Smart Heating - Choosing a System

Smart heating is probably one of the more practical areas of smart home technology. It has the potential to save you money by lowering your heating bills. It doesn't hurt that using less energy is kinder to the environment too.  Which system to choose though? With so many on the market now, it's worth taking some time to decide. Now that I'm embarking on a project to install a smart heating product, I thought I'd share my own thoughts, and what I've learned during my research.

Smart heating can really help save you money.  There are of course lots of ways you could make your home more energy efficient. Maybe you get a new boiler, maybe install insulation, perhaps better double-glazing.  Chances are though, many of those approaches are going to be expensive, and it could take a while for you to recoup the costs of your initial outlay through lower energy bills.

By comparison, smart heating systems are comparatively lower cost, and the time required to get to the 'break even' point could be much shorter.  It's no wonder smart heating systems are so popular.

There are of course lots to choose from.  Everyone knows Nest - but they're not the only game in town, and in some cases other systems have devised their own unique capabilities that might be attractive enough to tempt you away from the Nest system.

Of course there are DIY approaches too.  Using a Z-Wave smart thermostat and controller, you can 'roll your own' smart heating system.  For those looking for a more hackable approach, this might be the route for you.  You'll potentially have much more access to set things up exactly how you want them.  Be warned though, it's not for everyone, and you'll likely have a lot of work to do making this function well, and stay that way over time.

For everyone else (and for me too), proprietary systems integrate everything into a much neater approach.  As mentioned, there are lots of options, Nest, Tado, Evohome, Hive - to name but a few.  I whittled it down to two, just as I did with Smart Lighting.

First though, a little about my current heating system.  We've got a gas fired central heating system.  That means a boiler (a 'combi' boiler in our case), and radiators.  This is controlled using a seven day timer or 'programmer', and thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs).

Our programmer runs the heating twice per day.  Once in the morning for when we're getting ready for work, and then again in the evening for when we get home.  These periods operate a little longer on weekends.  The TRVs give per-room and per-radiator temperature control.

This approach is fairly common, but smart heating adds a range of additional metrics. It can be capable of adjusting the heating based on the weather, the rate your home heats up (to help avoid temperature overshoot), and even -in some cases- turn the heating down if an open window is detected.

The two systems I chose to look at were Nest (well, it's hard to ignore!), and Tado.

With Nest, the star of the show is of course the thermostat itself.  Visually gorgeous, it screams 'touch me'! That's exactly what you'll be doing, especially for the first week. Nest is a 'learning' thermostat. That means that rather than set your own heating schedule manually, you simply adjust the temperature whenever you need to do so.  This tells Nest when you like it warm, what your preferred comfort levels are etc.  Based on this, it simply 'learns' the best times and temperatures to heat your home, and programs itself.

This is a huge win for people who might not otherwise set their heating schedule in the most optimal fashion.  Just when should you be turning the heating on or off?  With Nest, you no longer have to worry about this - it will sort itself out for you.

Tado is different.  The design of the thermostat itself is much more minimalist.  That's not a criticism, the clean white look has a design aesthetic all it's own.  Apart from a few basic controls though, you won't be spending much time interacting directly with the Tado physical thermostat.

Instead, Tado has everything going on inside the app.  Here, you do set your own schedule based on your needs, but Tado's unique feature is that it knows where you are using your smartphone. So, if you're not home, the heating doesn't need to be running to heat an empty house!

Everyone in your household can run the app on their phone, and Tado is smarter than a simple binary geolocation system. Tado is proximity aware too.  This means that it knows if someone is on their way home - and starts turning the temperature back up to make it comfortable for your arrival.

So - those times you need to work late? Spontaneously decide to go out for a meal? Go away for the weekend or on holiday? Tado takes care of everything. No need to launch an app to manually turn your heating down or into holiday mode - Tado just knows to do this automatically. Plus if it's extra cold, Tado won't let your pipes freeze.

To be fair, Nest also has presence based capabilities too, however my reading on this topic indicated that it uses proximity sensors built into the thermostat, so might be less capable than Tado's location features - however, I haven't tested this.

Tado also has one extra function of note - they have their own smart TRVs, allowing room by room control to be factored into the entire system, allowing for further efficiency savings.  Whilst Nest can potentially work with TRVs - they'd be third party ones you'd have to integrate somehow.

For me, the location based capabilities and smart TRV availability puts Tado over the top, so that's the system we're going to go for.  This will mean the purchase of a Tado Smart Heating starter kit, and a Tado Extension kit (to replace our current Boiler Programmer).

This will be our first step into Smart Heating, and we'll let you know how it goes!