It sounds like a case of “big brother” gone amok in the smart home: in the midst of a heatwave, you turn on the central air, expecting to wake up to a nice cool house. Instead, you wake up sweating and find that the smart thermostat is not at the setting you had it. Can the electric company control your thermostat?
Texas residents found out that they can. KHOU-TV in Houston reported in June 2021 that some city residents’ smart thermostats were being remotely turned up, some to 80 degrees. The move by some Texas utility companies made national news, and raised new privacy concerns for smart home owners.
We are equally concerned here at The Smart Home Spot about the news and decided to dig deeper into the story to understand if this might be a big problem. So, can the electric company control your thermostat? Most likely not. And for those where it could happen, there are ways to avoid it.
In the case of Texas, the smart thermostats in question were raised during what a company called EnergyHub dubs an “energy savings event.” In all cases, the thermostats had been installed by EnergyHub as part of a program called “Smart Savers Texas.” According to this page on the Google Nest website and EnergyHub’s FAQ, the program offers the chance to win $5,000 in cash every time one of these events occurs.
EnergyHub’s clients in Texas include TXU Energy, CenterPoint, and ERCOT. While the company says most of these energy savings events would occur in up to a four-hour period between 1 pm and 7 pm, the company reserved the right to adjust the smart thermostat outside of those hours or extend the time period of the event itself for “rare or emergency conditions.” That appears to be what happened here.
Residents claim they were unaware that they had signed up for the program when the smart thermostat was installed. In addition, the program doesn’t offer a discounted electric rate, although it claims participants may see a reduced electric bill as a result of the event.
Can the electric company control your thermostat?
With the news, it’s not unsurprising to hear so many ask, “can the electric company control your thermostat?” The answer we’ve found seems to suggest that it’s fairly unlikely that they can. We checked EnergyHub’s list of participating electric companies, which includes about 30 companies across the country. While many of these companies are in Texas, we spotted utilities from California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and even New York on the list.
We’ve not seen any similar programs elsewhere, which leads us to believe that unless you’ve purchased your smart thermostat directly from your energy provider, there’s no way that your electric company could have access to your smart thermostat to change its settings.
Texas is also a unique case. The state runs its own privatized electric grid, separate from the national grid. Electric utilities are also far less regulated, which gives electric companies more leeway in what they can do — including programs like this.
Thus the answer appears to be that most electric companies cannot, either by regulation or that they don’t participate in EnergyHub’s programs.
How to opt-out and avoid partcipation
Suppose you live in a service area where EnergyHub has a partnership and had your energy provider install your thermostat. In that case, you may want to call customer support to inquire whether your thermostat is enrolled in the program. You can opt-out. However, you might lose bill credits if you do (it appears some providers offer a discount; that doesn’t appear to be the case in Texas).
Second, buy the smart thermostat yourself. If you do this, unless you’ve opted-in yourself to EnergyHub’s programs, only you and those you select will have access to your thermostat. Most modern thermostats offer energy savings capabilities that work based on your preferences and not your energy provider.
We hope this helped alleviate your concerns if you were thinking about buying a smart thermostat and were freaked out by the news out of Texas. At least for most of us, the answer to the question can the electric company control your thermostat appears to be no for the majority of smart thermostat owners.