Most people think that all smart stats are equal, but there is a key difference that no one seems to be talking about, and a little bit of information here really does go a long way.
The term smart thermostat typically just means it's able to connect to the internet, which can be handy in some scenarios.
For example, most thermostats have a feature called geolocation which can see when you're in the home and when you're out of the home and adjust the temperature accordingly.
This is quite handy, but compared to the differences I'm going to talk about today, is pretty much just a gimmick.
Your system could be loads more efficient and more comfortable, simply by swapping two wires over.
So the first main thing you should be looking at is whether that specific thermostat or smart stat can modulate your specific boiler or heat pump.
Modulating the boiler or heat pump essentially just means that it can turn down the appliance output when you have reduced demand in the property.
Say it's not particularly cold outside, 14 degrees for example, and you just need a little bit of heat energy in the house.
The control will output a much lower flow temperature from the boiler to just maintain a comfortable temperature within the house, rather than switching the boiler on to full blast to drive the house temperature up to your target room temperature as quickly as possible.
Because what happens then is the room temperature overshoots and has to turn off the boiler, then when the room temperature drops back down, turns on the boiler full blast again, and this 'on and off' cycling continues. This is known as an 'on off' type thermostat.
Instead, a correctly installed modulating thermostat releases just the right amount of heat from the heat pump or boiler to come up to the correct room temperature then lowers that heat output to just maintain your set room temperature and continue running gently. Rather than blasts of 'on and off' known as cycling.
The best types of smart stat, as mentioned above, are modulating smart stats and there are two main types.
Load compensation is simply where the thermostat measures the temperature inside the house and calculates how hot to make the radiators just come up to temperature, and then maintain temperature.
Weather compensation, however, measures the outside temperature, which is the real main variable when heating.
When you're heating a home, you typically only heat to one or two comfort temperatures, the main thing that varies is the outside temperature.
So a sensor is installed on an outside north-facing wall, (out of the sun) to tell the boiler if it's the depth of winter, or if it's spring or autumn, and it then calculates the desired radiator temperature based on that information.
The way I explain this to older customers is, I ask them if they remember 'back before room thermostats and remember turning up the boiler in the winter to keep them warmer, and down a bit in the spring and autumn?'
Well, this does exactly that for you.
And that's precisely the case, it makes the radiators hotter when it's colder outside, and cooler when it's warmer outside. Nice and simple.
Without trying to go into too much detail, there are three basic types of weather compensation. The first type is known as advanced weather compensation.
This can read the temperature outside and achieve an accurate temperature indoors without any sensors or thermostats actually installed indoors.
You may still require a sensor or thermostat in some scenarios, but it still has the ability and technology to achieve this. It also has the ability to adjust times and temperatures built-in.
This utilises the lowest temperatures of all the different types of controls and is, therefore, the most efficient, comfortable and reliable controller you can get for reasons we're going to go into below, but essentially it's the best type.
The second option is basic weather compensation, which is very similar to advanced weather compensation, except for it doesn't have the time and temperature controls and it does need an internal sensor or thermostat to achieve an accurate indoor temperature.
Basic weather compensation typically comes built into the boiler.
The third type of weather compensation uses internet weather data.
Now there's two main sorts of problems here, the first problem is the weather station might not be anywhere near your house or you could be in a valley, or on a hill, so it doesn't represent an accurate temperature near your home.
The second issue we found is that it doesn't actually seem to have that much influence on the flow temperature from the boiler.
So typically if you see a controller that says it has weather compensation that uses internet data, that would typically be more just load compensation and isn't really weather compensation at all in our opinion.
There are so many benefits to modulating controls and all of them are listed in our benefits of low-temperature article. However, here are some hand-picked ones just to illustrate our point.
The first group of advantages are that it extends the life of your boiler and system without the need for repair.
We go into great detail about this on the above this article, but to give you a quick overview;
The next group of advantages are all about how much more comfort lower temperatures bring, again we go into more details about this in our benefits of low-temperature article. But essentially it does this by:
The next group of advantages are all about how fuel consumption is reduced, this is done by:
Added condensing essentially means that we've extracted so much heat out of the products of combustion (which are the fumes that get blown outside) that those fumes condense into liquid water.
The more of this condensed water we can collect, the more latent heat we've dragged out of the gas, and the lower the flow temperatures, the more condensed water collected.
If you'd like more information on that, there's more on the condensing theory article.
It's also worth noting this is mainly for gas boilers. Oil boilers are much less likely to modulate and much less likely to accept modulating controls.
Heat pumps benefit EVEN MORE from this…
People always ask for a percentage of the efficiency modulating smart stat or controllers add.
We're going to do a separate article on this subject, but our quick answer for the sake of this article is that:
For gas boilers, it can reduce efficiency by 5% or improve efficiency by up to 45 for gas boilers. It could save literally anywhere in there, there are just too many variables.
For oil boilers, it could decrease efficiency from 10% and increase to 20%. However, it's also highly unlikely you'll find an oil boiler that accepts them.
For heat pumps, it will increase efficiency between 10% and 70%!
It really depends on how efficient your current system is, as well as how you use the system and many other variables.
Also remember there are two ways of measuring efficiency.
The first is how much it reduces fuel consumption by, the second, however, is how reliable your system is without failing and how long it lasts over its lifetime.
Modulating controls address both of these though whilst improving comfort, so when we give a percentage that could be for the length of the boiler or the fuel consumption.
In reality, all these little individual advantages are small but added together make a much bigger difference.
So now you know why modulating smart stats and controls are so much better than typical 'on off' thermostats, whether they're connected to the internet or not.
Now here's why you can't have them.
