Amazon announced its new Alexa-enabled smart thermostat back in September, and started shipping them this last week. Although smart thermostats, in general, have been around for some time. The Nest, released in 2011 and purchased by Google in 2014, was perhaps the first, Ecobee is another well known brand.
The affordable price in particular makes the Amazon product stand out from its competitors (most other similar devices also have some Alexa voice control capabilities).
The Amazon product costs only $60. Compare that to the Google Nest thermostat, with two models priced at either $99 (and that’s the low priced version) – or $229-$249 for the high priced version. It is not clear what relevant and useful extra features a Nest offers that the Amazon product does not similarly match.
One more thing about price. Many utility companies offer rebates if you install an Energy Star certified smart thermostat, typically paying up to as much as $75 of the cost of purchasing such a device. So your Amazon thermostat might end up being completely free.
Unsurprisingly, the product seems to already be popular, and is currently on back-order, with delivery promised probably shortly after Thanksgiving.
What is Smart About a “Smart Thermostat”?
Just about everyone has a programmable electronic thermostat these days – you can program different temperatures for different times, and you can change the settings for each day of the week depending on your pattern of when you’re at home, at work, awake, and asleep.
You can do the same with an Amazon Smart Thermostat. But where the Amazon product comes into its own is when you want to change or override your pre-programmed settings, or to do anything while not physically at the device.
I ended up making so many changes to the pre-programmed settings with my older thermostat that I switched it back to “unintelligent” mode rather than continually having to battle with its automatic changes. Just when I’d set it the way I wanted, the next time period would kick in and the thermostat would return to its programmed settings, whether I wanted it to or not.
Overriding the settings needs to be considered in two different scenarios. The first is when you’re at home, but want to stay up later, or go to bed earlier, or in some other way, change the temperature on the thermostat. The worst case scenario with an ordinary thermostat is you simply have to walk to it and change the setting directly. Mind you, if you’re cold in bed and want to get the heaters on before you get up earlier than normal, that is an appreciably bad scenario!
The second scenario is when you’re not at home. Maybe you are working late, and don’t want the thermostat to switch to a higher setting and heat up an empty house. Or maybe you’ve been out of town, and want to start adjusting your home’s temperature to a comfortable level before arriving, rather than getting home to a freezing-cold (or stifling-hot) home and having to wait several hours for the heating/cooling to adjust to a comfortable level.
Maybe you also just want to check on what the temperature is set to, and/or what the ambient temperature currently is.
There’s no way to do this with a regular thermostat that requires you to physically change the settings directly on the device itself. In all these cases, the Amazon Alexa-controlled thermostat is a winner. Simply tell Alexa what you want it to do, wherever you are.
(Note that we’ve updated our Alexa Commands cheat-sheet to now include commands to control a smart thermostat. This grew the “cheat sheet” some more – we’ll have to rename it, because it is currently 36 pages in length.)
One of the problems with changing the thermostat in your home is that not all thermostats are compatible with all heating and cooling systems these days. Back in the good old days, a thermostat was simply a single temperature sensitive mechanical switch controlling a heat source. The switch opened when it was hot enough, thereby turning the furnace off, and closed when the temperature dropped below the set point, telling the furnace to fire up.
But nowadays, we have multi-stage fans, we have heat-pumps as well as heaters, cooling as well as heating, and “emergency heat” settings where heat pumps activate supplemental heating as well as their heat-pumping, and fan-only settings. So you need a thermostat that is capable of telling your heating/cooling equipment everything it should do, and compatible with everything it can do.
A second problem also sometimes applies. A simple thermostatic switch doesn’t need any power. It is just a switch, and its action is based on the temperature and how far you’ve moved the setting levers. But of course, any sort of electronic thermostat needs power. If you don’t have power (and of the correct voltage – typically 24V AC) provided to your thermostat as part of the many wires that may be connected to it from your furnace or other HVAC device(s), that creates a problem if you’re upgrading from a simple set of unpowered switches to a modern electronic controller.
