Smart heating control is a relatively new invention, but there are already many competing products available, including Google’s Nest, the British Gas-backed Hive heating and Worcester Bosch’s Wave. But what do they do exactly, and are they any good? Do you want your radiators to know when you’re in the pub? Do you really need one?
What are smart heating systems?
Not to be confused with smart meters, smart thermostats promise you greater control of your heating, even when you’re not in the house. Manufacturers claim that by coming on only when necessary, these internet-enabled, wireless central heating systems will save you money. Different types offer different levels of control. Most will allow you to make heating adjustments remotely - from work, for example - so that your house is nice and warm when you get home. Some models, such as Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat or the Honeywell Lyric actually learn your daily routine by tracking your movements and eventually make heating adjustments themselves.
Other features you might find include:
- Weather response - Some systems use sensor data from outside your house and react to the weather in real-time. Others use online data to respond to changing weather conditions.
- Usage information – Detailed information on how much energy you use. This could be useful for understanding your energy costs.
- Holiday mode – Keeping your house at an ideal temperature if you’re away for a week or two.
- Hot water – Some systems will allow you to program your hot water settings as well as your heating.
Manufacturers claim smart thermostats can help reduce your heating bills, and their estimates range between 10% and 40%. It’s best to take these estimates with a pinch of salt, however, as they’re sometimes based on assumptions that people are leaving the heat on for a long time. Or they may assume that people will be resident in a property over a period of years, which isn’t always the case.
How do they work?
Most smart systems have two main parts, the thermostat and the receiver. The thermostat features the actual smart heating controls that allow you to adjust the temperature. That information is sent to the receiver, which is attached to your boiler. Different smart thermostats will have different bells and whistles, such as temperature, time or weather data displayed on some variety of shiny touchscreen panel. Smart thermostats can be wired in to the mains or operate on batteries, meaning you can place them anywhere. Nest even provides a little stand for its device, if that takes your fancy.
Will a smart thermostat work with my boiler?
There are many different makes of boilers out there, so no manufacturer can say for sure that their system will be compatible with your boiler. For example, the Nest website lists a range of heating systems, including combi and condensing boilers, that are compatible with the device. Hive simply says it will work with any working gas heating system. Your provider should advise you about compatibility if you decide to invest. Most systems will come with installation included in the price or as a reasonably priced addition. Putting one in is not a major operation, and most smart thermostats can be installed in an hour or two. Most major brands cost around a couple of hundred pounds to buy, and at least one, Tado, offers the option of renting.
The smart home
If your ambition is to eventually have a fully smart home – rather than just a thermostat that stalks you - then you’ll need to know which devices are compatible with which. In what's surely a sign of the times, which kind of phone you use may be relevant to the type of smart heating system you choose.
Google, Amazon and Apple are among those designing smart home systems, built around voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. But while these devices may have started talking to us, they don’t always talk to one another. For example, Apple’s HomeKit doesn’t support Nest heating or Hive. You can control individual Nest and Hive devices through your iPhone, but Siri won't recognise them. This is a fast-moving market, so this may change over time. But for now at least, Apple fanatics may need to look at something like a Netatmo Smart Thermostat, Honeywell or a Tado Smart Thermostat. Third party manufacturers will always want to reach the biggest market possible, so many devices will work with either Apple or Android, the operating system used by most non-Apple devices. But it’s no harm to check your preferred devices are compatible before buying.
Smart heating control and the smart home may well be the way of the future. However, the internet of things has struggled to take off so far, and this kind of heating solution may not be for everyone. Some might have concerns about their boiler knowing more about them than their priest. Some may have misgivings about sharing yet more detailed personal information about their lives with data-hungry internet giants. Those who rent may not be in the property long enough to see the savings promised by smart heating. And those who already keep a good handle on their energy use just may not need one.
And besides, there are other ways to save money on energy bills, such as keeping your radiators efficient, making sure your insulation is up to scratch and looking after your boiler.