How does a thermostat work? (with photos)

Nest Learning Thermostat.

A thermostat is a device used to control a heating or cooling system so that it maintains a certain temperature or keeps it within a certain range. In a house, for example, this appliance can automatically turn on the heating system when the house temperature drops or turn on the air conditioner when it gets too hot. As hot or cold air fills the room and the desired temperature is reached, the device shuts down the system. There are two main types of thermostats: mechanical and digital. Many digital thermostats are also programmable, which allows the user to set different preferred temperatures for different times of day or days of the week.

mechanical thermostats

Honeywell Classic Round Thermostat.

A mechanical thermostat uses physical means to measure the temperature of the air and activate a switch that turns a heating or cooling system on and off. There are several types of sensor technology that can be used in mechanical thermostats, such as bimetallic strips, wax pellets, gas lamps or air tubes. Each of these sensor types will react to changes in temperature, for example by expanding or contracting, and will trigger the appropriate switch to increase or decrease the temperature. Mercury lamps used to be used in thermostats, but their use has been discontinued or banned in many places because of the dangers of mercury.

Digital thermostat.

The most common of these technologies in home thermostats is the bimetallic range. This technology uses two thin strips of different metals – such as copper and iron, copper and steel, and brass and steel – joined together and wound into a coil. As the temperature changes, the different metals expand or contract at different rates, causing the strip to bend. When the strip bends far enough to touch an electrical contact and complete an electrical circuit, it turns on the heating or cooling system. If the temperature changes enough to not bend the strip, contact is lost and the system shuts down.

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digital thermostats

Programmable thermostats can be set to automatically change the temperature when a person is sleeping.

Many homes now have digital thermostats, which use electronic sensors rather than physical means to monitor temperature changes. Based on the temperatures read by the electronic sensors, these devices turn the cooling or heating systems on or off as needed. A digital thermostat usually requires one or more batteries for power. Buttons and switches allow the user to control the settings and a display screen shows the settings as well as the current temperature.

Setting up a thermostat

To set a mechanical thermostat, the user typically must turn a knob or move a lever. A common type of mechanical thermostat has a dial that has a range of temperatures printed on it, and the user simply turns the dial until a small arrow or line is at the preferred temperature. Another type is rectangular and has two levers that allow the user to set a minimum temperature and a maximum temperature. These thermostats often also have switches that allow the user to turn the heating or cooling system on or off, as well as any fans that may be part of the system.

When configuring digital thermostats, in most cases, users simply look at the display screens and buttons to enter the desired settings. Some newer models feature touchscreens instead of separate buttons and display screens. For a programmable model, the user can choose to have different settings for certain times, such as when the residents of the house are sleeping, when they wake up for the first time, or when they are away from work or school. Programmable settings can not only make the house more comfortable, but can also save energy by preventing the heating or cooling system from turning on or off unnecessarily, such as when no one is at home. Depending on the model, these scheduled times can be when the device starts to adjust the temperature,

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ideal home settings

Most people adjust their thermostats to the temperatures or ranges in which they are most comfortable. Some people, however, prefer to save energy and money by adjusting their settings by a few degrees. Many people consider the most comfortable ambient temperatures to be around 70° Fahrenheit (21.1° Celsius) to 72° Fahrenheit (22.2° Celsius). Most people don’t realize the difference between 72° Fahrenheit (22.2° Celsius) and 74° Fahrenheit (23.3° Celsius), for example, so setting a thermostat to turn the air conditioner on at a slightly higher temperature can save energy and money without significantly affecting the comfort level at home.

Some experts recommend setting a home’s thermostat so that the heat turns on at 67° Fahrenheit (19.4° Celsius) and the cooling system turns on at 77° Fahrenheit (25.6° Celsius). These settings can be adjusted for different seasons of the year, partly because people generally wear more clothes during cooler months and less clothes during warmer months, no matter whether they are inside or outside. People are often more comfortable sleeping at lower temperatures, so programmable thermostats could be set to allow the temperature to drop to about 62° Fahrenheit (16.7° Celsius) during normal sleeping hours.

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