Just in time for the winter heating season here in North America, Toronto-based Ecobee rolled out the 5th iteration of its popular flagship thermostat. Simply titled the Ecobee SmartThermostat, this update is notable for its improvements to the in-unit Alexa (both microphone and speaker) and the redesigned room temperature sensor.
A major free software update accompanied this release includes “Eco+”, a sort of umbrella term for many of Ecobee’s energy-saving features. One of the features in Eco+ communicates with your utility company to identify off-peak opportunities to heat or cool your home. Another feature looks for differences between your programmed schedule and your actual comings and goings. (The update is rolling out to older thermostats this year.)
Ecobee Smart Thermostat
- Compatible with most HVAC systems
- More fully-featured Alexa integration compared with Ecobee4
- Updated SmartSensor responds faster, better range, improved look and feel
- App is easy to use for scheduling and changing settings
- Integrates with HomeKit and Siri
- Web portal unresponsive at times, difficult to use for scheduling
- Cannot change Alexa wake word from "Alexa"
- Geofencing limited to just one user
Small updates add up in a big way
Compared to previous Ecobees, the updates in the Ecobee SmartThermostat might appear incremental. Lots of things got a little better. Added together, these updates make the SmartThermostat a well-rounded upgrade over its predecessors.
The things we love about Ecobee thermostats are still here:
- Overall ease of use is great. We had no problem designing the schedule we wanted and customizing our comfort settings.
- Ecobee’s smartphone app is on par with the competition. It’s about as enjoyable to use as Nest’s and Sensi’s, and better than Aprilaire and Honeywell
- Compatible with many HVAC systems, including those without a C-wire thanks to the included Power Extender Kit
- The room temperature and occupancy sensors feel useful, not just a gimmick
- The Ecobee’s screen is responsive, the user interface is intuitive, and the hardware looks good on the wall
The thermostat unit is very similar to its predecessor, the Ecobee4. Side by side, it is difficult to tell them apart. Their backplates are identical so if you have an Ecobee4, you can pop the 4 off and push this one on in its place, no screwdriver or wiring necessary.
The included SmartSensor has a completely new design that is faster at detecting motion and has a longer range of communication to the parent thermostat.
If you’re missing a C-wire, the included Power Extender Kit may be able to help. This included wiring kit is unique to Ecobee and is not offered by major competitors such as Nest (who suggest trying your installation without the C-wire before seeing if it eventually fails, at which point you’ll have to add one) or Sensi (who offer a touch screen model that requires a C-wire and an LCD screen model that works without one).
As for drawbacks, some users see the Alexa and Eco+ features as further evidence that consumer privacy is eroding. The Ecobee’s Alexa integration is just like any Echo – it’s an always-on microphone listening for you to say the “wake word” and issue a command, which is processed on Amazon’s servers. Users who are concerned about sharing their data with Amazon (via Alexa) or their utility company (via Eco+) may want to consider a different thermostat or disable those features. We will discuss these privacy issues later on in this review.
Overall, the Ecobee does a great job of requiring minimal setup and then fading into the background while it does its job of keeping the house comfortable. We didn’t run into any trouble with it following our schedule or achieving the temperatures we wanted.
We are independent and unbiased home automation enthusiasts who buy, try, and review smart thermostats with our own funds (no freebies). Photos are our own unless otherwise noted. We source opinions from local HVAC installers and friends and family who are long-term users of various smart thermostats. This review is intended for visitors in the US and Canada. We hope you find our site useful and we welcome your comments and corrections.
Read on for our detailed, hands-on review.
Ecobee’s Alexa integration improves, adds features missing from Ecobee4 implementation
Most smart thermostats today can be controlled via your already-existing Alexa or Google Assistant devices. That is, you can talk to an Echo device in your bedroom and it can interface with the thermostat located in your living room.
The Ecobee SmartThermostat and its predecessor, the Ecobee4, are unique in that they have Alexa built right into the thermostat hardware, effectively giving you another Echo device.
