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Saturday, May 25, 2019

There are several popular smart thermostats on the market, and the competition is heating up. Honeywell, Nest and Ecobee are among the most popular devices. Each brand and model must be looked at through the lens of a shomer Shabbos consumer to see if there are issues that need to be addressed for Shabbos use.

I have owned the Honeywell Total Connect Comfort (~$140 @ Amazon) color touch-screen thermostat for a few years now. It has a seven-day programmable schedule that allows me to customize the temperature for each day of the week. On Mondays through Thursdays during the winter, for example, I save energy by making the house cooler while everyone is in school or at work. On Friday afternoons, it adjusts as we all arrive home earlier to prepare for Shabbos. Each day or group of days has four modes: sleep, wake, return and home, and I can adjust the temperature for each mode based on my family’s schedule. But these features are common among many thermostats, even ones that are not smart.

What makes this a smart thermostat is that I am able to control the settings remotely from anywhere in the world. This comes in very handy when traveling, as you can set the temperature when you are at the airport instead of rushing before you leave the house. On the return, you can do the same and adjust the temperature so that when you arrive home the house is perfectly comfortable. The Honeywell thermostat also integrates with Alexa and other smart devices so you can ask Alexa to turn up or down the temperature, and the thermostat will respond. The thermostat will send you alerts if your temperature or humidity drops beyond a threshold that could indicate a problem with your HVAC unit. The device will send you monthly energy reports that detail your usage vs. the previous year. To help with comparisons, the report also provides the average temperatures for each month. When this thermostat arrives and you take it out of the box and install it, there are no Shabbos issues to deal with, which is why I give it a Tribe Tech Review rating of 5 out of 5.

What this Honeywell thermostat does not do that other smart thermostats can is to automatically adjust the temperature based on whether or not anyone is home. It also does not have the ability to connect to remote sensors that would allow you to adjust the thermostat based on, say, the average temperature of two or more rooms. This could be particularly important if a zone in your home has different temperatures in rooms that are all controlled by one thermostat. Honeywell is introducing a thermostat called the T9 ($199.99) that seems to have these features, but it is currently only available for pre-order so it will have to be reviewed at a later time. The two most popular thermostats that have this capability are Nest and Ecobee. However, as soon as a smart device utilizes sensors to detect presence, it automatically sparks Shabbos questions and requires us to understand exactly what is happening and if it is permissible on Shabbos.

I will start by reviewing the Ecobee smart thermostat, which is available in three different versions: Ecobee3-lite, Ecobee3 and Ecobee4.

The Ecobee4 is the only version that has Alexa built in. If you want your thermostat to play music and answer questions, this is the device for you. However, if you want to use it as an Alexa intercom and drop in on another room, you will have to wait for Amazon to open this up for third-party devices.

Like all digital assistant-enabled devices, the Ecobee4 raises issues of Shabbos and privacy since it is always listening and interpreting your words (see previous articles on Alexa and Shabbos at TribeTechReview.com). For the Amazon Alexa device itself that plugs into a wall socket, I previously recommended you use a smart plug and turn the device off completely for Shabbos. However, thermostats are low voltage and hardwired, so turning the power off is not an option. Like all other Alexa devices, there is a physical/manual way to mute the microphone but no way to automatically or programmatically (using a HUB or IFTTT) turn off the microphone. While you can manually turn this off for Shabbos and then back on later, this is far from ideal. Additionally, when you mute the microphone, the Ecobee4 has a sizeable “light bar” that turns on and glows bright red until Alexa is re-enabled. This is a harsh visual that can be quite irritating in any room but especially in a bedroom. Unless the Alexa feature is critical, I recommend you try another model. This is only the beginning of the Shabbos issues, as you will shortly see.

The Ecobee3 is identical to the Ecobee4 in features but without having Alexa built in. Both contain occupancy and motion/proximity sensors that can be an issue on Shabbos. The Ecobee3-Lite has a motion/proximity sensor but does not come with an occupancy sensor unless you add one. The differences between occupancy and motion/proximity sensors are subtle. Motion/proximity is a simple sensor that detects clear motion such as walking in front of or passing by the thermostat. The occupancy sensor is more sophisticated and uses PIR (passive infrared) that is heat sensing. Occupancy detectors aim to differentiate between if you are home and sleeping vs. away and on vacation. They are like night-vision goggles that use the heat emitted from our bodies to detect human presence. The Ecobee occupancy sensors even attempt to differentiate between you or just your dog being home. Both sensor types would have identical issues on Shabbos that would require them to be turned off, though the occupancy sensor may be less obvious to the uninformed.

To discuss the potential tech work-arounds and arrive at a Shabbos rating for all three versions of the Ecobee thermostats will require a dedicated article, so please stay tuned for Part II next week. Shabbat shalom!

By Dov Pavel


Dov Pavel is a tech enthusiast who reviews personal technology and home automation through the lens of a shomer Shabbos consumer. He is not affiliated with any of the companies whose products he reviews and the opinions he expresses are solely his own. Pavel is not a halachic authority and readers should consult their own rabbi as needed. Previous articles can be found at TribeTechReview.com. Follow @TribeTechReview on Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In.