A person programs a thermostat using a smartphone app

Ever feel like the controls on your thermostat might as well be hieroglyphics? We hear you. Whether you have a programmable thermostat or a smart model, setting a schedule on it can be confusing. But it’s a task worth tackling: According to Energy Star, programming your thermostat can save you around $180 a year on energy costs.

Although some smart thermostats, such as the Google Nest Learning Thermostat, can “learn” your habits and create a schedule for you after you’ve entered a few days' worth of temperature settings manually, most smart thermostats still require you to enter a schedule and corresponding temperatures. You just do it on a smartphone app rather than on the thermostat itself.

Consumer Reports has tested all kinds of thermostats over the years, so we've learned how to decipher a variety of systems.

“Programming your thermostat can feel daunting,” says John Galeotafiore, who oversees testing of thermostats and other home products for CR. “But with a little preparation and some understanding of what lies ahead, the task can be made easier.”

Here, we walk you through the programming process, step by step.

Step 1: Know Your Schedule

First, check to see what cadence your thermostat can accommodate—daily, weekly, or weekday/weekend scheduling.

A daily—or seven-day—schedule lets you program a different schedule for each day of the week, and a weekly one uses an identical schedule seven days a week.

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A weekday/weekend schedule (either 5/2 day or 5/1/1 day) lets you set one schedule for the weekdays and another for weekends (5/1/1 thermostats let you set a different schedule for Saturday and for Sunday). Most programmable thermostats use either daily or weekday/weekend schedules, and virtually all smart thermostats offer daily schedules.

Once you know what kind of schedule your thermostat uses, jot down the times your family generally wakes up, leaves home, returns home, and goes to bed each day of the week so that you’ll have that handy when you’re ready to program your thermostat. 

Step 2: Choose Your Temperature Settings

Keep that pad handy because next you’ll need to write down your desired temperatures for different times of the day. On your thermostat, these temperature setpoints are typically designated as “home,” “away,” and “sleep.”

To determine your temperatures—and maximize your savings—follow these guidelines from the Department of Energy: Make your "away" and "sleep" setpoints 7 to 10 degrees lower or higher than your "home" setpoint, depending on the time of year. Go lower in colder months and higher in warmer months. The DOE recommends "home" setpoints of 68° F in the cold months and 78° F in the warm months, which should be good for temperate climates. (Be sure to update these settings at the start of each heating and cooling season.)

Step 3: Build the Schedule in the Thermostat

Now, with your family’s schedule and your temperature setpoints in hand, you’re ready to program your thermostat. If you’re using a weekly schedule, you’ll only have to input time and temperature information for a 24-hour period once. For weekday/weekend schedules, you’ll do it twice (or three times for 5/1/1 models), and for daily schedules you’ll do it seven times.

For programmable models, check the thermostat’s owners' manual to see how you access the schedule-building feature. (If you no longer have the manual, search for it online using the manufacturer and the model number.)

Start by selecting a day of the week and inputting the time when you want the first period of the day to start and the temperature, or setpoint, you want during that period. Then, set the next period and so on until that day is finished (some models allow you to copy the schedule from one day to the next). For example, a day may consist of “home” with a setting of 68° F at 6:30 a.m., “away” with a setting of 60° F at 9 a.m., another “home” with a setting of 68° F at 5 p.m., and last “sleep” with a setting of 60° F at 10 p.m.

If you have a smart thermostat, its app’s schedule builder will walk you through similar steps for programming it on your smartphone. 

Step 4: Enable the Schedule

Now the easy part: activating the schedule. Whether you have a programmable or a smart thermostat, look for a button to turn on the schedule you’ve entered. If there is no button to enable the schedule, see whether the thermostat’s display is showing “hold.” If so, press the hold button to deactivate the hold on the current settings so that your new schedule can take over.

With your thermostat properly programmed, you’re all set to start saving energy and money.