You can still operate it via an Echo or Google Home/Nest device in another room, and you don’t have to commit to one system or another – we controlled our Ecobee SmartThermostat via both the on-unit Alexa, an Echo in another room, and a Google Home Mini (now sold as Nest Mini) in the basement.
That said – and it’s possible we are just boring – we just didn’t get a ton of use out of the built-in Alexa. Once the novelty of speaking to it wore off, we didn’t feel a regular need to continue speaking to it. We set a schedule we were happy with and left it alone. It’s worth noting that our thermostat is in our least-used room, so no one went out of their way to use it when every other room already has a voice assistant device in it.
People love talking to their thermostat, it’s kinda weird.– The HVAC guys we talked to while researching this article
However, we consult with a handful of local HVAC professionals as well as other homeowners with smart thermostats and what we’ve heard is people love having Alexa in the thermostat.
They aren’t using it just to control the thermostat, they’re using it like a wall-mounted Echo. A thermostat with Alexa built in becomes a convenient device for announcing traffic and weather reports, setting timers, turning lights on and off, updating shopping lists, and managing digital calendars. No wires, and no need to find a place for it on a shelf.
If your thermostat is in a useful location and you’re into the Alexa ecosystem, you’ll love the convenience of having what is essentially a wall-mounted Alexa device with a great thermostat attached.
Alexa Communication features now supported
One of the Ecobee4’s biggest criticism was that its Alexa integration was incomplete. Most of those “missing features” are present in the SmartThermostat’s Alexa build.
Alexa’s Communication features such as Calling, Drop In, Messaging, and Announcements are all supported on the Ecobee SmartThermostat.
Unfortunately, one much-desired feature is still missing: the wake-word cannot be changed from “Alexa”. This is unfortunate news for those of us who are used to waking our Echoes with “Echo” or “Computer”. We hope this will change someday, but we aren’t betting on it.
In our tests, we thought the thermostat was just as good, if not better than the Ecobee4 at recognizing our voice commands.
To its credit, we didn’t inadvertently activate it (often) when talking to our daughter, whose name is very similar to Alexa and is the reason why we use “Echo” as our wake word for our other Echo devices.
Alexa Privacy Concerns
A lot has already been written about how Amazon collects and (supposedly) protects and anonymizes your data, so we won’t re-invent the wheel here. Basically, Alexa is a microphone in your home. Like with all voice-activated devices, you have to decide if you’re comfortable with having such a thing in your home.
If you’re not okay with that, you can disable Alexa (microphone and all) through the settings screen and go about your life without it. There won’t be a red light or an ever-present nagging reminder to turn it back on.
Everyone’s comfort level on this topic is different. We’ve made peace with it for now – we’re just one in millions and we figure our data can’t possibly be that interesting.
Playing music on the Ecobee SmartThermostat
Yes, you can play music on this thermostat, but we really have no idea why you’d want to. It’s a fine speaker for listening to Alexa’s voice, but it’s bound to disappoint when you play your favorite songs. Any $40 Bluetooth speaker is better for music.
We tested it with Spotify and found it satisfactory in its ability to understand which playlists and songs we wanted. On-screen control is extremely limited (you can’t navigate a playlist or even see what’s playing). It’s okay, but it’s not going to replace my Echo, Google Home, or Sonos speakers.
New Eco+ feature promises to squeeze even more blood from the stone
You’ve got your heating and cooling scheduled such that you don’t waste energy heating or cooling an empty house, but Ecobee thinks they can help you push it even further with Eco+, a free software mode that tries to eke out even more savings.
Eco+ is a rebrand of some of Ecobee’s existing features, plus some new ones. You can opt in/out of Eco+ features individually.
How Eco+ works
Eco+ is meant to optimize your energy usage and comfort based on your occupancy, schedule, and preferences. It is available on the Ecobee SmartThermostat (sort of – you have to set up your SmartThermostat and then get the update), and it is rolling out to older Ecobee models this year. (Ecobee tends to push updates to small groups of users over a long period of time, so some users get the new updates right away and others wait a few weeks or longer.)
Eco+ includes 5 features:
- Smart Home & Away
- Schedule Recommender
- Feels Like
- Time of Use
- Energy Savings Event
You can enable/disable them individually.
