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Climate action: 11 steps to smart heating

Heating our homes can cost a lot in terms of carbon, as well as energy bills. In fact, around 14% of our total emissions comes from heating our homes, workplaces and public buildings.

By switching to smart heating, we can significantly reduce the amount of energy we use – making it one of ten key climate actions you can take to cut your carbon footprint.

Here, we provide a roadmap to doing smart heating.

When we talk about smart heating, we mean using systems that allow you to heat your home only when and where it’s needed. By controlling your heating systems via your home wifi, it can delay your heating if you’re going to be late home or choose only to heat the kitchen if that’s the only room you’ll be using.  

Studies have shown that if used and understood, a smart thermostat can cut your energy use by 10%, compared to a traditional one. At the same time, using your heating controls to reduce temperatures to 18C to 21C, if appropriate health wise, can also save you money and carbon emissions.

Below we provide a step-by-step guide to setting up smart thermostats and smart radiator valves. We also outline everything you need to know about smart metres and smart tariffs. 

How to do smart heating

While it may sound techy and confusing, it is easier to install and use than you expect.

Smart heating involves using a smart thermostat. Smart thermostats allow you to (either manually or automatically) match your heating to your schedule and behaviour, so that you waste less energy. Smart heating also sometimes involves getting smart radiator valves so that you can control each room separately.

Smart thermostats

Smart thermostats are key to smart heating – with the potential to save you as much as 10% on energy use and bills. Not to be confused with smart meters, they can offer sophisticated systems for controlling your heating across your home.

Smart thermostats are a bit of an investment, costing around £170 - £300, once you factor in the unit and installation. Given the high cost of energy at the moment, though, they may very quickly be a worthwhile investment. Even before all the energy price rises, if you made the full 10% energy saving, the average household would have made back the cost of their smart thermostat in one to two years.

If choosing a smart thermostat, here are a few things to consider, to ensure you get the right one:

1. Decide how you want to control it

Lots of smart thermostats are controlled through mobile or tablet apps. If you don’t have a smartphone or tablet, you’ll need to look for a model that you’re able to control through your computer.

Smart thermostats can also be compatible with other smart devices (such as Google assistant). This means that if you have a smart device, you can control your thermostat using voice instructions, for example: “Turn hot water on at 5pm.”

2. Decide whether you want it to be automated or in your control

Some smart thermostat devices connect to an app on your phone that allow you to control your own heating. Others ‘learn’ your patterns and preferences before making a personalised schedule.

Some have sensors or track your smartphone’s geolocation, and can switch off the heating when you’ve left and switch it back on when you return to your home!

Work out what level of control you want vs what you’d like to be automated. For example, is it realistic that you’ll remember to change your heating if you’re later than usual coming home, or are you better getting an automated option? Do you mind it tracking your location?

Many offer options somewhere between entirely manual and entirely automated, for example some will alert you if your heating comes on when it thinks you’re away from home, while others will automatically turn it off for you.

Be realistic about your tech expertise. If you hate using your smartphone, choose a simpler option. In this case, it might be worth reading a couple of reviews or doing an internet search on the simplest thermostats to control.

Adjusting temperature of radiator by mobile device

3. Decide whether you want it to control your hot water

Some smart thermostats allow you to control your hot water. This might be very useful if you spend a lot of time away from home, for example, as it allows you to switch the hot water off while away but turn it back on in time for a hot bath when you get home. Some smart thermostats may charge more for this function.

If you have a combination boiler, you won’t need a smart thermostat that controls your hot water.

4. Look for a model that uses OpenTherm

OpenTherm is a special system that you can use as an add-on for your smart thermostat, which further controls the way that your boiler heats up water. It is essentially a ‘digital language’ that allows your boiler and smart thermostat to communicate. Rather than firing up your boiler and then allowing it to cool, it uses information from your smart thermostat to get a more consistent temperature. This is much more efficient, saving energy.

The Trusted Reviews website in fact says that it can give 6% energy savings, on top of anything else your smart thermostat will already do. So you may well want to consider ensuring that OpenTherm is part of your smart heating set up.

Not all boilers and smart thermostats will be compatible with OpenTherm, so you will need to check this. Usually compatible boilers will have the OpenTherm logo on them. You can also check in your manual or call the manufacturer.

5. Think about how big your house is

If you have a large house with multiple rooms, you might want to install a system with several smart thermostats that offer ‘multi-zone heating’. This means that you’ll be able to heat some areas of your house without heating others. You can also link thermostats with smart thermostatic radiator valves, so you can heat each room separately. We discuss how to choose smart thermostatic radiator valves in the box-out below.

