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A tale of three thermostats

By on December 9, 2013

How to Upgrade Your Thermostat | Rather Square

When we bought our 91-year-old house, it came with a 25-year-old furnace and a 30-year-old thermostat. We knew we’d have to replace one or both of these things right away. The old furnace is not great, but it still works and we’re not ready to spend a considerable amount of money to replace it until it completely dies on us (update: it did finally die, one very cold winter night!). The thermostat, on the other hand, was pretty useless and inefficient. It was in our office, and while technically programmable, it had a non-working LCD screen and we were not able to set or see the time or temperature.

Updating a Thermostat | Rather Square

The hot days of summer were almost upon us, and I wanted to get something functional here as soon as possible. My dad lent us a “newer-but-not-new” spare programmable thermostat of his and I installed it right away on our freshly painted office wall. It was a great quick fix.

Updating a Thermostat | Rather Square

However, having a “just okay” programmable thermostat isn’t enough for us. In the Chicagoland area, we have to deal with typically drastic midwestern temperature fluctuations in the spring and fall, as well as really hot summers and really cold winters. We needed a 21st-century thermostat upgrade for the long term. My dad’s thermostat was nice (and free!), but didn’t support the technology that I really wanted for our home.

Ideally we wanted to be able to control the thermostat remotely (such as from our cozy warm bed at night, or when we’re on the train coming home early from work) using our mobile phones. Being two working parents with a very active toddler to chase around, we’re finding that the more tasks we can accomplish wirelessly, the simpler (and happier) our daily lives become. We also wanted the thermostat to be as energy-efficient as possible, since our very old house has almost no insulation in the walls and very little in the attic.

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

So, I started researching thermostat systems to see what was out there. I looked at a variety of brands and models like Nest, Ecobee, and Honeywell. My main considerations were price, features, and user reviews. After comparing all the options, I chose the Ecobee Smart Si. The Ecobee Smart Thermostats come in either a touchscreen or a non-touchscreen version, with about $100 in price difference between the two. I decided to get the less-expensive non-touchscreen version. Both versions seemed to have the same functionality, and I felt that if we were mostly using our mobile phones to control the thermostat, we wouldn’t need the pricier touchscreen convenience anyway.

Ecobee Thermostat | Rather Square

I had successfully installed my dad’s thermostat on my own, so I figured I could get this Ecobee thermostat up and running pretty easily as well. First, I turned off the power, removed the cover of my dad’s thermostat and snapped a photo of the wiring behind it in the wall for reference.

Wiring a Thermostat | Rather Square

Then I disconnected it, leaving the wires in the wall.

Wiring a Thermostat | Rather Square

Next, I connected all the wires in the same configuration as I had done for my dad’s thermostat. But when I turned the power back on… nothing happened. So I read the instructions more carefully and realized that there was one less wire in our existing cables than the Ecobee needed. It turns out that our fancy new thermostat requires a separate power wire to run the LCD backlight and WiFi.

Installing a Thermostat | Rather Square

I did some hasty Googling to see if it would be possible to use the existing wires in another way (like bridging circuits, etc.), but it seemed like all the information I found involved only temporary fixes and/or limited the use of the furnace. No good.

So I decided that the smartest solution would be to get an entirely new cable with the right amount of wires, snake it down into the office wall to the basement, and connect it to the furnace. A little more work than I’d anticipated, but I wanted to go ahead and do this correctly now so we don’t have to worry about any hacked connections later on. I bought a cable with 7 wires even though the Ecobee only needed 5 wires, so that if we get a new furnace in the future that requires extra wires, we’d be ready.

The next step was to somehow get the new cable into the office wall and down into the basement. Since the original cable was still in the wall, I came up with the brilliant technique of attaching the two cables together, snaking the whole thing all the way down through the wall, and pulling it into the basement until the new cable appeared. My dad helped me tag-team this operation, and we managed to get the new cable in position.

Wiring a Thermostat | Rather Square

Once the new cable was in place, I was able to connect the appropriate wires to the furnace. Then I went back upstairs to the office to finish installing and wiring the Ecobee, with all 5 required wires.

Installing a Thermostat | Rather Square

I snapped the thermostat unit onto the mounting bracket and switched on the power to the furnace, and this time… bam, it worked!

Installing a Thermostat | Rather Square

And we love it! We’ve been using our Ecobee for a few months now and it’s been working great. It helped keep our house nice and cool this past summer, and we are feeling very warm and cozy right now as winter is approaching. And because of its efficiency rating, we were even able to get a $20 rebate from our natural gas company. Bonus!

But it does a lot more than lower or raise the temperature inside our house. I connected the thermostat to our wi-fi and we’ve got an account on the Ecobee website that allows us to control the thermostat from our phones or computers. It stores analytical data about our energy usage and provides us with reports and alerts (like when it’s time to change a filter, etc). It even detects how much heat our house might be losing on a particular day, and adjusts the energy output accordingly.

Ecobee Thermostat App | Rather Square

It’s helping us uncover and solve other issues as well. Now that the temperatures are dropping outside, we’ve noticed how dry the air has become in our house, and it seems like the old humidifier attached to our furnace is in pretty sad condition. The Ecobee data shows that the humidity levels inside our house are, in fact, way below normal.

Humidity Readings on Ecobee Thermostat | Rather Square

It’s great to have that kind of quantifiable confirmation about why we seem to be going through gallons of moisturizer lately! So it looks like my next project will be researching a replacement for our whole-house humidifier. Oh, the joys of homeownership…

What kind of thermostat are you using these days? Are you going old-school or high-tech?

(Update: See how we’re continuing to tweak our home’s energy systems by installing a new humidifier and replacing our furnace.)

(linked on The Shabby Nest)

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December 9, 2013

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