Mixed reviews so far
The Eco+ feature is not yet widely available – we couldn’t use it in our tests. From what we’ve read, though, many people are either confused or disappointed by it.
A lot of the confusion comes from the “slider” Eco+ uses to convey what’s turned on and what’s not. Sliding it to “minimum” effectively turns it off, but leaves users with the impression that it’s on.
Many users want to know why they have to share their usage data with their utility company in order to use features that are unrelated to their utility, such as “Feels Like”, which is meant to take humidity into account, and has nothing to do with finding “off peak” opportunities.
And this user from Mississippi doesn’t want his home to take a break from cooling because the recovery is too long, but Eco+ doesn’t seem to be designed for users who don’t want to use setbacks.
We have no way of knowing if this is just a “vocal minority” or widespread frustration with the feature. We think Ecobee (the company) is working on making these features better, but in the meantime, users are effectively guinea pigs. This is true of all smart thermostats on the market right now, to some extent: the development teams behind them introduce new things, get feedback from users, and iterate on their designs.
We weren’t able to use Eco+ ourselves so we’re going on second-hand information for this one. Our utility doesn’t participate in Eco+, either. If you like Eco+ and think it’s saved you some cash, feel free to leave a comment telling us so. Most of what’s been written about it online is from tech-savvy users with sophisticated setups who are (rightly) frustrated that Eco+ messed up their previous settings or wants to send data to their utility company.
Basically, our advice for now (as of January 2020) is to not base your decision to buy an Ecobee thermostat entirely on the Eco+ feature. It’s very new, not supported by many utility companies, and currently limited to small batches of users as Ecobee rolls it out.
Ecobee’s User Interface
It’s got Alexa built in, so presumably they want you to speak to it, but we’re still a fan of doing things the old fashioned way. We mostly interacted with the Ecobee through the thermostat itself and our smartphone apps.
For complex tasks, like scheduling and managing thermostat settings, you need to use the app, website portal, or thermostat itself. Alexa doesn’t handle any of those things, and we’re not sure we’d even want to try.
In general, we found the app to be the best way to interact with the thermostat. Maybe it’s just the most convenient – a phone in our hands is more pleasant than having to get up and stand by the thermostat, which is mounted too low to see without leaning over.
Ecobee SmartThermostat interface
The Ecobee SmartThermostat’s touch screen is small but sufficiently crisp – at 320 x 480 pixels you’ll notice some jagged edges if you look closely, but we found it readable.
The Ecobee screen feels like a smartphone screen and the user interface design uses modern conventions that most users will find intuitive.
The only thing we regularly tried to do through the thermostat screen itself was adjust the temperature up or down a single degree. Unfortunately, this experience wasn’t as great as it could be. Ecobee makes you do this with a slider, which makes no sense because most manual temperature adjustments are not large jumps, they’re just 1 or 2 degrees. Compared with Nest’s twist ring or Aprilaire’s “up/down” arrow buttons, this felt clunkier than it needed to be.
The “slider dot” is a bit small and it’s easy to pull it a little further than you meant to. We sympathize with and understand where the complaints about this slider are coming from.
It’s too bad that the one thing we do most often with the thermostat was also the worst part of the UI experience.
We think Ecobee should ditch the slider and implement tap buttons for raising/lowering the temperature. Most users aren’t going to do a manual adjustment for more than 1 or 2 degrees, and a slider is overkill for such tiny adjustments.
On-unit weather reports
The on-unit weather report was a big deal when it was announced and remains popular if user reviews are anything to go by.
The weather screen is nice, but perhaps the specialness is lost on us because we live in the Midwest where it’s either miserably cold or miserably hot, and little guesswork is needed to know which one it’ll be today. Users in more varied climates might enjoy the convenience of glancing at the thermostat to evaluate current outdoor conditions.
Weather data comes from the Internet (as opposed to, say, a probe placed somewhere on the exterior of your home) and is based on the address you give to the “Home” you assign your thermostat(s) to.
Ecobee HVAC compatibility
The entire Ecobee line of thermostats is compatible with a remarkable variety of 24v HVAC configurations. This includes heat pumps, dual fuel systems, multi-stage heating and/or cooling, humidifiers and more.
