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Thermostat wars heating up

Friday - 6/13/2014, 4:26am  ET

Lyric thermostat (Honeywell)
The Lyric, made by Honeywell, is the latest smart thermostat on the market (Honeywell)

Smart thermostat competition intensifies

Gregg Stebben, of Men's Health Magazine, discusses the hot trend of smart home thermostats.

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By Gregg Stebben, Men's Health

WASHINGTON -- Most houses have thermostats to keep air temperatures comfortable through changing seasons. And one of the hottest tech trends -- smart thermostats -- is helping make the process easier and more cost-efficient.

Google paid $3.2 billion for smart-thermostat company Nest earlier this year. And this week, Honeywell has announced their own competitior, a smart thermostat called Lyric.

Now that there's competition in this home-automation space, here are the kinds of questions you might find yourself asking:

1. What is a smart thermostat?

Many of us have programmable thermostats today. These enable you to observe your family's patterns at home, and then use those patterns to predict the best settings for your home heating and cooling in the future. Take my programmable home thermostat, for example: It allows us to automatically change the temperature setting 4 times a day, with one set of settings for Monday through Friday and another set for the weekend. This means that during summer, you can drop the temperature just as everyone is waking, raise it while the home is empty all day, drop it again as everyone is getting home, and then raise it again while everyone is sleeping.

As you might expect, a smart thermostat is a lot smarter. The Nest can detect motion; motion means someone is home, and that means the house needs to be cooler during summer than when it is empty, and vice versa during winter. Nest also learns about your family patterns. And, of course, you can control Nest and your thermostat with a smartphone.

Lyric, on the other hand, is focused on your smartphone. If there is a smartphone in the house, there must be a human in the house. If there is a human in the house, the house needs to be cooler during summer and warmer during winter. Because Lyric is focused on your smartphone, it presumably could even begin cooling the house for you during summer as it saw you approaching home.

2. How much does a smart thermostat cost?

Nest costs $249; Lyric is $279. Both are easy DIY projects, or you can hire an electrician or HVAC professional to do the installation for you.

3. Why is this an important, developing form of home automation?

For many families, the first flirtation with home automation will begin with a smart thermostat. But it probably won't end there: Nest has already moved beyond thermostats to smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Honeywell has already said that Lyric is just the first of many home-automation products. The bet is that once a family takes the plunge and buys one home-automation product, they'll be primed to buy more.

4. What about privacy? Could one of these things end up spying on me?

Define "spying." If you mean a company could use a smart thermostat to compile data about you and your family that would be then be used for marketing purposes, then spying is absolutely possible. If by spying you mean that a hacker could take control of your device and watch or listen to you, I doubt it's possible with Nest or Lyric, but I have no doubt it will be possible in future generations of devices such as these. Remember the recent story of the hacker who hacked into a baby monitor, and was screaming at the baby in the middle of the night?

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