Don’t lose control of your smart thermostat this winter

Winter is coming and the energy crisis is upon us. With rocketing prices and dwindling supply, much of the western world is bracing for three cold months beset by restrictions.

smart thermostats control

Despite the coming hardship, connected devices offer a glimmer of hope. Smart thermostats present a rare chance to tackle energy conservation and cost reduction at the same time – but users must ensure they have ultimate control of the device. This month, thousands of homes in the United States lost the ability to change their smart thermostats after the power company seized control during a heatwave.

Let’s explore how internet-connected energy systems can deliver savings while retaining user control.

The promise of smart energy

Buildings account for 40% of global energy consumption and about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, finding more efficient ways to heat and cool dwellings kills two birds with one stone – lower emissions and customer energy bills with a single, intelligent approach.

Smart energy devices make this possible. Smart thermostats, for example, learn a household’s patterns and adjust heating and cooling accordingly. Moreover, users can adjust the temperature setting, set timers, and turn the heating on and off via the app. This matters since the average household spends more than $2,000 a year on energy bills. With Google’s Nest estimating customer savings of up to 16% of their heating energy use, these devices deliver serious savings.

A report from Kagan, the media research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, shows that almost 20 million smart thermostats were installed at the end of last year in the United States. These energy-saving devices helped the nation to consume 1.4% less energy on space heating and cooling. With smart thermostats predicted to almost double by 2026, the country is on track to save 15 terawatt-hours of electricity (or 3%) thanks to IoT.

However, greater adoption promises more significant savings. If smart thermostats reach every home with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) by 2026, annual space heating and cooling energy consumption could be cut by 45 terawatt-hours or 9%. Such a saving would be the equivalent of the total energy used by the state of Mississippi in 2020.

The fight for control over the smart thermostat

At the very same time, the accessibility of smart thermostats places an asterisk over the potential savings. Here, there’s growing cybersecurity concern on two fronts.

First, connected devices without proper safeguards are known to be eminently hackable. For example, a few years ago, an American couple utilized compromised passwords in their Nest devices and suffered the consequences: Hackers increased the smart thermostat to sweltering temperatures, gained access to the smart camera and spoke to the couple. Clearly, hacked smart home devices carry additional privacy concerns since compromised cybersecurity can grant access into the inner sanctum of your home.

Second, smart energy systems installed by power companies have proven to take control away from the user in certain cases. This is what happened during the height of summer heat in the United States with multiple power companies in multiple states. In Colorado, more than 20,000 customers were locked out of their smart thermostats during an “energy emergency”. For hours, users were unable to override the mandated temperature setting. Meanwhile, in Utah, it was reported those who opted into a customer rewards program can have the cooling unit in their air conditioners shut down to lighten demand during times of grid strain.

These interventions by utility companies warrant warning as the northern hemisphere enters the colder months amidst energy scarcity. In Germany, for example, the government is already committing to turning down the thermostat in public buildings. This situation begs the question: Are we far from a future where users no longer control smart thermostats?

Have the final say on your energy

The good news is that users can fight back in both circumstances and enjoy the full benefits of smart thermostats. In the case of hackers, beef up your device’s cybersecurity. Change your default passwords, leverage encryption, and designate a private network for devices.

Meanwhile, prevent thermostat interference by installing your own system with a direct, peer-to-peer (P2P) connection. The connection type is key because P2P using public key infrastructure (PKI) technology for authentication provides a connection between devices which not only reduces latency but keeps out others.

It’s worth noting that users who had their thermostat access overridden did sign up for specialty rewards programs. In Colorado, those households were part of the Colorado AC Rewards program which offers a $100 credit for enrolling in the program and $25 annually. Conversely, the customers also agree to give up some control to save energy and money and make the system more reliable. So, if you want to maintain access this winter and beyond, be sure to read the fine print of any agreement with the utility company.

My advice? Don’t lose control and enjoy the energy conservation benefits by installing your own smart thermostat.

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