If you’re a married man you’ve probably occasionally heard your wife complain that she was cold and that the heat needed to be turned up during the winter. Given differences in biology between men and women, it might be easy to dismiss such concerns. But being good husbands, we just check the thermostat, report the current temperature to our wives, request her desired temperature and reset the thermostat and enjoy as the familial peace that ensues.
Unless the thermostat is broken. And then you could be left wondering for months or even years what’s going on. Did we need new insulation? Perhaps the windows are leaking air more than they used to? Did we need new adhesive door draft stoppers? Having had this problem at our home, we investigated all these options, tried a few, but still the house was freezing.
A few days ago, I discovered that my eco-“friendly” thermostat, an Ecobee, which I had used for a couple of years, was overstating the temperature in my home by about 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit by comparing it to one of those scientific, red alcohol thermometers. While the thermostat was assuring me it was 74 degrees in the house, the actual temperature in the room was closer to 65 degrees.
The impact was that in the winter, the house was too cold, as the heat would never allow the house to ever reach a comfortable temperature. And in the summer, it was also too cold, as the air conditioner would keep on cranking to maintain improbably cool temperatures. But you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the thermostat.
Was the thermostat lying to me?
While we don’t normally perform product reviews here at Americans for Limited Government, this outcome piqued my curiosity, and so I began investigating to see if other customers were having the same problem online. Sure enough, after poking around Reddit and other message forums, I found reams of customers with similar complaints.
Webbie0225 on Reddit a year ago in a thread titled “Ecobee Thermostats always read wrong temperature,” stated, “Got two ecobee thermostats for my first and second stories this summer… and almost immediately noticed the house was much warmer than before. Wife and I went out and bought two little thermostats to put around to test what the temp actually was in the house. I set it not 3 feet away from the thermostat and the ecobee is reading 2-3 degrees cooler, so the a/c never kicks on and we all bake… same situation with the second story unit, even tried switching them around to see if one was reading more accurate than the other. I tried recalibrating, no changes. OK fine, I see that there is a temperature correction setting, so I bump everything up 2 degrees. Fine during the day, but then come nighttime when the temperature drops, now everything is 2 degrees off in the OTHER direction because of the correction settings...”
Various reasons for the hijinks were offered. Perhaps the unit was improperly installed. Maybe the batteries needed to be replaced. Perhaps the sensor was in a location that was warmer than the room itself, and so forth.
A few others posted some simple instructions to recalibrate the thermostat. Others still warned that because it was a “green” thermostat that it might be throttling the temperature in coordination with public utilities to reduce carbon emissions, and urged users to disconnect it from the internet, and so I tried both.
Following the instructions, I took the Ecobee off of my internet’s wifi, a feature to allow you to set your home’s temperature using your smartphone that I really didn’t need. What kind of thermostat requires an internet connection to determine the temperature, anyway? That’s weird.
And I lowered the temperature reading by 4 degrees.
After making the changes, the house heated up a bit but then I checked my readings with the scientific thermometer again and it was still off. So, I lowered it by 6 degrees. Still off. Finally, by going down by about 8 degrees, the house finally warmed up and seemed to stay there—for a while.
But then the next day it went from cold to warm outside. There is no shade on my home, so when it gets sunny in the spring and summer, the house can get really warm, especially on the upper floor, if the air conditioner isn’t on. So, it was time to close the vents in the basement and turn on the air conditioner, and then the same problem happened—this time only in reverse. Suddenly, the thermostat was understating the temperature, by about 6-8 degrees Fahrenheit!
In its original iteration, using no temperature reading corrections, the air conditioner had running too hard, resulting in lower than desired temperatures when it was hot outside, and after the modifications, it was running too soft, resulting in warmer than desired temperatures. So, disconnecting the unit from the internet and modifying the temperature reading — which allowed for a range -10 degrees Fahrenheit to +10 degrees Fahrenheit — was not fully fixing the problem. Also, what a range! Are thermostats supposed to be that finnicky?
The implication was that when the heat was on, I needed to lower the temperature thresholds, and when the air conditioner was on, I needed to increase the thresholds. That’s annoying! My thermostat was measuring something, but it clearly wasn’t the temperature. What a piece of junk!
Enough was enough. I called the company that had installed the HVAC and had removed the older thermostat— I wish I had kept it — to immediately come over and remove the Ecobee, describing that it was not correctly reading the actual temperature in the room, despite changing the temperature reading. “Give me something that actually, correctly measures the temperature in the room!” I angrily demanded. They got the message, and a technician arrived within an hour.
I also inquired if there were any incentives, corporate or government, in place to install these eco-“friendly” devices, but neither phone support nor the technician who arrived were aware of any. I noted that if these settings were designed to somehow reduce my carbon footprint, they clearly weren’t working. In the winter, my wife would just crank the heat up when she got cold and I wasn’t home until she was comfortable. And in the summer, because my thermostat in its default state with no temperature reading correction was overstating the temperature, the air conditioner would run entirely too much. Overworking the heating and cooling systems in this manner could not have possibly been energy or cost efficient.
