- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
Who isn't concerned about energy costs these days? One of the best ways to save money on heating and cooling bills is to install a cheap programmable thermostat that follows orders you encode in the device. You can program these thermostats to use less energy when you're sleeping or away from home and automatically kick up the heat or AC when you need it. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pegs yearly savings at about $180 for the "average" household that uses so-called temperature setbacks and set ups.
Cheap Thermostats Buying Guide
Four cheap programmable thermostats costing less than $40 floated to the top during our research. Our favorite budget models are the Hunter 44260 (starting at $34) and the Lux TX500E (starting at $29); both keep home temperatures at an even keel and boast practical features. We also like the Honeywell RTH221B (starting at $17) and the White-Rodgers 1F78-151 (starting at $32), two basic models that meet performance expectations. We weren't impressed with another Honeywell thermostat, the RTH2310B (starting at $17), given consumer complaints about durability and operational issues.
Cheap programmable thermostats don't have lots of features, but there are several things to note. First, you have a choice of modes; that is, different settings for different days of the week. Thermostats with a 5-day/2-day format let you set one program for the weekdays and another for the weekend. Other models operate on a full-week schedule with the same settings for all seven days. A handful of budget thermostats come with 5-day/1-day/1-day capability, which lets you program one schedule for weekdays and separate schedules for Saturday and Sunday.
Another feature common to cheap programmable thermostats is the ability to choose up to four different temperature settings during a 24-hour cycle. You can program a cheap thermostat to maintain a specific temperature when you go to bed, switch to another before you wake up, change again when everyone leaves home, and adjust yet again when household members are due to return.
Cheap programmable thermostats are usually battery operated, running on AA or AAA batteries. Thermostats don't use lots of power, so the batteries should last through the four seasons; manufacturers recommend replacing the batteries at least once a year. Some cheap thermostats come with a low-battery indicator and a handful of models include a function that reminds you when to change the system's air filter. One feature users really appreciate, but isn't always present, is a backlit display.
The term "programmable thermostat" may sound fancy but there's really not much to one in terms of operation or performance. Most cheap programmable thermostats do a good job of maintaining the appropriate temperature within a degree or so. We also found that these models are user friendly; that is, easy to install and easy to program. Most DIY-ers can complete the task in less than 20 minutes, and programming proceeds with just a few pushes of a few buttons. Although some users are more than happy to report the positive impact on their energy bills (experts say savings are greatest in more temperate climates), the primary appeal of a cheap programmable thermostat seems to be the set-it-and-forget-it convenience.
Several brands in the budget segment are especially prominent. Honeywell offers quite a few affordable models in addition to pricier options. Lux and Hunter also produce some good cheap programmable thermostats, and White-Rodgers is another well-known brand.
If you're a fan of home automation, wireless versions of programmable thermostats are available but tend to be very expensive. Expect to pay at least $80, and in many cases well over $100, for a wireless thermostat that you can control from a PC, or from a smartphone when you're away from home.
Programmable Thermostat Reviews
If you ever needed a double-barreled reason to buy a programmable thermostat, consider this one: money-saving convenience. According to the Department of Energy, dialing down a thermostat by 10 to 15 degrees for an eight-hour period can lower annual heating bills by up to 15 percent. Consumer alert: The eight-hour guideline is key -- lowering the temperature for short periods nets less in the way of reduced energy consumption and cost reductions. Get Rich Slowly even refers to studies that argue potential savings are overstated because people don't use programmable thermostats efficiently. Nonetheless, we found a number of programmable thermostat reviews attesting to the financial benefits that flow from automatic temperature adjustments. One company bean counter, for example, reports more than $400 disappeared from monthly energy bills after nine White-Rodgers 1F78-151 (starting at $32) thermostats were installed.
What's more likely to pop up in programmable thermostat reviews for the models on our list are comments about the pleasures of waking to a comfortably warm home in the dead of winter or, less often, of returning from work to a comfortably cool home at the height of summer. Many consumers write about stepping up from old-style manual thermostats to programmable models because doing so promises the end of constant fiddling and adjusting. Thermostat reviews also indicate that consumers appreciate the modest pricing, no-frills feature set, and user-friendly operation of the models we researched. Additionally, we found that many buyers are brand loyal; that is, an older model served them well for years so they searched for an updated device by the same manufacturer.
Still, for each of the models we researched we read a few complaints about limited durability -- e.g., buttons that lock, displays that go blank. A small number of reviews also gripe that the thermostat is off by a couple of degrees. Consumer tip: Find a temperature setting that feels comfortable and go with that as the baseline.
Thermostats General Performance.The thermostats that made our list meet consumers' expectations. Programmable thermostat reviews generally indicate these models keep indoor temperatures stable and adhere to the programmed day and hour settings. The Hunter 44260 (starting at $34) works as it should, assert programmable thermostat reviews at Amazon, keeping the heat within the target one degree range of the desired temperature. Purchasers of the Lux TX500E (starting at $29) consider it a good value, and several confess in online reviews to being serial buyers of the model (or its predecessors) for the price and brand quality. A couple of reviews for the Hunter 44260 and Lux TX500E note concerns about build quality, and one user of the latter says the family's tendency to override the settings wore out the buttons within a couple of years.
Similar pluses and minuses show up in programmable thermostat reviews of the Honeywell RTH221B (starting at $17) and Honeywell RTH2300B (starting at $25), another model that finds favor with a large group of users. Satisfaction with the White-Rodgers 1F78-151 is warmly stated in users' online comments, as well. The Robertshaw RS3110 (starting at $26) also proves a solid choice; reviews at Pex Supply note the sensor's accuracy and the boost to a heating system's efficiency.
