats are the most basic, requiring you to manually adjust the temperature as needed. As the name suggests, programmable thermostats include a pre-programming feature. Update the system with your desired schedule and the system will regulate the temperature according to your preferences. For example, if you work Monday through Friday, you can program the thermostat to a more moderate temperature while you’re away.

Ultimately, correctly used programmable thermostats will save your system from the wear and tear of heating and cooling an empty home. In turn, you could see a smaller energy bill and longer spans of time between maintenance calls. Because of this, we recommend programmable thermostats for those who are often away from the home on a set schedule, or who don’t want to have to remember to adjust the thermostat every time they leave.

Wi-Fi thermostats and smart thermostats fall under the umbrella of programmable thermostats. This is where it starts to get complicated. The differences between these types of thermostats are not well defined, and often appear to be up to the discretion of the manufacturer. Because of this, definitions and distinctions of features become a little muddled. All smart thermostats are Wi-Fi thermostats, but not all Wi-Fi thermostats are smart thermostats.

To further underpin the confusion surrounding the thermostat tech boom, consider the history of the smart thermostat. The first “smart” thermostat was produced in 2007 by a company called Ecobee. This model combined programmable thermostats with Wi-Fi, streamlining the system and making it possible to change the temperature of your home remotely.

Although this is widely considered the first smart thermostat, under today’s definitions it probably would have been considered a Wi-Fi thermostat. Machine learning and algorithms aimed at predicting your patterns weren’t created until 2011 with the Nest Learning Thermostat.

So, what’s the difference?

Wi-Fi Thermostats Vs. Smart Thermostats

Wi-Fi Thermostats connect to your wireless network. You can monitor and adjust the temperature on any device that connects to the Wi-Fi, such as your smartphone, computer, or tablet. These thermostats allow you to modify the temperature remotely, as long as you have access to Wi-Fi. The ability to control the thermostat from outside the home and override preset schedules is extremely convenient, giving you far more options than a simpler programmable thermostat. For example, if you’re heading home from work early, you can hop onto one of your devices and adjust the temperature to match your preferences by the time you get home, rather than manually adjusting once you get there.

Smart thermostats also connect to your wireless network but have different features to improve efficiency without your input. Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, the features required to make a thermostat “smart” are not universal. Not all smart thermostats are the same, and if you wish to install one in your home it’s crucial to research how it works and why the company is considering it smart.

Here are some elements that qualify a thermostat to be smart. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are the common features we most often see in smart thermostats.

  • Sensors or motion detectors that interpret when occupants are inside the home, adjusting the temperature when they sense the home is empty.
  • Geofencing, in which a boundary is created for the perimeter of your home and the thermostat adjusts according to when household members leave and enter that perimeter.
  • Learning thermostats that register the patterns of the occupants, automatically pre-heating and pre-cooling the home in anticipation of your arrival and departure. If the established schedule changes, the thermostat will gradually adjust.
  • Zoned systems control individual rooms according to a schedule. For example, bedrooms might be kept cooler than the office and living room at night in the summer.

Any of the above features qualifies a thermostat to be smart, and there is new technology introduced every year. It becomes difficult for consumers to sort through what will work for them and what won’t. Many see the term “smart thermostat” and believe that it’s a specific term defined by what all smart thermostats can do. In reality, the term has become a catch-all for thermostats that do a little extra in a lot of different ways.

What thermostat is best for your family?

Only you can answer this question, as it depends highly on your patterns and routines. Some features will work well with your lifestyle, while others may be inconvenient and frustrating. For example, some smart thermostats function with sensors. If you have a pet that can walk in front of those sensors, the system may register that someone is home and behave accordingly, wasting energy on a pet that doesn’t mind the temperature being a little cooler in the winter.

If your schedule is consistently changing, a learning thermostat may not be the right one for you, as it will constantly need to adjust to your schedule, never quite reaching the efficiency level it should. In this case, a thermostat that uses geo-fencing might be better for you, as it will detect when you’re coming and going rather than relying on predictive tools.

Ultimately, it’s important to know exactly what you will be buying. When considering installing a smart thermostat in your home, read through the features of multiple products to see if they suit your needs. Don’t assume that all smart thermostats operate the same way. Check out the reviews of others who have installed the different models to see if you can find reviewers with similar lifestyles to yours. In the end, research is the key to finding the right thermostat for your family. If you don’t know exactly how a thermostat functions, you could find yourself disappointed and out a few hundred dollars.

About the Author

Will Merry is an HVAC technician with over 25 years of experience working with both commercial and residential HVAC systems.