Happily, Amazon (and most other manufacturers too these days) walk you through working out what things your heating/cooling needs to be told, and matching it to the capabilities of their thermostat. There’s a simple “check compatibility” option on the product webpage that allows you to relatively easily understand if the Amazon Smart Thermostat can be configured to work with your heating/cooling, based on the wires you have going to your present thermostat.
Even better, if you don’t have power provided in the current wiring to the thermostat, Amazon will sell you, currently for $15 more, a “C-wire power adapter”. This is a device that provides power to the unit, and usually is connected at the furnace end of the wiring rather than at the thermostat end. This is a good thing, because it keeps the installation in the public part of your house clean and simple.
Installing the Unit
Amazon provides step by step instructions, albeit through its Alexa phone app rather than on paper, showing you how to install the unit. It even provides a simple screwdriver, while indicating you’ll also need a drill, 3/16″ drill bit, and a level.
I found the instructions difficult to follow and was astonished to find they were missing several key steps. In addition, the tools Amazon provided were woefully incomplete and inadequate, although, to be fair, the inadequacy related more to the tools needed to uninstall and remove the existing thermostat more than to install the Amazon device.
Amazon tells you to disconnect the power to your furnace/heating-cooling equipment at your main distribution panel. In theory, that’s sensible, but assuming you don’t have any mains power running through the thermostat wires (and if you do, something is wrong) there’s little need to worry about that and the minor danger of a 24V “tingle” that you could possible receive. If leaving the unit live, try to minimize any touching of bare wires with other bare wires, just so you don’t send it confusing control signals. A compromise, if convenient, would be to turn off the power switch that is probably at the furnace itself, rather than having to puzzle out which switch to turn off at your main fusebox.
After some frustrations and ambiguities, and a call to Amazon Support, I finally had the unit on the wall, and looking reasonably professional. If I can do that, the chances are you can, too!
Using the Unit
It is important to appreciate that the unit itself has neither microphones nor speakers within it. It will interact with Alexa Echo units, but it can’t “hear” commands itself nor can it speak responses to you. So ideally you should have one or more Echo units (although you could use the Alexa app on your phone for everything as well).
Amazon has adopted the “simple” design approach that seems popular these days. Most of the time, all you see on the face of the unit is a temperature reading, and an illuminated hollow circle underneath. This is a simple and “clean” design, for sure, but it has an abundance of limitations.
It doesn’t tell you if the unit is switched on or off, and, if switched on, it doesn’t tell you whether it is in heating mode, cooling mode, fan only mode, or something else. It also doesn’t show you what the temperature setting is at present, and whether it is changing temperatures via a schedule, or via Alexa “hunches” (see next section), or whether it is fixed at a certain temperature.
There are two tiny little dimples that, after you touch the circle/control button, illuminate to indicate they are up and down buttons to control the thermostat setting. You can cycle through the “mode” settings (ie heat, cool, fan only, fan cycling, and off) by touching the circle/control button – this is of course easy, but requires a bit of guessing to understand what the symbols mean. The unit doesn’t use words to explain what you’re doing.
I’d initially wanted to have more information displayed, and more controls visible, or perhaps, as a compromise like the thermostat I replaced, a door that swings open to reveal more controls and with some information on how to manage the thermostat and its controls. But I came to realize that perhaps this preference was just me being slow to make the “paradigm switch” – essentially what has happened is the controls that were formerly on the wall thermostat unit have moved into the Alexa app instead. When this point is appreciated, the sparse nature of the wall unit no longer seems quite so disappointing.
An astonishing limitation is that the minimum temperature you can set the unit to is 50°F (ie 10°C). If you are going away for some time, but in winter when the temperature can drop way below freezing at night, you might want to keep the house at a temperature safely above freezing so you don’t have pipes bursting, but there’s no need to heat the home to 50°, especially with the clever feature to occasionally just turn the fans alone on, to circulate air around the house to keep the air “fresh” and to balance out hot and cold spots.
