Are Smart Thermostats the New CFLS?

Share Button

The U.S. energy efficiency industry has been bemoaning the lack of low-hanging fruit – inexpensive and easy energy savings – now that efficient lightbulbs are fairly ubiquitous.

Could smart thermostats be the new replacement?

Events in Chicago last week suggest so. The smart thermostat is starting to show scale. In what project sponsors say is the largest campaign of its kind in the country, utilities and partners are trying to install one million smart thermostats in northern Illinois.

Commonwealth Edison, Nest, ecobee, gas utilities and advocacy groups are working together on the lengthy project. ComEd hopes to see the million mark reached in about five years, according to George Malek, ComEd’s director of energy efficiency services.

“We are always searching for the next generation of energy efficiency that will help us meet our savings goal,” said Malek in a recent interview.

CFLs were once the “silver bullet,” then LEDs. And now Malek sees the rise of the smart thermostat as interest grows in the smart home and business.

The utility envisions the smart thermostats serving as an energy efficiency tool – reducing overall energy consumption – although customers may also decide to use them to participate in demand response programs.

Program sponsors are confident that consumers will install the thermostats because of the steep discount the program offers. The price of the thermostat is cut in half with about $120 in rebates available.

Studies indicate that the thermostats reduce a household’s annual utility bill by about $130 to $145, according to Ben Bixby, director of energy projects for Nest Labs. “You are looking at payback in less than a year,” he said.

Last week’s smart thermostat announcement was a big enough deal to warrant an appearance by Gina McCarthy, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“What makes this a game changer is that customers can achieve significant savings on their energy bills, while improving the comfort of their homes,” said Rob Kelter, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Smart thermostats are Wi-Fi-enabled devices that allow residents to easily control the heating and air conditioning settings in a home through their smartphones, tablets, and computers.  The technology is smart because it learns or adapts to user behavior over time and can generate energy savings automatically. Residents remain comfortable when at home and reduce wasted money on heating and cooling energy while away at work or on vacation.

Follow on Twitter @EfficiencyMkts.

Share Button

About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Eric Werling says:

    When I read the title of your article, “Are Smart Thermostats the Next CFL’s?”, I immediately thought of the many problems the early CFL’s had – flicker, delayed start, unattractive color temperature, and a few others – that led to many frustrated consumers, and a lot of wasted utility rebates. The lighting manufacturers eventually figured out how to make energy efficient lamps that did not sacrifice perceived quality, but it was a long tough road. I sure hope smart thermostats don’t travel such a long road to market adoption! But, if the manufacturers, utilities, and government organizations that promote these hot new products over-sell the benefits and don’t take into account the potential performance issues, we just may repeat the CFL deployment blunders. Consider that today many “smart thermostat” applications are simply smart on-off switches for existing HVAC systems that are not performing optimally. Today’s smart thermostats can do nothing to solve comfort problems that come from poor HVAC design or installation flaws. And in the worst of these cases, the smart thermostats may exacerbate control problems. Please heed these concerns as you hype this exciting new technology. Future generation smart thermostats may be part of the solutions to these problems, but not all the pieces of truly smart HVAC systems have been developed yet.

    • Eric, I with you on substance over hype. And yet the early studies are showing significant (10+%) savings on both heating and cooling. We can’t ignore that. Smart thermostats like the Ecobee have the ability to use remote sensors to measure temps in many places around the home (I have no affiliation with Ecobee) and are being used but smart contractors to help locate and diagnose performance issues, including comfort, so that better solutions can be delivered. And they’re being used to help verify post-improvement performance. In these cases, smart thermostats are ALREADY part of the solutions to the problems.

      Panacea? No. Smart thermostats don’t fix ducts, seal air leaks, or decrease the U-value of assemblies, are reduce electric plugload. No single technology can do all of that, and all of that is important. But they can be part of a solution today.

  2. Smart Thermostats are effectively expensive timers. They tell you nothing about the temperature should be or actually is where you are in the home or office. Our intellegent Comfort Meter – the eco-wand system – could be a more effective solution.
    I have taken the system to production prototype stage and have 50+ units working around Glasgow in Scotland. I am now looking for someone to take over the project to scale it for the global market. My email is abg at eco-wand dot com


  1. […] Are smart thermostats the new CFLs?, Energy Efficiency Markets […]