Programmable vs. Smart Thermostat Technology: Understanding the Difference

Programmable vs. Smart Thermostat Technology: Understanding the DifferenceIf you search online for “home energy efficiency,” you inevitably come across the suggestion that you should install a programmable thermostat. Then after purchasing one that sounds really good on paper, you discover how complex these things can seem to be. How do you know what would work best for your family’s home?

The problem is that over the past 5 years, “programmable thermostat” has grown from merely describing a glorified furnace timer to the newest internet-connected “smart” thermostat. Unfortunately, “programmable” and “smart” have become interchangeable terms in home climate-control-speak. And that can make a trip to the local home center confusing and aggravating.

So, is there a difference between “programmable thermostats” and “smart thermostats,” or is this distinction just semantic quibbling? Let’s look at the technology and point out the features make the distinctive difference.

Programmable Thermostats

Programmable v. Smart Thermostat Technology: Understanding the Difference
Honeywell Jewell image courtesy of Collectors Weekly.

Programmable thermostats were first commercially introduced by Honeywell back in 1906. The “Jewell” relied on an on-board mechanical clock that allowed users to set back heat at night and then restart in the morning at a preset time. An electric clock was added in the 1930’s, and then a separate control for air conditioning was added in the 1960’s.

Digital thermostats became available in the early 1990’s. While they included microprocessors that could track start and stop settings six times a day, seven days a week, these programmable thermostats essentially did the same job as Honeywell’s 1906 Jewell: turn on and off at a preset time. In terms of energy efficiency, these were (and still are) a vast improvement over the old electro-mechanical thermostats because you have some control over your heating and cooling according to your general schedule. However, they don’t provide you with one the one useful thing that’s truly unique to your home: data.

Smart Thermostats

Programmable vs. Smart Thermostat Technology: Understanding the Difference
Honeywell WiFi Smart Thermostat

First off, “smart” thermostats are programmable thermostats. In fact, since about 2005, the government/industry catchphrase for them has been “programmable communicating thermostats” or PCTs. The communicating feature is what makes them smarter, because these thermostats gather home energy use data and can pass that information (and control capabilities) over a local network or the internet. This gives the homeowner more control and more flexibility with managing their home’s energy use.

Smart thermostats (or if you must, PCTs) allow users the convenience to connect with them via their smart device or computer to adjust temperature settings if they are deviating from their regular schedule. More importantly, homeowners can review their energy usage history. How detailed that history gets depends on the manufacturer, but it can cover a whole year down to 15 minute intervals. Some also provide weather details. All these details can help a homeowner understand more clearly how their energy usage can be made more efficient and lower their costs even more.

Smart thermostats can also help in the larger scheme of improving energy efficiency of your community by interconnecting with the smart grid (if your state has one of these). For example, residents of a certain subdivision in Austin, TX with smart thermostats can sign up to participate in a demand response program that lets Austin Energy raise the thermostat’s set point during critical summertime loads. Participants are supplied with a smart thermostat and receive a set refund amount annually for their participation.

The Answer?

Yes, there is a difference between “programmable” and “smart” thermostats. While programmable thermostats are more advanced than the old electro-mechanical thermostats used in your grandparents’ home, they don’t offer half the capabilities for improving and understanding the heating and cooling energy usage in your home that a smart thermostat does. The communication technology in smart thermostats sets them apart from old programmables, allowing home owners both comfort and control with 21st Century anywhere-convenience while saving them money.

And lucky for you, Direct Energy has partnered with two different smart thermostat manufacturers to help you manage your usage in new and creative ways. Texas customers can sign up for the Meridian Savings Plan to lock in their electricity rate for 24 months while choosing between 2 different smart thermostats from Honeywell. If you live in Alberta, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Illinois, you can choose a Comfort & Control Plan to enjoy the benefits of fixed-rate energy (5 years in Alberta and either 2 or 3 years in the 5 US states) and a Nest Learning Thermostat. We want to help you lower your energy usage and take care of your utility bills using industry-leading smart thermostat technology!


Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.