See if you’re compatible: for a more detailed list of systems the Ecobee is compatible with, check out Ecobee’s HVAC compatibility page.
To see if your wiring is compatible, pop your existing thermostat off the wall and enter its wiring configuration into Ecobee’s compatibility checker.
Continuous power source required
Like nearly all smart thermostats, the Ecobee SmartThermostat requires a steady power source. Typically, this is provided via a wire known as the “common” or C wire (note that this is not a specific wire in your HVAC wiring – any unused wire can be used as a C-wire).
If your system lacks a C-wire, the Ecobee comes with a Power Extender Kit that may be able to make up for its absence.
This is the Power Extender Kit:
The Power Extender Kit is installed inside or near your furnace.
This diagram from ecobee.com demonstrates how the Power Extender Kit might be installed in a HVAC system with heating and cooling.
Note that the PEK is not for use in systems with only heat. If you have a heat-only system, there’s a good chance you already have an extra, unused wire. Look behind your existing thermostat backplate and you might find an extra wire – or several – tucked into the wall.
Scheduling the Ecobee
The biggest hassle with old-school thermostats is having to either manually adjust them multiple times a day or input a schedule via a few buttons and a tiny LCD screen to reap any energy savings. The majority of people just give up and leave the temperature at a steady temp all day and all night.
But if you’re not home for part of the day, you can save some money by letting the temperature fall (during the cold months) or rise (during the warm months) when you’re not home. After all, why pay to heat or cool your home when you aren’t in it?
With the Ecobee SmartThermostat, you can set up a schedule from the thermostat itself, the phone app, or the web portal.
We thought this task might be easiest on a computer, so we set up our schedule using the website. We logged in at ecobee.com and clicked the “SCHEDULE” item on the dashboard.
Ecobee’s default heating schedule assumes you’d like it to be 65 degrees while you sleep at night, 72 degrees while you’re home, and 64 degrees while you’re away from home. You can adjust these temps and have them affect every day of the schedule, and you can adjust the times at which these adjustments take place.
Here’s the default schedule:
Click “Add Activity” to add an event, such as “Away”. For many people, this might represent the time they typically leave home for the day. Once you’ve got one day set up the way you want it, it’s easy to copy that day to all the other days.
The web UI isn’t perfect. It’s sluggish at times and occasionally fails to carry out a command, such as copying a day or deleting an activity.
The temperature picker was particularly annoying. It defaults to 45 degrees and makes you draaaaag it all the way to a reasonable temp.
Still, this was loads easier than trying to create this schedule on an old-fashioned programmable thermostat. I’m old enough to remember creating a schedule using nothing but a couple of little buttons and a tiny LCD screen. That was no fun. Plus, this schedule won’t disappear in the next power outage, and it’s easy to tweak it without having to start from scratch.
In the screenshot below, we’ve created a schedule that heats the house when we’re home on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Every other day of the week, the thermostat will let the house temperature fall to 64 degrees beginning at 8am (after we’ve left for the office).
For managing schedules, we recommend using the Ecobee smartphone app. Turns out, the app interface is way better at scheduling tasks. The app UI is snappy and we didn’t have any problems with making a change and having it not stick the way we did with the web interface.
Ecobee Room Temperature and Occupancy Sensors
Obviously, setting up a schedule is only useful if you come and go at predictable times. For those with a varied schedule or those who are home most of the day, the Ecobee’s temperature and occupancy sensors offer an alternative to pre-set scheduling.
An updated sensor design
The Ecobee SmartThermostat comes with one of Ecobee’s newly redesigned sensors, which is now called a SmartSensor. The sensors (you can buy more separately) detect your presence and adjust the thermostat settings automatically, making the home comfortable when you’re home.
This new design is supposed to be better at detecting your presence and faster at delivering updated readings to the main Ecobee thermostat unit. It also has a longer range, which is great for homes that stuck the thermostat at one far end like ours did.