Your boiler or heat pump will need to be a specific modulating appliance that accepts bus control.
Bus controls are an intelligent communication between a thermostat and a boiler, meaning they can pass data from the thermostat to the boiler, and back to the thermostat along the same two wires.
Without this, you won't be able to modulate down your flow temperature from the boiler.
The next issue is that different boilers have different bus languages, so for example the Viessmann 200 range and their heat pump range speak KM bus or plus bus; Worcester boiler and heat pumps speak EMS bus; Vaillant boilers and heat pumps speak E bus..
An e-bus controller (which will be made by Vaillant because it's their language) won't be able to speak to a KM bus heat pump and vice versa.
There is, however, an open language that many boilers speak instead called OpenTherm.
Because this language is open, it means we can install some third-party controls that can speak to the boiler in an intelligent way.
Just look for the OpenTherm badge and those controllers will be able to modulate down your OpenTherm boiler accordingly.
Another advantage you get from making sure you use the correct bus control is that, because the boiler is speaking to the controller intelligently if you have any issues or faults, they will come up on your controller screen or your app.
Of the smart stats that speak a bit more intelligently to the heat source, as well as having different bus languages available, you also have some stats that are a bit more responsive or aggressive with the flow temperature than others.
For example, the Nest is actually very good because it's a gentle modulating controller, provided it's a Nest version three or later. It doesn't jump up the boiler demand too high but instead calls for a much lower gentler heat to the radiators keeping them nice and cool.
On the other hand, we have Honeywell EvoHome, now this is a great controller that has multi-zoning, meaning you can have different rooms at different temperatures (note zoning like this can be terrible for efficiency, watch this video to see why.
However, because of this, it's very aggressive with the boiler flow temperature.
It will jump up high in flow temperature before backing down quite a lot later, which as you can see above, is less efficient.
Then you have controllers that don't use bus control at all or modulate the boiler and just turn the boiler on and off such as Hive.
Then there's a Tado control.
Now this controller used to be able simulate any boiler bus language and what's more, it's very gentle with the boiler, it used to keep the flow temperatures nice and low, and it even had a user feature on it that means you can adjust just how aggressive it is with the boiler. However this was removed in the UK due to lack of use!
We will be doing articles comparing the main controls in the UK soon, so you'll know which best suits you, but we can't complete this article without highlighting the potential downsides of modulating controls.
Remember your body is 37°C so you may touch a 30°C radiator and it feels cold, but it's not, it's just putting in a gentle amount of heat over time, rather than blasts of high-temperature heating.
Please be sure to have this discussion with your installer before going ahead. If they sent you this video, they'll most certainly already understand. Or, of course, if they're a Heat Geek. (check out the map).
This isn't the case, we've installed thousands of these systems and it's almost never happened.
The only times it has happened, we've had a scaled hot water cylinder, which meant it took too long to heat up and needed replacing anyway. Modulating controls can also highlight other pre-existing faults like this that have been undetected for years.
4) The last potential negative, although I've not seen it myself personally, is that you might get more bacterial growth within the system.
If you've got underfloor heating you're going to get that potentially anyway, so although there's reduced corrosion from the collision theory I mentioned earlier, there's also a potential higher corrosion rate from this bacteria growing due to lower temperatures.
However, this can be fixed by biocide and water treatment. It's something that needs to be addressed regardless. We fully cover that in this water treatment video/article here.
Overwhelmingly, so the feedback from modulating controls is nearly always positive for us.
In fact, we're often asking customers, how their heating's been, which will most likely be advanced weather compensation for us personally, and they'll kind of sit back and think “oh, how has my heating been?” and won't realise because they haven't been fighting with an on/off thermostat throughout the year to get comfortable. Not to mention the money saved and all the other benefits listed above and in this in-depth article.
Vaillant boilers speak E BUS - use a vaillant controller like the VRT 350 found here, or the VRC 700 found here.
Worcester speak EMS Bus, use Worcester's own controller found here
So Viessmann 100 boiler speak both OpenTherm OR Plus Bus so any of the OpenTherm mentioned or the Vicare option. The Viessmann 200 option only speaks Plus Bus, so just the Vicare option: but only IF you need a room controller! Remember pure weather compensation is best and this comes built into the boiler with the 100 and 200 range.
This is a simple answer, heat pumps use proprietary controls. That means they use their own manufacturers' controls, and for good reason.
Heat pumps are even more susceptible to higher flow temperatures than boilers, the minute they allow third party controls on to their platform, they allow potentially poor controls.
So they ONLY allow on/off controls (to link in to a larger control system) OR their own controls which speak intelligently.
Those putting 3rd party ‘smart stats’ on heat pumps are falling for gimmicks and not realising the true heat pump COP.
But remember, higher quality heat pumps like those listed above don’t necessarily need a controller as they have advanced weather compensation built-in.
Now remember the next step…. How to commission and control your system!
So rounding this up, if you're looking for a thermostat for a property, rather than choosing a smart stat that just connects to the internet, look for one that actually has some smart intelligence, that can speak to the boiler or heat pump, and the heat source can speak back to the thermostat, but importantly, modulates the heat source down when required.
I'd start off by finding out if you have a modulating boiler (heat pumps always modulate flow temperature), then find out what bus language it speaks, and then look at your options and don't discount boiler manufacturers' own controls, as we found these to be among the best, if not the best.
Or simply comment below with your boilermaker model and property type and we'll suggest the best control options for you.
It will reduce your fuel consumption, increase the life of your system and improve comfort, but only if commissioned correctly, and not overly zoned!!!
See the next two steps:
Enjoyed this article? Want to know more about system design and how to become a top heating engineer?