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If you’ve ever come home after work to discover that you accidentally left your air conditioner on full-blast, you probably kicked yourself. Keeping the house a cool 72 degrees when nobody is home is painful when considering that air conditioning is most homeowners’ single largest utility expense.

If only you could prevent that from happening again.

That’s the immediate advantage of a smart thermostat. The Wi-Fi connected device actually learns your daily patterns and adjusts temperatures accordingly, helping you yield potentially significant energy savings.

A study by Nest, the company that pioneered the smart thermostat, determined that homeowners could save an average of 15% on cooling costs. The makers of another leading smart thermostat, the Ecobee3, estimates that customers who maintain a constant indoor temperature of 72 degrees could save as much as 23% on energy bills.

Yeah, but how?

Don’t underestimate how much difference a few degrees can make on your electric bill. By simply setting the thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees for 8 hours a day from your usual setpoint, you can save as much as 10% on your cooling costs.

Smart thermostats know this and save you money by automatically adjusting to a more economic temperature when you leave for work and when you sleep. Of course, you’ll have decisions to make, such as setting a preferred baseline temperature. And you still need to make manual adjustments before stepping out to run errands or during sudden temperature swings. Otherwise, it’s all fairly automated.

They also take into account how long it takes to cool your home, further reducing electric costs. Plus, you can adjust temperatures remotely through a smartphone, tablet or desktop, track expenses and optimize your settings to achieve even more savings.

Some models boast features to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of your HVAC system. For example, Nest’s Airwave functionality keeps an air conditioner’s fan running for several minutes after the compressor turns off, blowing air into the home as the condenser coils cool down. Little hacks like these slash cooling cost further.

But what about programmable thermostats?

Long before smart thermostats became all the rage, many people automated temperature adjustments with a programmable thermostat. While not as sophisticated as today’s smart thermostats, programmable models can achieve similar savings because you can schedule desired temperatures throughout the day. Based on your preferences, it will automatically adjust the temperature when you’re away and when you’re scheduled to arrive home. However, many programmable thermostat owners do not take advantage of this functionality. That’s how some of us accidentally leave the AC running while we’re away. If this sounds like you, it might make sense to upgrade. Smart thermostats are easier to program, offer more custom options and convenience through companion apps and web portals that allow you to adjust your cooling system from afar.

Bottom line

Programmable thermostats are great if you’re using them correctly. Otherwise, you might consider springing for a smart thermostat, especially if you’re a tech geek who likes pouring over data. Nest and other smart thermostat brands can send you monthly reports so you can track your progress and fine-tune settings to reach your target savings goal. You can also make a game of saving energy. For example, Nest awards you a Leaf for every smart adjustment you make — say, stepping out for a few hours and setting the temperature back. Scoring these points gets harder over time as the device guides you to greater savings. If you take full advantage of all of their features, you can expect to see a noticeable difference in your electric bill.