The technician who came was immediately helpful and, anecdotally, he noted that this was the second Ecobee he had been sent to uninstall in as many weeks, for exactly the same reason. By then, I had already made a post on my personal Twitter, warning my few followers, “I just discovered that my so-called Ecobee thermostat, an eco-‘friendly’ system, was understating the temperature in my house by about 8-10 degrees F by comparing the temperature with a scientific air thermometer. Check your thermostats. Don’t use one connected to the internet!” That was at 10:36 a.m. EST.
This is where it gets wild. Within 25 minutes, at 11:01 a.m. I received an uninvited Twitter direct message from the official Ecobee account, @ecobee, even though I had not even tagged them in my Twitter post. Must be an automated system, I thought. Maybe they had a Twitter bot account to detect whenever anybody mentions Ecobee, and were either using chatbot or real human techs to provide instant customer service by sending DMs to customers or something.
That was unsettling! Big Brother was watching. But as a civil libertarian on government and corporate big tech censorship and surveillance issues, the message itself was alarming.
The message read: “Hey Robert, I am sorry to hear about your experience with ecobee. I will be happy to take a closer look and see what could be the reason for such a difference between the ecobee and the other thermometer. Before we continue, can you please confirm the following information on your ecobee account: Full Name Registered Email Address of the Home Please also include a photo of the ecobee and other thermometer readings compared to each other. Kind Regards **** – ecobee Support.”
“This is Orwellian,” I commented aloud to the technician, who by that time had already finished installing my new Honeywell thermostat — if that one doesn’t work either I’m going to go on Ebay and find one from 2005 or something — and was calibrating it. He agreed with my concerns. I reported the DM to Twitter.
They wanted my full name, email and physical home address?! What the heck did they need my home address for? And why would I give it to a company I had no prior relationship with over a Twitter DM?
If I had wanted their help, I would have contacted them or I would have tagged them. I didn’t want their help. I had never set up an account with them, although my wife had installed the app to control the thermostat from her smartphone. I wanted that thing out of my home as soon as possible.
After I had been reminded that my thermostat had been connected to the internet, I disconnected it due to privacy concerns — were the utility companies monitoring and throttling energy usage because of green rationing or wartime rationing due to the supply shortages because of the war in Ukraine, I wondered? — and I certainly, absolutely didn’t want them in my Twitter DMs.
Did Ecobee even really read my tweet, where I had raised privacy concerns over these smart devices being connected to the internet? If it had, it might have been more cautious about how it proceeded. Must’ve been a bot.
In Oct. 2020, Ecobee published an article stating that “How eco+ is Maximizing Energy Efficiency In Over One Million Homes,” stating, “More than 1 million ecobee thermostat owners have enabled eco+ with a single tap in the ecobee app. In a year in which many families are spending more time than ever at home due to COVID-19, eco+ users averaged an additional 5% in savings on their cooling and heating costs compared to other ecobee users.† That’s in addition to the up to 23%* in energy savings that all ecobee thermostat owners enjoy.”
How does it know all that? In part, the article states that the non-eco+ customers’ data was “[b]ased on a study conducted by a third-party expert during summer 2020 across the US and Canada. Savings vary by season, climate zone, and rate structure.” Sure, okay. Congress or the Federal Trade Commission or the EPA or the Department of Energy might want to investigate that claim.
And how does it know how many customers use eco+? Simple. Because it’s connected to the internet. I had the eco+ setting turned off but I still experienced apparent throttling.
Finally, it turns out that there are incentives. In 2021, Ecobee announced that it was partnering with U.S. utilities companies to offer “free” thermostats in a press statement entitled, “ecobee partners with select utilities to offer a free smart thermostat to U.S. residents,” which stated importantly, “By enrolling in a demand response program, customers may experience slight temperature adjustments to their thermostat during periods of peak demand. [emphasis added]” So, by design, these devices are partnering with utilities companies to throttle customers’ thermostats because the company brags about it. The thermostat is lying! My wife was right.
How many senior citizens in the north are stuck in apartment buildings or low-income housing with slum lords looking to save a few bucks with these devices freezing the past few winters because of this? Or sweltering in the south during the summer? This was the Green New Deal, right in my face, and it appears to be affecting millions of American households. Congress may wish to launch an investigation. I have not personally noticed any “savings” on my utilities bills as inflation continues to run hot in the U.S.
What a terrible customer experience. A thermostat that cannot keep my home (and importantly, my wife) comfortable even when you adjust it, raises privacy concerns through its internet connection, might be throttled to “save” the planet and when you criticize the potential privacy invasion on Twitter, within 25 minutes a bot tracks you down demanding your full name and address. These so-called “smart” devices are not so smart, it seems.
Overall, I give Ecobee a -10 out of 10. I would have given them a zero, but I realized I could simply adjust my rating for what was a truly negative, Orwellian experience. No offense to George Orwell, he warned us this would happen!
Check your thermostats, folks.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government Foundation.