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Thermostats

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: November 22, 2016.


Feeling too hot? You'll be wanting to cool down, then. Feeling too cold?
You'll need to warm up. Our bodies are amazing, self-regulating mechanisms
that can constantly adjust to keep their temperature within a whisker of 37C
(98.6F). But the rest of the world isn't quite so helpful. If we want our
homes to keep their temperature more or less constant, we have to keep
switching our heaters on and offor, alternatively, rely on clever gadgets
called thermostats to do the job for us. What are they and how do they work?
Let's take a look inside!
Photo: A simple, mechanical Honeywell thermostat mounted on a wall. This one
is marked in degrees Celsius. Once you've set the temperature, the thermostat
is supposed to switch the heating on and off, as necessary, to keep the room
more or less that warm. In practice, a thermostat like this doesn't switch
on and off at a single temperature but cycles between a small range of
temperatures either side of the value you set.

What is

You might have a temperature control on a wall in your home to


control the heating system but, although it's probably marked in degrees,
it's not a thermometer. It's called a thermostat, a modern word based on two
ancient Greek ones: thermo (meaning heat) and statos (which means standing
and is related to words like stasis, status quo, and staticmeaning to stay
the same). We can tell just from its name that a thermostat is something that
"keeps heat the same": when our home is too cold, the thermostat switches
on the heating so things quickly warm up; once the temperature reaches the
level we've set, the thermostat switches the heating off so we don't boil.
Let's just be clear about the difference: a thermometer is something that
measures the temperature; a thermostat is something that tries to maintain
the temperature (keep it roughly the same).
Photo: An electronic room thermostat showing a digital temperature reading
(22.9C). This one works slightly differently to the mechanical one in the
top photo. The display is part of a central heating programmer with a built-in
thermometer that constantly measures how hot the room is, then switches the
heating on and off to keep it within 1C of the temperature you've set.

How thermostats work


So how does a thermostat work? Most things get bigger when they heat up and
smaller when they cool down (water is a notable exception: it expands when
it heats up and when it freezes too). Mechanical thermostats use this idea
(which is called thermal expansion) to switch an electric circuit on and
and off. The two most common types use bimetallic strips and gas-filled
bellows.
Bimetallic strips
A traditional thermostat has two pieces of different metals bolted together
to form what's called a bimetallic strip (or bimetal strip). The strip works
as a bridge in an electrical circuit connected to your heating system.
Normally the "bridge is down", the strip carries electricity through the
circuit, and the heating is on. When the strip gets hot, one of the metals
expands more than the other so the whole strip bends very slightly. Eventually,
it bends so much that it breaks open the circuit. The "bridge is up", the
electricity instantly switches off, the heating cuts out, and the room starts
to cool.
But then what happens? As the room cools, the strip cools too and bends back
to its original shape. Sooner or later, it snaps back into the circuit and
makes the electricity flow again, so the heating switches back on. By
adjusting the temperature dial, you change the temperature at which the
circuit switches on and off. Because it takes some time for the metal strip
to expand and contract, the heating isn't constantly switching on and off
every few seconds, which would be pointless (and quite irritating); depending
on how well-insulated your home is, and how cold it is outside, it might take
an hour or more for the thermostat to switch back on once it's switched off.
Electrical engineer Dr Ray Franco has compiled some excellent photos of
bimetal strip thermostats that show exactly how they work.

How a bimetallic thermostat switches on and off

An outer dial enables you to set the temperature at which the thermostat
switches on and off.
The dial is connected through a circuit to the temperature sensor (a
bimetal strip, shown here colored red and blue), which switches an
electrical circuit on and off by bending more or less.
The bimetal ("two metal") strip is made of two separate metal strips
fastened together: a piece of brass (blue) bolted to a piece of iron (red).
Iron expands less than brass as it gets hotter, so the bimetal strip
curves inward as the temperature rises.
The bimetal strip forms part of an electrical circuit (gray path). When
the strip is cool, it's straight, so it acts as a bridge through which
electricity can flow. The circuit is on and so is the heating. When the
strip is hotter, it bends and breaks the circuit, so no electricity can
flow. Now the circuit is off.
Gas-filled bellows
The trouble with bimetallic strips is that they take a long time to heat up
or cool down, so they don't react quickly to temperature changes. An
alternative design of thermostat senses temperature changes more quickly
using a pair of metal discs with a gas-filled bellows in between. The discs
have a large surface area so they react quickly to heat. When the room warms
up, the gas in the bellows expands and forces the discs apart. The inner disc
pushes against a microswitch in the middle of the thermostat turning the
electric circuit (and the heating) off. As the room cools, the gas in the
bellows contracts and the metal discs are forced back together. The inner
disc moves away from the microswitch, switching on the electric circuit and

turning the heating on again.

Photo: The Honeywell thermostat in our top photo (shown here with with the
case removed from two different angles) regulates temperature with a pair
of metal discs, separated by a gas-filled bellows, that push against a
microswitch. Turning the temperature dial moves the discs nearer to or
further away from the microswitch in the center. That means the gas bellows
has to expand more or less to turn the electricity on or offeffectively
raising the temperature at which the switch triggers (and the room
temperature).

