The Different Types of Thermostats

Thermostats are simple machines in every household, but they have two major impacts on our lives. They keep us comfortable in our homes every day and they decide our fate when it comes to the monthly utility bill. This is why knowing the different types of thermostats is essential to maximizing your comfort and minimizing your bills.

This guide goes over the main types of thermostats, their designs and uses, and which you should choose based on your needs. Since these devices are in practically every home, and they govern how efficient your heater is, it pays (literally) to know what you’re buying and what will work best for your situation.

man using digital thermostat

Disclosure:It is important you understand that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. All opinions are our own we pride ourselves on keeping our articles fair and balanced. For more info see our disclosure statement.

Mechanical vs Digital Thermostats

Mechanical Thermostats

Close Up Of Female Hand On mechanical Heating Thermostat

Mechanical thermostats are the older version. They heat and cool your water by using principles of thermal expansion that generate electricity using metal strips or gas. This expansion moves discs that activate the mechanism (you can see how they work here).

The later gas models use the gas’s expansion and contraction to operate metal discs that change the thermostat’s settings. This allows them to react more quickly to changes in temperature, saving you money by not running when the system isn’t needed.

Pros

  • Their installation is cheaper
  • Due to their moving parts, they are more resistant to power outages and fluctuations
  • They are more familiar to most people and much easier to use
  • Thermostat troubleshooting is quite easy with a simple device

Cons

  • A longer delay on temperature changes
  • Fewer options when it comes to control and customization
  • Expensive maintenance

Digital Thermostats

A person lowers temperature on a home digital thermostat

By contrast, digital thermostats simply use modern technology to sense the temperature of the room and use that information to turn on the heating or cooling system. This is a more direct, and therefore more efficient, means of controlling the circuits in the thermostat that operate your HVAC.

The negligible computing power needed in most digital thermostats makes them basic but effective managers of your house’s temperature. These models are getting smarter, however, as discussed below, and are quickly getting more options and capabilities when it comes to managing your settings.

Pros

  • They offer many more options in terms of temperature control
  • They are programmable to your specifications
  • They are more energy-efficient
  • Their response to temperature changes is much more immediate

Cons

  • They take longer and cost more to install

The Different Types of Thermostats

The thermostat is the boss of the HVAC system – it decides when your air and heat turns on and off. This means that the type of thermostat you get heavily influences your family’s comfort and determines the financial burden of that comfort at the end of every month.

Two main categories decide what kind of thermostat you will buy. They are: how the device itself works (mechanical or digital) and how it is programmed (non-programmed, programmed, or smart). We’ll go over each type below, compare them, and give you the best shot of picking the one that best suits your needs.

Non-Programmable Thermostats

Hand setting a non programmable thermostat

Non-programmable thermostats have no pre-settings or smart technology at all. They can only be manually set and adjusted using their physical interface.

There’s nothing wrong with this if you or at least one person is always home. However, since you can’t change the settings when you’re away at work or asleep at night, you can expect some high power bills, at least until you’ve gotten used to the responsibility of setting your temperature.

Pros

  • They are generally cheaper to install
  • They are easy to use with clear, traditional interfaces
  • They are reliable at the settings you prefer

Cons

  • They cannot be programmed: not ideal for people who are often away from home
  • No efficiency features, though they tend to be cost-effective

Programmable Thermostats

Closeup of a woman's hand setting the room temperature on a mode

These thermostats can be programmed for your temperature preferences on a daily or weekly basis and for the season of the year. This allows you to save money by saving on heating or cooling when you know that no one will be home. You can set it on a more average temperature during business or school hours, for instance.

These thermostats are most useful for residents of areas that experience drastic temperature changes. The US South, for instance, experiences hot days and cold nights for much of the year. You can program this type of digital thermostat for both of those eventualities separately.

Some models now even have smartphone compatibility. Using a basic Wi-Fi connection, you can change your thermostat’s settings right from your phone or tablet.

Pros

  • More opportunities for customization
  • Perfect for those in areas with drastic temperature changes
  • The possibility of Wi-fi functionality

Cons

  • More expensive than non-programmable alternatives

Smart Thermostats

Nest smart home thermostat being adjusted by users hand

These are the latest models in thermostat technology. They use advanced learning algorithms to automatically adjust the temperature of your house to suit your preferences.

This means that after you set the temperature a certain way enough times, a smart thermostat will automatically program that in as your pattern. This way, you don’t have to worry about racking up your utility bill because you forgot to set the thermostat for the night, for a business trip, or for the busy workday.

Most come with Wi-fi connectivity that allows you to change the temperature with your phone or tablet for easy access to your settings.

Pros

  • Smart technology promotes customization
  • Learning algorithms provide a convenient, automatic helper when it comes to setting the thermostat for different times of the day, week, or year
  • Wi-fi connectivity is convenient

Cons

  • These are the most expensive models you can buy

The Takeaway

Thermostats vary wildly in price, but the model you choose will determine not only your family’s comfort in their home but also your monthly utility bill.

When choosing the type of thermostat that you buy, you are essentially choosing the convenience of the options vs the price of the installation. Old mechanical and non-programmable digital thermostats are the cheapest to install but come with the fewest efficiency options.

As you progress higher in those options up to the latest smart thermostats, which use algorithms to detect your preferences and automatically employ them for you, you should also plan to spend more. Even though it may seem like an expense at first, the investment could be well worth the payout in comfort.

About The Author

Aaron is the founder of and Essential Home and Garden. He likes to spend his spare time with his family, and doing DIY projects in the home and garden.