These wireless, battery-powered sensors have been Ecobee’s distinguishing feature for years. You can use them in conjunction with, or independent of, a set schedule. You can mix and match, using the sensors during some times of the day and ignoring them at other times. The goal is to prioritize the comfort of the room you’re in, or the room(s) you deem most important.
The old design (which came with the Ecobee3, the Ecobee3 Lite, and the Ecobee4 as well as being sold independently) sits on a plastic base and has a square-shaped region in the upper left corner. The new design has a smooth face and a magnetic base with a “brushed steel” look.
The SmartSensor is backwards compatible, so if you have an Ecobee3, Ecobee3 Lite, or Ecobee4, you can add SmartSensors without having to upgrade your thermostat. Furthermore, the old Room Sensors are compatible with the new thermostat, so if you already have a collection of the older sensors you can keep them and use them with the Ecobee SmartThermostat.
Ecobee states a battery life of 5 years (you can replace it yourself, when the time comes) and claims it’s smart enough to not be triggered by pets. The SmartSensor can be mounted to the wall using the included adhesive pad, or it can be mounted using a screw that’s at least 1″ long.
Unfortunately, the SmartSensor does not detect humidity. We use a few inexpensive ThermPro units for observing humidity levels throughout our home (they don’t connect to the thermostat in any way).
Also, they’re not omniscient gods. They can’t tell you’re home if you’re actually sitting at your computer for hours on end. You might prefer the geofencing feature if you’re often home but not moving around the home (but this, too, comes with a drawback: only one user is supported by Ecobee’s geofencing, which is pretty disappointing. For more users you’ll have to integrate with a system like HomeKit. We hope Ecobee adds support for multiple users soon).
Trying out the SmartSensor
We placed the included sensor in our baby’s bedroom, which is consistently chillier than the rest of the house. To its credit, the Ecobee SmartSensor accurately measured the temperature in the room as 66 degrees F. Less to its credit, it doesn’t detect the room as occupied through the night unless an adult comes into the room. The baby sleeping in her crib is not enough to “wake” the sensor.
We then closed many of the floor vents throughout our home so that more heat would make it to the baby’s room, and told the SmartThermostat to only take the baby’s room temperature into account. We heated the house until the baby’s room was a more comfortable 70 degrees.
This worked, but it made the rest of the home uncomfortably hot even though we had closed the majority of the vents.
And that’s the thing about prioritizing the comfort of one room over others – the rest of the house might get excessively cool or hot in the process. You’ll have to fiddle with your vent configurations to find what’s right for your house.
Replace the thermostat’s temperature reading with the sensor’s
The Ecobee sensors can also fully replace the thermostat’s own reading. If your thermostat is in an awkward location that isn’t particularly representative of the temperature of the rest of the house, you can set it to ignore the reading taken at the thermostat itself and only take the reading(s) from the room sensors.
As an example, in our previous house our thermostat was on a wall opposite a window and around the corner from our kitchen’s slider door. When the sun was shining, the thermostat thought the house was warmer than it really was and let the rest of the house freeze. When we opened the slider to ventilate the kitchen, the thermostat thought the house was freezing and pumped heat like crazy.
We eventually moved the thermostat to the entrance hall to fix these issues, at the cost of hiring a contractor to punch a new hole in the wall and redo the thermostat’s wiring, but an Ecobee with a sensor could have bypassed all of these issues without having to re-wire or patch any drywall.
Ecobee SmartThermostat unboxing and setup
We unbox a lot of thermostats here at SmartThermostatGuide and have gained an appreciation for a well-designed box. Some thermostats (particularly at the budget end of the pricing spectrum) are basically tossed into a slip of cardboard and, if you’re lucky, there’s also a tiny-print manual that hasn’t had a design update since 1997.
Others, like the Ecobee SmartThermostat, arrive well-packed in a handsome box that protects the thermostat unit (a good thing in this day of online ordering and shipping) and keeps all the accessories and booklets in place.
Ecobee SmartThermostat unboxing
The included instruction “sheet” is a little quirky – it sort of opens up like a flower – but it contains all the information we think the majority of DIYers would need in the midst of an installation. There’s a thicker booklet, too, with more detailed information.