The number of ‘zones’ a thermostat allows will vary, from 3 to over thirty. Think about how many different zones you’d want for your home. You may also have to buy a separate control for each room, putting up the cost of your smart heating, so consider this before deciding.

6. Identify any other features you might want

Smart thermostats can have other useful features. For example:

  • Using data from weather services to adapt your heating to match the conditions outside (although how useful this actually is is unclear).
  • Detecting draughts for you.
  • Safety or holiday modes to protect your pipes from freezing when you’re away.
  • Voice control, so you can change settings from your sofa.
  • Linking up with your other smart devices, e.g. smart speakers.
  • Interfacing with your heat-pump.

You may want to write out a list of your behaviours, then decide the features you need. For example, are you away a lot? Is your schedule unpredictable?

7. Think about price

You’re likely to make back the price of a smart thermostat within a few years from savings on your energy bill. Nonetheless, they do come with quite a bit of an upfront cost, at a few hundred pounds. It could be worth setting a target for when you’d like to be able to afford one, and then putting a bit aside until you have enough.

When working out how much your thermostat is likely to cost, remember to factor in installation (if not included) and the price of a connecting device (see below).

You may also want to spend some money on smart radiator valves or extra thermostats for multi-zone heating: each addition will come at a price. Luckily, you can add extra valves or thermostats later down the line as and when you can afford them. If you plan to do this, it’s worth knowing what your ideal set up would be so that you can ensure that whatever you buy to begin with will enable that to happen.

It can seem expensive if you’re not sure how long you’re likely to be staying in your home or are renting. Luckily, you can often take your smart thermostat with you when you move and just attach it to your new boiler – see below for more on this.

Radiator with three pairs of feet in socks resting on it

8. Check which models are compatible with your heating system

Once you have narrowed it down to a few possible models, you will need to check that they are compatible with your boiler or heat-pump.

Most modern boilers will be compatible with smart thermostats, particularly if already connected to a regular thermostat. However, it’s worth checking with your boiler manufacturer once you’ve chosen a particular smart thermostat model, before buying.

If you’re thinking of getting smart radiator valves (see section further down), or think you might wish to do so in the future, you’ll also want to check whether your smart thermostat is compatible. Many will only support their own brand of smart radiator valves, so you may need to decide at this stage whether you’re happy to stick with this brand.

9. Check whether it comes with a connecting device

To actually control your smart thermostat, you’ll need to use a ‘connecting device’ (also known as a bridge or gateway). This plugs into your broadband modem and enables you to use the control app. Many manufacturers offer a starter pack that includes this, the thermostat itself and sometimes smart radiator valves also.

10. Read the reviews

It’s worth looking online for reviews about the reliability and user-friendliness of any devices you’re considering installing. This is particularly true because some of the flashier features that may draw you in – for example its ability to automatically learn your behaviour patterns – are said to be unreliable.

Which? has a guide to smart thermostats.

11. Consider getting it professionally installed

You may be able to install your smart thermostat yourself, as a like-for-like replacement of your existing heating controls. Some options will in fact describe themselves as ‘self-installed’.

However, you may want to get a qualified electrician or gas fitter, and for some models you will need to. The cost of installation is sometimes included in the smart thermostat price. For others, you’ll have to pay separately, so consider this when costing up.

What to do if you’re renting or planning on moving home

You can get a smart thermostat even if you’re renting, but will need to ask your landlord if they’re OK about it. 

If you move home, you can decide whether you take your smart thermostat with you (provided it is compatible with your new heating system) or leave it behind. If you’re planning to leave it behind, you may want to check that you can reset it and erase your data.

Woman adjusting temperature using smart phone
A smart heating system - reducing temperatures down from 22C or higher to 18C to 21C can save carbon and money, although be mindful if this is not appropriate health wise.

Smart radiator valves

Smart radiator valves (SRVs, also known as smart radiator thermostats) can be used alongside a smart thermostat to control the temperature in individual rooms of your home. They’re therefore useful particularly for those with a larger house.

SRVs cost around £35-85 each, so it’s worth thinking carefully about how you might use them best and therefore which radiators you’d like them on. Here are some things to consider before choosing SRVs:

Are you tech savvy?

SRVs are a great way to control your heating, but they can be a bit complex if you’re not tech savvy. Luckily, you can add them to your heating system at any stage. If you don’t love tech, you may want to start by trying a smart thermostat and if you find this simple enough, adding SRVs at a later time. Just check that your smart thermostat is compatible with SRVs in case you do want to add them.

What features do you want?