This limitation also contradicts Amazon’s “energy saving” boasts and Energy Star ratings. Imagine being forced to keep your home, while uninhabited, at a temperature of at least 50°. That’s gratuitously burning up a ton of energy (and money) for absolutely no good purpose at all. I used to have a home in the mountains where it got very cold, and I’d set the “away” temperature at 40°, and even at that low temperature, it was expensive to heat; I can only guess at what the cost of the extra 10° would be.
None of us begrudge the cost to keep our home comfortably warm when we’re present, but the whole concept of smart thermostats is to save energy by not keeping the home unnecessarily warm when there’s no-one there.
An Amazon support rep obfuscated every which way about this limitation, providing several different and mutually exclusive explanations for why the unit wouldn’t go below 50°, including trying to blame my furnace for setting that number (he was unable to explain how that would be so, or why the previous thermostat would go as low as I wished).
The Alexa “hunch” capability is interesting, but a bit spooky. Based on what Alexa hears through your Echo units, where your phone is located, the state of your lights and other Alexa-connected appliances, and the time of day, it can make guesses – “hunches” – as to if you are at home or not, and, if you are at home, if you are awake or asleep. Alexa can then perform assorted actions, based on where it thinks you are and what it thinks you’re doing. For example, and obviously, if Alexa has a hunch that you’re out of the house, it can consider dropping the temperature until it thinks you’re back again.
In theory, this is a great concept. In practice, it seems to have plenty of potential for error, and prior to getting the thermostat, I did not enable/create any other types of hunch based activities. But I decided to try them with the thermostat.
They were a colossal fail. The first problem was that hunch actions took precedence over manually programmed temperature settings. Clearly, it assumes “Alexa knows best”; but in reality, that was seldom the case.
The second problem was that Alexa was slow to work out I’d gone to bed (it took almost 20 minutes for Alexa to decide this) and so for 20 unnecessary minutes, it was keeping the house at normal warm temperatures, while I was roasting in bed, rather than cooling the house down for night time temperatures. I’d like to turn the heating down before going to bed, but if I did that, Alexa would get a hunch that I was still up and about, and return the temperature back to the normal daytime temperature again. Its “hunch” abilities didn’t seem to extend to “ah, he is going to bed soon, so wants to stop heating the house now”.
The third problem was the real killer. In the middle of the night (well, 5.26am) something caused Alexa to think I was now awake and up, so it switched the temperature back from night/low to day/high. I woke wondering why it was so hot and the heaters were working.
On another occasion, I decided to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night (I think Alexa worked that out solely from, ahem, hearing me, because I didn’t turn any lights on and neither did I do anything with my phone), and Alexa used that as justification to turn the temperature back to day/high as well. A two-minute quick trip to the bathroom is no reason to turn on the heaters. For a unit that claims to help me save energy, it is very trigger happy and keen to turn the heat up any time it thinks it should.
So I’ve now disabled all Alexa thermostat hunches, while trying not to be a bit creeped out that Alexa knows every time I go to the bathroom. I’ll do a better job of keeping the door closed in the future!
Time of Day/Day of Week Programming
The thermostat has the ability to accept up to four different time zones (typically considered as at-home/morning; away; at-home/evening and night/sleep) with different times and temperatures set, each day, for these different time periods.
This is almost exactly the same as other electronic thermostats. If you lead an orderly life, which many of us who work on a regular 9-5 Mon-Fri type schedule have, it is convenient to preset the weekday behaviors to start warming the house shortly before your alarm goes off, to turn the temperature back down low when you go to work, to have the house warm again for when you get home from work, and to ease the temperature back prior to your going to bed.
You can also set a different schedule for your weekends.
I don’t use this, because I seldom have a fixed schedule from day to day. What I most wanted was an easy way to change the temperature flexibly, as and when I wanted to. Fortunately, the thermostat has a way for this to be done – turn off the scheduling and just tell it to change the temperature as and when you want.
