When it comes to making your thermostat smarter, your choices are limited. You can opt for a Nest, which is the champion of smart thermostats but also owned by Google, which means it presumably snaps up crucial information about you and your home habits. You can opt for a “smart” thermostat from traditional thermostat makers like Honeywell, but will be stuck with a device that lacks all the cool algorithms and slick features of the Nest. Or you can spend a little extra and get an Ecobee, which uses algorithms like a Nest does, works with every major smart home hub, including Apple Home, which Nest does not, and actually secures your data.
You can see why I decided to try out the latter. I’ve found myself happily ushered into a smart home future that will hopefully keep my air conditioner uptime under control, but I’ve also discovered some annoying limitations. The $250 Ecobee SmartThermostat is one of my favorite gadgets in my new home, but I’m still not sure how much money I’m actually saving.
Savings is the real appeal of a smart thermostat. They’re meant to better learn your behaviors so they can run less when they know the temperature outside is about to drop, or turn off entirely when you’re away. The Nest is the well-respected champion of smart thermostats, and that’s why Google snapped up the company in 2014 and began integrating it into its own smart home ecosystem.
Ecobee has long been “the other” of the smart thermostat options. It claims to be as smart as the Nest, but it’s a little trickier to install, draws more power, and lacks the Nest’s near-iconic design. But, again, it actually works with Apple Home out of the box, and the latest version of the SmartThermostat launched in 2019 comes with an intercom function and Alexa built right in, too. So think of the Ecobee as a Nest, but a little uglier, works with more stuff, and potentially manages privacy better.
Installing the Ecobee SmartThermostat (not to be confused with $170 the Ecobee3 lite, which lacks the built-in Alexa and some cost-saving features) was...easy. I didn’t expect it to be! The Ecobee requires dedicated power wire from your central air system in order to run, and the Nest does not. This means the Nest can just be slapped on a lot more walls than the Ecobee. However, Ecobee includes an adapter that lets you do some wiring in the guts of your AC system in order to get it working without that dedicated power wire. If you can follow instructions when building Legos, it’s not that difficult to set up the adapter. There are even little label stickers to apply to the wires so nothing gets confusing. I did misread a label on the AC itself and connected one wire incorrectly. That led to my AC running non-stop all night. Thankfully, it was simply a matter of switching a wire—which I did in about five minutes the next morning.
Once powered up, you just screw the Ecobee’s support plate in and get to the setup. From afar, the Ecobee thermostat doesn’t look bad. The temperature, weather, and time all seem to float in the center of a giant black display, but when the light hits the thermostat just right, or you come closer to it to use it, you’ll find the display is actually a very small screen in the center of the thermostat with a massive bezel. It’s not awful—the big stuff can all be managed from your phone. But far too many settings can only be managed on the Ecobee itself, and its small screen can making navigating around and managing those settings an annoying chore.
A good example is temperature sensor calibration. The Ecobee’s sensor can be calibrated, but it can only be done on the device itself. Oddly, the calibration feature doesn’t extend to the sensors (launched last year) that you can buy and put throughout your home. That led to an instance where one of the sensors Ecobee provided didn’t match a temperature gauge I had on hand, resulting in the AC firing on more often than it should. Ecobee sent additional sensors and they’ve worked flawlessly for more than a month, while the malfunctioning sensor eventually sorted itself out and now accurately shows the right temperature (I have no idea why or how that happened but I am also not complaining).
The sensors allow you to set up “zones” and also monitor the occupancy of a room. That way it will only work to keep the kitchen at your specified temperature when it actually detects you in there. Or if you spend all day in your office you probably don’t need to worry about cooling the bedroom so you can have that zone only be monitored at bedtime. That’s what I did and it felt super nifty!