Ecobee includes a sheet of stickers for labeling your existing wires. This is an important step that you won’t regret doing if you run into any issues after the initial installation (ie: fan running non-stop, heat pump not coming on, AC running instead of heat, etc.)
Tip: Even though they may be different colors, the individual thermostat wires are the same. The colors are just for convenience. Whoever wired your existing thermostat may not have followed convention, and you may run into surprises.
Ecobee SmartThermostat installation
Our installation was easy, but our HVAC system is simple and straightforward and we had all the wires we needed. Your mileage may vary (a lot) in this regard. For help with installation, see ecobee’s website. Their email support is particularly helpful and helped us through a couple installs at other locations. The ecobee subreddit is also a helpful place for those in need of installation help.
Compared to other thermostats we’ve installed, the Ecobee was definitely one of the more pleasant experiences.
Most of the setup (like getting the thermostat onto your WiFi) is handled for you if you’re able to open the app on your phone and switch over to the thermostat’s own temporary WiFi network that it creates during installation.
Compared with the unpleasant experience of entering a password on a tiny touch screen (or via a twist ring), or getting stuck in a bunch of webpages that aren’t even optimized for mobile (*cough* Honeywell) this was a breeze.
Setup was fast, too – they only ask a few questions and you’re done. You can tweak any settings you want later via the thermostat, app, or website.
The bottom line
There’s no perfect smart thermostat…
They all have minor drawbacks or things we think could be better, and even the biggest names in smart thermostats aren’t immune to server outages.
To get the most out of an Ecobee, you have to give up a fair bit of data about yourself and your home. Your schedule is stored somewhere in Ecobee’s servers, ostensibly kept safe but data breaches are daily news at this point. Your usage is shared with your utility company via Eco+, creating the possibility that your address and usage may become exposed. And Alexa is always listening.
Taken individually, nothing here is out of the norm for a smart device in 2020. Consumers have embraced these devices with enthusiasm and companies love user data. Like nearly every smart thermostat on the market right now, the Ecobee will continue to carry out its programming if it loses its Internet connection, but you can’t make schedule changes or interface with it through the app even if you and it are on the same WiFi network.
… and longevity isn’t guaranteed…
Many of us have (or had) 30+ year old thermostats in our homes; it is doubtful the Ecobee servers will still be running in 2050 or that any of these technologies will even work that far out into the future.
No, smart thermostats are devices for the “here and now”. They are toys and tools for people who want convenience and modernity, and who won’t be too upset when the service eventually gets sold, rebranded and, potentially, goes the way of the Wink Hub or Works With Nest. It sounds cynical, but if the last half-decade in smart devices has taught us anything it’s that the field is changing rapidly and nothing is guaranteed.
…but the Ecobee is a solid choice.
On the topic of longevity, though, we think Ecobee actually has an advantage. Ecobee has an open developer API, which means developers (everyone from basement tinkerers to corporations with millions of dollars to spend) can make software that interacts with the Ecobee.
Ecobee’s biggest competitor, Nest, shut down their “Works with Nest” program this past year, effectively discontinuing connectivity between a plethora of services and devices and Nest devices. Google is putting walls around their devices, but Ecobee has left the gates open.
One successful project, beestat.io is a popular alternative to Ecobee’s (somewhat lacking) HomeIQ reports. If you’re an Apple user, you might appreciate that Ecobee is compatible with HomeKit (Nest is owned by Google and closed to Apple’s HomeKit) which offers better geofencing than Ecobee does on its own and makes it easier to create sophisticated routines shared by many smart devices in your home.
In an ever-changing landscape of smart devices, we think Ecobee’s openness and developer-friendliness is a potential key to its longevity and survival. It doesn’t hurt that the thermostat itself – you know, the thing that actually tells your furnace or air conditioning to do its thing – is pretty great, too.
The short of it
ecobee SmartThermostat with SmartSensor
Smart, powerful, and easy to use
This is the most modern-feeling, "set it and forget it" thermostat we've tested yet. We love the redesigned SmartSensor and the built-in Alexa is noticeably improved over the Ecobee4 version.