Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF wireless thermostat, displaying its -Hold Switch- screen, with -Permanent Hold- selected.

Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons

In today’s energy conscious society, that focuses on max energy efficiency and cutting costs, the programmable t-stat is a key power saving device in home and office.  In this piece we give the list of programmable thermostat pros and cons that we’ve found while using a few of them through the decades.

Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons

A programmable t-stat will become even more so, as the phase-in of green energy sources progress, and people grow more comfortable and proficient at operating digital computer devices like these.  They can reduce heating and cooling costs. How so?  By controlling when the temperature is set to warmer and cooler values.  Once programmed, the t-stat sets itself based on the entered schedule.  Then, the user need not worry about turning the furnace up and down when she comes home and leaves for the day.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF Smart Thermostat, front view, showing full-color screen in action.
Honeywell RTH9580WF Smart Thermostat, front view, showing full-color screen in action. 

Pros, Advantages, Benefits, and Features

Save Energy

The big reason for this innovation by companies like Honeywell, Lux, American Standard, et al, is to promote less wasteful energy usage. This not only saves dollars on the average home fuel bills.  But it cuts carbon exhaust from burning fossil fuels.  Thus, these t-stats save the fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas).  How?  They support scheduled, unattended temp setting, for when no one is home.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF WiFi thermostat, showing its -Temperature Limits- screen. Programmable thermostat pros and cons.
Honeywell RTH9580WF WiFi thermostat, showing its -Temperature Limits- screen. Programmable thermostat pros and cons.

Indeed, your house need not stay as warm in the winter time, or as cool in the summer time when you’re not there.  Further, less cooled or heated rooms may be okay while you sleep as well.

Plus, some energy suppliers also offer perks for time-shifting your energy usage. They give discounts for less daytime use, and more use at night.  You can set  these t-stats to benefit from these perks, which saves you even more money.

Furnaces and Air Conditioners Do Indeed Run Less

We’ve owned several programmable thermostats over the decades.   But though precisely measuring the actual energy use reductions was hard in our many dwellings, their heating and cooling systems seemed to run fewer hours each month, when controlled by a programmable thermostat.

Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons: Programmability

With the advent of digital clock thermostats during the last decade of the twentieth century, a plethora of new and imaginative climate control features became practical.  Before this time, when microprocessor technology based climate control devices arrived in the mainstream, most affordable thermostats were little more than manually settable temperature sensing switches.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF color screen thermostat, displaying its foreground font color picker page.
Honeywell RTH9580WF color screen thermostat, displaying its foreground font color picker page.

When you set them, they stayed at the same temperature, until you set them again.  If you forgot to turn them down before going on vacation, your furnace / central air would run as normal, as though you were still at home, wasting lots of energy to heat / cool an unoccupied living space.  But programmable thermostats overcome this limitation of manual thermostats, by offering unattended, scheduled setting of environmental temps.

Increases Comfort

Because these digital devices offer, by default, a smaller temperature differential (the temperature that the unit turns off the furnace, minus the turn on temperature).  This more precise temperature control indeed increases overall comfort in the home or office.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF WiFi thermostat, showing its -Home- screen, with the current temperature reading, 75 degrees, circled.
Honeywell RTH9580WF WiFi thermostat, showing its -Home- screen, with the current temperature reading, 75 degrees, circled. 

Many current models have a 1 degree temperature differential, which means that, for example, when set to maintain room temperature at 70 degrees, the furnace comes on when that falls to 69.5 degrees, and turns off when it rises to 70.5 degrees.  Older, mechanically-based thermostats typically had a three to five degree differential.  The result was that occupants might feel chilled before the furnace kicked on.  Plus, they might feel hot and sweaty, before the furnace shut down.

Programmable thermostats however, reduce these temperature swings with their tight differentials.  Many models allow you to adjust the temperature differential as well.

Can Be Monitored and Controlled Remotely

The Internet enabled thermostats can be accessed and manipulated from anywhere else on the Internet via smart phone, tablet, laptop, or other computer.  These allow not only setting of the current temperature as well as scheduling future temperature changes, but you can also see what the current temperature in your home is, as well as check the proper operation of your climate control system.

