A tech-savvy mom shares how a digital thermostat can equal big savings.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

When I was a kid, my father fumed over wasted electricity. "Close the fridge!" he'd bark at me or my siblings when we stared too long—second only to shouting "Shut the door! The AC is on!" all summer. His frustration was obvious, as was our nonchalance. Then, as is often the case, the tables turned. As a parent myself now, I think of him when I turn off lights in empty rooms, close windows or rage openly against a too-casually- adjusted thermostat. In doing so, I discovered that my dad and I were uncannily alike in thinking that the electric bill takes way too big a bite out of the budget. And it's worse now than ever—today the average single-family-home energy tab runs around $2,200 a year.

Hoping to bring some techy new efficiency to a very old house, I recently swapped our ancient thermostats for "smart" models that promise to shave anywhere from 14% to 26% off our energy bill by precisely controlling when the AC and heat turn on and off.

Watching my husband, Dan, tinker with the installations, I dreamed about how we'd spend our substantial savings. What I did not foresee was a borderline obsession that would have me tweaking our ACs almost as often as I check e-mail.

Take my 16-year-old son, Cole, for instance. When hot weather hits, his inclination is to jack up the air at the very first sign of potential perspiration. But lately I've been outsmarting him. No matter where I am (waiting for coffee, buying groceries, whatever) I can check the thermostat with my smartphone and tweak it to something more reasonable, in my estimation. Come winter, I plan to turn the temperature down to a Dickensian low at night and remind everyone that we have plenty of blankets. And to avoid stepping out of bed into a frigid room, I can program the heat to come up half an hour ahead of the alarm, or adjust it with my phone from under the covers and catch a few more zzz's in the meantime.

My obsession is paying off. I know for a fact I'm saving money because both thermostats let me track our power consumption in real time. However, I'm only doing this constant monitoring because I can—it isn't necessary. These thermostats are designed to do the work for me. With the Ecobee, it's easy to set up cooling and heating schedules online that reflect our daily routines. The Nest actually learns our habits, thanks to sensors that see if we are present and note when we turn the dial up or down. Both have websites and smartphone apps that let me make adjustments if we are, say, going out for the night, coming home early or taking a vacation.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.