Wax thermostats
Summing up what we've discovered already, you can see that all mechanical
thermostats (all non-electronic ones) use substances that change size or
shape with increasing temperature. So bitmetallic thermostats rely on the
expansion of metals as they get hotter, while gas bellows work using the
expansion of gases. Some thermostats go further and use the change in state
of a substance from liquid to gas. Wax thermostats are probably the most

common exampleand you'll find them in home radiator valves, car engines
and mixer showers. They use a little plug of wax inside a sealed chamber.
As the temperature changes, the wax melts (changes state from solid to liquid),
expands greatly, and pushes a rod out of the chamber that switches something
on or off (operating the engine cooling system in a car or regulating the
mixture of hot and cold water in a shower to ensure your body doesn't get
boiled like a lobster). Wax thermostats tend to be more reliable and longer
lasting in the extreme conditions inside a vehicle engine.

Animation: Left: How a wax thermostat works. The wax (blue) is inside a sealed
chamber (gray) that contains a metal needle (silver). As the temperature
increases, the wax melts, expands, and pushes the needle out of the chamber
(yellow arrows). The rising needle switches on or off whatever device the
thermostat is controlling. A spring (not shown here) pulls the whole
mechanism back again as the temperature falls.
Photo: Right. Here's the inside of a mixer shower control, showing what a
wax thermostat actually looks like. The little black cylinder in the middle
is the wax thermostat, which moves in and out to regulate the hot and cold

water, keeping the mixed water (coming out of the shower head) at a more or
less constant temperature. This photo shows the spring that pulls the
thermostat back as the temperature falls and the wax thermostat contracts
again.

Thermostatic radiator valves


Temperature valves fitted to central heating radiators typically use wax
thermostats. When the radiators heat up to the level you've set, the wax
valves expand and reduce the flow of water through the radiator until the
temperature falls back down again. Coupled with room thermostats, valves like
these can stop your home from overheatingand that's a good way both to save
energy and money and do your bit in the fight against global warming.
Photo: This thermostatic valve regulates the flow of hot water through a
radiator to stop the room from overheating. If the room gets too hot, it
triggers a wax thermostat that actuates a valve, shutting off the flow of
water through the radiator until the temperature falls back down again.
Internet-linked smart thermostats

Most of us spend only a half to a third of our time at home: the rest of the
day, we're either at work or traveling there. Typically, we'll have a
programmer or thermotstat at home that switches the heating on or off either
according to the time of day or the inside temperature. But that's a crude
system at best. By default, to avoid a cold home, a lot of us just turn the
heating up high, wasting huge amounts of energy and money. That's the problem
the latest generation of smart thermostats are designed to solve. They learn
how you manually alter the temperature at different times of day, or
differently during the week and at the weekend, comparing that with objective
temperature and humidity measurements to establish a reliable program they
can follow automatically in future. Typically, they also allow you to program
them remotely using a simple smartphone app so you can turn the heating up
on the train on your way home, for example.
Photo: A typical smartphone app linked to a home thermostat. This one's
supplied by Hive (British Gas) in the UK; other rival makes come from
companies such as Nest and Honeywell.

Find out more


On this website

Heat
Metals

Thermocouples
Thermometers

Books
Black & Decker: The Complete Guide to Wiring, 6th Edition: Editors of
Cool Springs Press, Cool Springs Press, 2014. Explains how to repair and
replace various types of home thermostats.
Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Technologyby William Whitman,
William Johnson, and John Tomczyk. Thomson, 2004. Includes some
discussion of thermostats used in cooling systems.
Articles
How to Make Nest's Thermostat Your Smart-Home Hubby Michael McCole.
Wired, February 10, 2016. A quick introduction to Internet-linked
thermostats.
Home Thermostats, Wallflowers No Moreby Farhad Manjoo. The New York
Times. December 7, 2011. Looks at the latest generation of web-linked and
programmable thermostats.
A Thermostat That's Clever, Not Clunkyby David Pogue. The New York
Times. November 30, 2011. A review of Nest's Learning Thermostat.
Videos
How a bimetal strip worksby fizik.si. A neat demonstration of how a
bimetallic strip bends when you heat it and straightens when you cool it.
Bi-metallic electric switchby ki65ki1. In this simple circuit, a
bimetallic contact switches on and off as it's cooled by a fan and heated
by a candle.
How a wax thermostat worksby TechTrixInfo.com. A clear and simple
animated explanation.
How an espresso machine thermostat worksby Seattle Coffee Gear. A
couple of coffee geeks take apart an espresso machine and study the bimetal
thermostat inside.
How to install a programmable thermostatby Home Depot. Explains how
to choose and install a programmable electronic central heating
thermostat.

If you liked this article...

You might like my new book, Atoms Under the Floorboards: The Surprising
Science Hidden in Your Home, published worldwide by Bloomsbury.