Reminds you of Furnace Maintenance Needs

Most thermostats beyond the bare-bones basic models these days,  count how many hours the furnace has run since the last time the filter was changed, the media pad in central humidifiers was replaced, and how long it’s been since the last maintenance check by a qualified technician.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF T-Stat, telling us to wait while the system saves schedule changes.
Honeywell RTH9580WF T-Stat, telling us to wait while the system saves schedule changes. 

Alerts (either via beeps, texts, or emails) are issued after settable times.  These let you know that it’s time to change the filter or have your furnace checked.  With older manual thermostats, you had to remember when to call the tech.  Programmable units offload this work from you.  How?  They simply notify you when the work should be done.

Cons, Disadvantages, Limitations, and Problems

Cost More to Buy

The conventional, non programmable thermostats typically cost less than thirty dollars, while the programmable digital versions, even introductory models, typically run more than fifty dollars, and many of them cost well over a hundred thirty dollars.  However, climate control via computer scheduling can quickly return the initial investment, in significantly lower energy bills.

Thermostat Programming Can Get Complex

Many complain that programmable thermostats are hard to learn to use.  Indeed, many families that live in homes equipped with them, do not actually use the program features, because they cannot, or will not learn how to do it.

Picture of the Honeywell 9000 series color touchscreen thermostat, displaying its -Ice- color theme.
Honeywell 9000 series color touchscreen thermostat, displaying its -Ice- color theme.

But learning is easier with the latest graphical LCD touchscreen displays that come bundled in modern set back thermostats.  Most anyone who takes a little time to learn how to work the unit can indeed learn it well.

But even if you never learn how to best program it, the remote control features via the Internet make these thermostats a techie’s dream toy.

New Technologies can Be Scary

Many resist learning how to use devices like these.  Why?  Because they’re afraid of breaking the unit.   Or they simply wish not to “waste the time,” reading through the manual.

If only they knew however, just how easy it is to set up today’s digital thermostats these days.  For most models now, you don’t even have to program initially. They come from the manufacturer with preset programs.  These schedules work well in the typical household.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH8580WF Thermostat operating normally, prior to reset to factory defaults.
Honeywell RTH8580WF Thermostat operating normally, prior to reset to factory defaults. 

So just use the default schedule first if the technology daunts you.  Then, once your comfortable with working the unit, you can tailor the schedule to your specific heating and cooling needs.

Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons: Correct Usage is Essential for the Highest Energy Savings

Often, switching to a programmable thermostat saves little or no energy; particularly if incorrectly installed, set, or programmed.  As noted, a slight learning curve exists with these devices, as compared to manual thermostats, and to realize maximum savings, you must traverse that curve, and come to understand how the unit works, and then, how to set it for best benefit.  The potential savings, it seems, may have been inflated somewhat.

Picture of the Honeywell RTH9580WF Internet Thermostat, mounted but powered down, snapped onto wall plate.
Honeywell RTH9580WF Internet Thermostat, mounted but powered down, snapped onto wall plate.

Usability of the units has never been a problem here; though a big reason why there has not been greater savings for many, is that they simply never learned how to optimize the programs for their particular furnace type, type of house, and exterior climate.

They’re fun to play with and check what’s going on at home with the furnace when you’re 3,000 miles away.  We like the digital precision of today’s computerized thermostats, and one thing is for sure: The limited temperature swings certainly do promote a more consistent comfort level throughout the home.  These features alone, make the programmable thermostat well worth the investment; the energy savings for us, are icing on the cake.  We recommend them thus.

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References for Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons

  1. What are Programmable Thermostats?    on Wikipedia

Revision History for this Post on Programmable Thermostat Pros and Cons

  • 2019-05-29: Tuned the targeting for ‘Programmable thermostat pros and cons’ and added more tags and links.
  • 2019-02-17: Reformatted. Added subheadings.  Broke large paragraphs apart. Added some pictures.  Refactored the content for improved readability.
  • 2015-11-25: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2014-11-22: Initially published this article.