Unfortunately, I live in an NYC apartment which means my central air wasn’t installed correctly and it’s a struggle to keep it maintained by my building properly. So my bedroom’s airflow isn’t as powerful as the living room’s and the AC has to run longer to cool it to the same temperature. That means the AC kicks on a lot at night and stays on longer than it does when I’m in the living room. That’s not Ecobee’s fault; it can’t do anything about too-small vents that are poorly positioned and installed. If you expect the Ecobee to magically cure a high summertime power bill, you may be out of luck. You’ll still need a properly maintained system, blackout or insulated curtains, and plenty of ceiling fans.
I’ve only been in this apartment a few months so I can’t say just how successful the Ecobee has been at keeping energy costs down, either. My power company’s app says I’m about average in energy use—which I personally find impressive given all my windows are east or west facing. The Ecobee app says it still needs more time and data to tell me how well I’m doing, too. But hopping into the app shows me the average run time for my central air, at least, and better yet it lets me control the whole system from my iPhone, iPad, and even my Apple Watch (Nest lost this function a while ago).
I can also use the Beestat.io app online to look at more data and more charts. It’s totally free, but you can subscribe to a Patreon if you want to recognize the developer’s work. While the data is largely the same stuff I get on the Ecobee app, it loads a lot faster and the charts feel more informative to me. Beestat.io also recommended I change a few settings the first time I logged on, and it instantly cut down the number of times my AC kicked on without making it more uncomfortable in the house. So I’d call that a win. It’s nice that it’s free, but I do wish more of this data was built into the app itself, because I don’t know how many other people will get as weirdly nerdy about insulation ratings in their homes and actively seek it out.
Those issues aside, I’ve really liked the Ecobee! The killer feature for me has been the ability to connect it to my Apple Home hub. I made the switch to Apple Home at the same time I moved in order to get familiar with the hub system I’ve used the least, and in an effort to move to a hub system that wasn’t quite as frivolous with the data it reaped. When I leave the house, a web camera that points out my most easily accessible windows pops on and the AC takes a breather. As soon as I’m within distance of the house again the camera turns off and the AC cranks on—leaving me nice and cool when I stagger through the door. I could do all this with a Nest and the use of additional software like Homebridge, but the appeal of the Ecobee is it just works—no fiddling with extra software or worrying about dropped support by unpaid developers.
I’d be remiss to ignore the Amazon Alexa integration. For 95% of my Ecobee use, I have happily left it disconnected. The only reason I did connect it was to test it, in case you readers actually want a tiny Alexa monitoring you from a thermostat that prides itself on privacy. Built-in Alexa can be a useful feature for some, but adding it is frankly a mistake that’s at odds with the company’s mission statement and I hope it disappears from the next version. But if it appeals to you, it’s there, and it’s not a total nightmare to set up. Do not try to play music, though—you’ll be disappointed.
Despite the Ecobee not working any miracles and not fixing pre-existing issues with my own central A/C system, I still find myself totally enamored with it. It’s a good resource when I start stalking HVAC and home improvement reddits for better tips on insulating my home, and the sheer volume of information it gives has nurtured my spreadsheet-loving soul. I don’t have exact proof it’s saved me money, but I spend half as much on electricity as I did at my old place, and my A/C kicks on less often than it sounds like other people’s do (at least according to forums dedicated to min/maxing your central air system). I feel like it’s definitely helped, and for $250, it makes a lot of sense. It costs the same as Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat, can support additional sensors for better control in the home, works with more products, and better protects your data. If you’re ready to do away with your ugly old thermostat or have been made wary of maintaining investment in your Nest one, then the Ecobee SmartThermostat is an absolute winner.
- It’s the same price as a Nest, but works with more stuff and should be better about your data because it’s not owned by Google.
- Some controls are only on the thermostat and that’s annoying.
- Third-party apps like Beestat.io are far better for going through all the data it gathers.
Correction 8/4/20 743pm ET — A previous version of this story said the Ecobee 4, which is no longer available, lacks Alexa. This is incorrect, and the story has been updated to accurately represent the available products in the Ecobee line up. We apologize for the error.