Like a smart thermostat, you can control SRVs through your phone, tablet or laptop. You can use them to set different temperatures for different rooms (in degrees rather than the slightly confusing 0-5 scale on traditional valves). Alongside your smart thermostat, you can use them to create an automatic heating schedule. Some even have special features such as detecting and alerting you if a window is open in a heated room.

Decide what level of sophistication you want before buying. Which? has published an article on the best smart radiator valves.

Are they compatible with your smart thermostat?

If you want to buy SRVs from a different brand to your thermostat, you’ll need to check whether they’re compatible with your connecting device. Many connecting devices only support one brand. Unfortunately, this does mean that you are often ‘locked in’ to one manufacturer.

You can install them yourself

Unlike some smart thermostats, you do not need a professional to install smart radiator valves. The majority of SRVs will come with the correct adapter for most traditional valves. This means you can just remove your existing valve, fit the adapter, add your batteries to your new SRV and attach it to your radiator.

You’ll need the same connecting device as for your smart thermostat. If your thermostat is already installed, it will already be plugged in. If you’re doing it all at once, just plug the connecting device into your broadband modem. Then you’ll be ready to control your smart heating through your app.

Smart meter

While a smart meter can be a useful part of your heating set-up, it doesn’t necessarily save you energy or carbon.

Smart meters provide both you and your supplier with information on how much gas and electricity you’re using. They replace your existing gas or electricity meters and send automatic updates to your provider, so that your bills reflect actual energy use. It also helps you control your energy use and make cuts.

It is hoped that in the future they will be able to turn appliances on and off in response to the demand and supply of electricity. This will be useful for the UK managing its renewables supply, which fluctuates depending on the wind and sun available. They may be able to charge your appliances when there is plenty and turn them off when there is less.

But for now, any energy savings from smart meters are just down to behaviour change: if you see your emissions and pennies counting up, it may help you to use less energy.

How to get a smart meter?

Energy providers are required to install smart meters in businesses and homes, as part of the government’s ‘smart grid’ plan. The initial deadline for installation in all small businesses and homes was the end of 2020, but (partly due to the pandemic) this has been delayed until mid-2021.

If you haven’t yet had a smart meter installed, you should be contacted by your supplier over the coming months and offered one for free. You can also request one from your provider.

What are smart tariffs?

Smart tariffs give you variable energy prices depending on supply and demand in the UK.

Like smart meters, they will not cut your emissions on their own. Nonetheless, smart tariffs are an important part of addressing our energy-related emissions across the country as a whole.

The amount of clean energy we have available as a country will vary moment by moment.

While some of the traditional sources of energy – such as nuclear or fossil fuels – can run night and day, renewables tend to rely on certain conditions, such as it being windy or the sun being out. When the conditions are right, we might have a plentiful supply of renewables. At other times, however, if the weather is bad or everyone is watching the football, our green energy sources may not be enough. In these moments, the shortfall will be made up from nuclear or fossil fuels.

In order to transition to more clean energy then, we will need to become more savvy about our energy use. Individual households can help with this. For example, if you have an electric car, you will want to charge when it’s windy or overnight when fewer people have energy needs.

A smart tariff will help you do this - and reward you for it – by telling you when energy prices are low. Low prices means that supply is outstripping demand, generally indicating the proportion from renewables is high at that time.

Do you need a smart tariff?

Smart tariffs are good for those who need a lot of energy, but can be flexible about when they use it. They’re great if you have an electric car, heat pump, or battery.

Why is smart heating important?

The next ten years will be critical in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. By reducing our individual carbon footprints, we can help make change.

Our heating accounts for around 14% of our total emissions. About 77% of that is from homes, 14% commercial buildings and 9% public buildings.

When it comes to emission from heating our homes, the first priority is reducing heating use. Smart heating is one great way to do this.

It's also important to consider the temperature of our homes. The Energy Savings Trust suggest 18C to 21C is suitable for most people and houses, and the NHS says that 18C is a comfortable temperature for most healthy and active people, but to have the house warmer if you are not very mobile, are 65 or over, or have a health condition. Turning the thermostat down just a degree or two can save money and carbon emissions.

Climate Gap Report

In October 2022, Ethical Consumer published its second annual report looking at consumer action on climate change. It looked at ten key actions consumers must take for the UK to reach its emissions reductions goals, and how far we are from meeting them. It also looked at what governments and business can and should be doing to reduce the gap between emissions currently produced and the target for 2030.

The latest Climate Gap report found that without further action, we would miss all ten key consumer targets. We must cut residential heating use by at least 23% by 2030 in order to meet the UK’s decarbonisation goals.

Read the heating summary on our website, or read the overall Climate Gap report summary where you can also download a copy of the report.