There's been a lot of buzz lately about the newest homeowner's toy, the smart thermostat, but what are they exactly? As it turns out, being smart means several things for thermostats, depending on brand. In general a smart thermostat is one that doesn't require a lot of impetus from the homeowner to save energy. Smart thermostats are physical devices, but their impact comes more from their software than their hardware, allowing users to tweak heating and cooling systems remotely and in a much more user-friendly manner.

So what's the point? According to most accounts, smart thermostats do actually save you money on your energy costs. As long as you can look past their initial price tags, it's a good bet that smart thermostats have the potential to save you big bucks in the long run. Let's take a look at some of the most popular models and their features.

The Nest

Of all the smart meters on the market, the Nest definitely gets the most play in the media. It probably has something to do with its co-founder's Apple pedigree, but the device it pretty slick. The Nest obviously borrows design inspiration from Apple's simplicity, but it also offers a standout user experience.

The Nest is a "learning" thermostat. After installation, users treat it as a manual thermostat for the first few days, adjusting the temperature as necessary to be comfortable. Within about a week, the Nest begins to build its own schedule based on data collected through user input and motion sensors, all of which can later be altered by the user, on the device or through the user's online account.

Nest is nifty.

Ecobee

The Ecobee is a refreshing twist from the Nest, and proof that there are several ways to approach a successful smart thermostat. Unlike the Nest, the Ecobee doesn't create its own schedule, users have to establish that themselves but doing so is a breeze with their smartphone app or computer program. However, as time goes on the Ecobee can help you save more energy by analyzing your usage and proposing changes to your settings.

The newest Ecobee model features a color touchscreen for making adjustments on the unit and the requisite remote control via any Web-enabled device. The Ecobee also pulls in local weather information, helping it keep your home at the present temperature, regardless of what's going on outside.

Ecobee also has smart thermostats designed for commercial applications, a design tweak not offered by many other smart thermostat makers.

The big perks of smart thermostats

Probably the coolest aspect of many smart thermostats is that users can manipulate their settings from their smartphones. On your way home from work early? Your house can be at its usual temperature before you arrive with a few tweaks on your phone. But being cool and convenient only gets you so far. The bigger question is whether or not smart thermostats can really help you save money.

The short answer is yes, smart thermostats can help you save money on your energy expenses. Many people with manual or standard programmable thermostats let their heating and cooling systems run all day. There's a common misconception that doing so will end up costing less money because the system just has to maintain the status quo. In fact, what you're doing is wasting energy to keep your house at your desired temperature, even when no one is there to enjoy it.

Smart thermostats make adjustments to your home's temperature on the fly, accommodating both your schedule and your budget. If you've been thinking about upgrading your home's efficiency, consider buying one of the smart thermostats on the market today. In just a few simple steps you could seriously limit your energy expenditures.

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