But there’s a missing feature. If I decide that tomorrow I have to get up very early to get to the airport for a flight, I’d like to be able to not only set an alarm to wake up early, but also a way to ask the thermostat to begin warming the house up a little prior to then. At present, there’s no way to command the thermostat to make a temperature change at a future time.
This is a huge missing feature that surely could be easily added.
Alexa Echo Commands
Frustratingly, there wasn’t a list of voice commands you could use with the device. I managed to find some through trial and error, and at one point an Amazon support rep offered to send me what sounded like a very short list of commands, but he never did.
However, what I have found out can be considered as either a glass half-full or glass half-empty situation. Some commands evoked a response “That’s not supported yet”; others more bluntly said “Thermostat doesn’t support that”.
Certainly, the former response is encouraging, suggesting that more commands are on the way, and even the latter command acknowledges the potentiality of the request, and generally, the lack of functionality seems to be more a software limitation than a hardware limitation.
A number of commands could only be conveyed through the Alexa app. But there’s no reason why the thermostat couldn’t accept a command via a spoken command to an Echo unit, if it will already accept a command through the Alexa app. Both a spoken command or an option selected in the app would result in the same digital command code being sent to the unit, and the same response within the unit to the code.
So, as I said, glass half-full/empty. Hopefully, as has happened with other parts of the Alexa universe, the feature set will grow and become more useful and more intuitive over the next few months.
A frustration at present revolves around not being able to turn the thermostat totally off (or on again if already off) and not even being able to ask Alexa if the thermostat is on or off at present. If I was going out of town for a week, and assuming the temperatures weren’t expected to drop precipitately low, I’d just want to turn the unit off entirely (and then turn it on again several hours before getting home).
The solution to this is simply to turn the unit on or off “the old fashioned way”, through the Alexa app. But what is the point of a voice controlled thermostat if you can’t do anything and everything by voice that you can through the phone app? It is a nasty mess of paradigms – “most things I can do by speaking, but some things I can’t”.
Talking of needing to use the Alexa app, it would be great if there were a widget available to make it easier to access the thermometer/thermostat part of the Alexa app – showing for example the current programmed temperature, and then with instant access to everything else if touched. Instead, you have to select the Alexa app, then devices, then scroll to thermostats, then select the thermostat, and only after all of that find yourself at the main thermostat control screen.
And the point about turning on the heating a few hours before arriving home, there’s an option in the Alexa app so that if you specify a time, Alexa will work back from that to when it should turn on so the temperature will be at the required temperature at the specified time. That’s a nice extra feature.
Rushed to Market
My feeling is the device has been rushed to market, well before the software to make it fully user-friendly and functional has been developed. I guess Amazon was fixed on not missing the Black Friday – Christmas shopping season, and decided that as long as the hardware was fine, they could add the extra software features subsequently.
This is hinted at by the “That’s not supported yet” responses to some requests, and other functions that can be done through the app but not via voice control. In addition there’s the needless inability to do other things which in theory could be done in terms of physical hardware capabilities, but which just need someone to write the software to drive the hardware.
It is disappointing to find these needless constraints that limit the functionality of the unit, and of course, there is no formal list of new features that will be added, or when to expect them, so we have to cross our fingers and hope Amazon will indeed finish developing the missing features.
Should You Buy One?
In theory, you could probably get an Amazon Smart Thermostat essentially for free due to a possible rebate from your utility company. But because you’ll probably only qualify for one rebate, or perhaps only one per many years, there’s an opportunity cost if you buy the Amazon unit, thinking it is free. That same rebate could have been applied to a Nest or Ecobee (or other brand) unit instead.
But, having said that, we’re reasonably confident that Amazon will continue to improve the capabilities of its unit, and even with some features missing, it is still a great product and much better than a regular ordinary electronic thermostat. We also don’t clearly see any “deal-breaking” superiorities in the much more expensive Nest or Ecobee units. Why spend over $200 when the $60 Amazon unit does essentially the same job.
Accordingly, we’re happy to recommend the unit. Easy to use, intuitive, and provides extra convenience when controlling your home’s heating and cooling.