A third Honeywell model, the RTH2310B (starting at $17), is the outlier of the bunch. Some users seem content with the product's performance but more than a handful of reviews posted at Amazon carp about problems such as malfunctioning buttons and timers, insufficient amperage for some gas furnaces, buzzing noises, and programming struggles.
Thermostats User-Friendliness.Ease of use is a common theme with the best budget thermostats. Programmable thermostat reviews for the models on our list indicate that installation and programming are relatively simple and quick. Consumers seem relieved that the wires often come with helpful labels but caution that it may take some cinching to get everything safely secured behind the unit and tucked in the wall. Most purchasers say that DIY installation can be accomplished in a maximum 20 minutes, although some -- especially those who are upgrading from old-style manual thermostats -- prefer delegating to a professional.
The Honeywell models we researched are super easy to put in place, according to most online comments. One programmable thermostat review of the Honeywell RTH2300B at Home Depot says the task was accomplished in less than eight minutes while another at Lowe's reports installing the Honeywell RTH221B in about 10 minutes. A programmable thermostat review at Pex Supply says the White-Rodgers 1F78-151 comes with excellent instructions and a wiring diagram that makes installation a breeze. Consumers also laud the Hunter 44260's simple installation and one digital thermostat review at Price Grabber says the instructions are better than average. The Lux TX500E takes a bit of heat for slightly fuzzy how-to's -- one purchaser called tech support for assistance -- but most reviews at Amazon don't report any confusion. A buyer at Pro Thermostats complains that the instructions for the Robertshaw RS3100 are hard to read, but users agree that the unit is pretty easy to install anyway.
Consumers who aren't technically inclined may be a little spooked by the notion of a programmable thermostat, but it's clear from reviews that most have little if any trouble programming the unit. Here and there we heard a few groans but never so loud as to warrant returning to a manual-control model.
Best Home Thermostats
The best home thermostat is a relatively simple device. It maintains the appropriate temperature according to a schedule that you program into it. Most of the best budget home thermostats don't have many distinguishing features, but what there is, is critical. Before you start shopping, though, be sure that a programmable thermostat will match up with your heating and cooling system.
Home Thermostat Compatibility.The best home thermostats we identified should work with most heating and cooling systems. In particular, the models on our list are compatible with central heat or central heat/air conditioning systems powered by electricity, gas, or oil. These systems typically require a 24-volt thermostat, and all the home thermostats we researched are 24-volt models.
However, 24-volt thermostats won't work with every type of heating and cooling system. Electric baseboard heating systems run on 220 volts, so a 24-volt thermostat simply won't do. Heat pump systems with an auxiliary or emergency heat source are incompatible with a 24-volt thermostat but heat pumps without such a backup are an OK fit. If you're not sure whether a 24-volt device is appropriate, remove the current thermostat from the wall and look on the back -- if you see "24v", you're in business.
Home Thermostat Periods.The point of a programmable thermostat is the automatic switch to different temperature settings at various times throughout the day. The best home thermostats we researched feature four programmable periods. Typically, you'd set one period for lower temperatures when going to bed; a drop to 63 degrees from 70 degrees at 10pm, say. Then you'd program another period for an uptick in heat (or AC) an hour before you wake up. For the third period, you could set the thermostat to turn down the heat (or AC) at 8am, just before everyone leaves for the day, and then schedule a jump up at 5pm, shortly before you all return home.
If you feel unusually chilly or unpleasantly hot one day, you can manually override the program with a preferred temperature that holds until the next programmed setting kicks in. (The temporary override on the Honeywell RTH2310B is an exception: it lasts two hours.) In the event you plan on being away for several days or longer, the best home thermostats let you override all the settings and hold the temperature steady at one level until you revive the program. These override functions win lots of appreciative mentions in reviews of all the models we researched.
Home Thermostat Modes.The number of daily programs (i.e., modes) you can set up within a week-long cycle varies by model. Some of the best home thermostats in the budget segment let you set one daily program that runs all week long. Most, though, feature a 5-day/2-day system, which gives you one program for five consecutive days and a different program for the remaining two days -- a good option for people who are out and about most weekdays but chill at home on weekends. Still other best home thermostats feature a 5/1/1 mode that allows you one setup for a five-day stretch and separate programs each for Saturday and Sunday. There are also home thermostats that let you program a different schedule for each day of the week, but these generally carry prices outside the budget range.
Among the models on our list, the Hunter 44260 is the most flexible, with its 5/1/1 programming functionality, and the Honeywell RTH221B is the most confining, with its simple week-long schedule. The other best home thermostats we researched are 5-day/2-day models.
Extra Features.Although the best home thermostats in the Cheapism price range usually lack bells and whistles, some boast extra features. The White-Rodgers 1F78-151, Hunter 44260, Robertshaw RS3110, and Honeywell RTH2310B and RTH2300B models sport backlit displays. Consumer reviews often comment about the convenience of being able to check the current temperature or override the program without having to turn on a light. Indeed, numerous users of the Honeywell RTH221B grouse about the absence of a backlight.
A handful of thermostats -- the Lux TX500E, Hunter 44260, Honeywell RTHL2310B, and Robertshaw 3110 among them -- remind users when it's time to change the system's air filter. And the four mentioned here also display temperatures in either Fahrenheit or Celsius.
And finally, all the thermostats on our list run on either AA or AAA batteries. Several, including the Lux TX500E, Hunter 44260, White-Rodgers 1F78-151, and Honeywell RTH2300B and Honeywell RTH221B models, include a low-battery indicator that signals when the power cells need changing. We read only a few complaints about thermostats draining batteries too quickly, including one review posted at Lowe's that says batteries on the Honeywell RTH221B needed to be replaced twice within nine months.