Broken Thermostat Or User Error? Let’s Find Out

Thermostats are, arguably, one of the most important devices in your home when it comes to comfort. Without them, we’d be back to the old days of stoking fires to stay warm. But when they fail, all goes to hell right quick. If you have a broken thermostat (or are worried you do), you’ve come to the right place. We’re gonna break down how to tell if your thermostat is broken, aka troubleshooting.

The most common causes for a broken thermostat are a lack of power, a dirty thermostat (if mechanical), reception (if wireless), and faulty parts.

There’s a bit to get into here, so let’s hop right on in, shall we?

Do I Have a Broken Thermostat?

This is an especially difficult question to answer because there are so many parts that can go wrong in a thermostat. And the worst part is that some of the parts aren’t even in the thermostat! Because they’re attached to your boiler and breaker, thermostats can be particularly difficult to troubleshoot. But fear not, we’re going to get the issue figured out, so keep on reading.

Below you’ll find a list of common issues that can present as a broken thermostat, and how to fix them (if possible).

Dirty Thermostats

dirty, old thermostat

Remember how your mother used to insist that you clean every inch of space when guests were coming over? If she was anything like mine, that included floorboards, crawlspaces, the neighbour’s garden, perhaps the dog, and yes, the thermostat. But the funny thing is, the older I get, the more I understand it.

As far as cleaning the home goes, that’s just a part of adulthood. You start to notice things like a dirty floorboard much more easily, but when it comes to electronics, she was very correct. See, the thing is that all things in life have a lifespan. That goes doubly for electronics, and if you let your things get dirty, they’ll die much faster than they would if maintained.

Now, I get it, nobody wants to clean a thermostat of all things, but if yours is mechanical it’s actually rather important that you do. Mechanical thermostats can be jammed up by a buildup of dust and grime that digital thermostats won’t be. Taking a few minutes to open up your thermostat and gently clean it out with a soft rag will make a noticeable difference in its performance.

And a nice bonus is that it’ll be clean inside, and you’ll feel accomplished for doing something productive! It’s really a win-win.

So clean out your thermostat and give it a test – if it works, great! If not, move down the list.

Power Supply

breaker box

This can mean a few things, depending on your thermostat. If you have a wireless thermostat, it’s likely that it runs on batteries. I think you already know where I’m going with this – if your thermostat has batteries and you haven’t replaced them in a while, let’s try that.

Alternatively, if your thermostat is wired into the home’s power grid, your first stop should be the main breaker. This is good practice with any electronic that uses the home’s power. Sometimes a breaker can flip, or a fuse blows, and suddenly there’s no power! It’s a super simple fix that many people seem to forget – you’d be surprised how often people tell me they checked the breaker, only to respond a few minutes later with a sheepish, “…yeah, it’s working again.”

As a rule of thumb, if an electronic goes out, check its power supply first. Whether that’s batteries or an outlet, that is generally the best place to start.

Reception & Wireless Thermostats

With the dawn of the 21st century came an influx of wireless contraptions. If you chose to step fully into the modern-day with a wireless thermostat, there may be a simple solution that often goes forgotten.

Ask yourself when you installed it. If it was recently, it’s very possible that it’s unable to easily and consistently reach its receiver on the heating system. Homes are a tricky thing for wireless devices because of all of the stuff in between transmitters and receivers. Try moving your wireless thermostat closer to the receiver, it may help sort things out.

Ambient Temperature

Modern wireless thermostat

Another oft-forgotten thing to check with thermostats is where they physically rest in your home. You see, thermostats function by monitoring their immediate environment and relaying the temperature to your heating system. If you put it in, say, direct sunlight all day, that information will be skewed.

Keeping your thermostat in direct sunlight, near open windows, or in an entryway where people come and go is actually not great for their performance. The ideal location for a thermostat is a place where it’s hidden from sunlight and drafts of air. This allows it to detect what the actual ambient temperature is, rather than the conditions of its environment.

While this isn’t always the issue, it’s a good solution if you’re noticing that your heating won’t kick on when it should, or that it’s kicking on all the time.

Mechanical (Analogue) Thermostats

If you have a mechanical or non-modern thermostat, there’s one more thing to look at. Open up your thermostat and look at its internal components. Nothing should be loose or rattling around, though that’s a bit obvious.

The thing we’re really looking for is a small metal coil or strip inside the thermostat. Just give it a gentle push in each direction and see if that changes things. If so, it’s likely time to replace the guy – though it can be jury-rigged to work short term, if needed.

Final Thoughts

Thermostats can be frustrating. Sometimes all they take to start working again is a slight adjustment in location, or even something as simple as replacing their batteries. Because they’re such complicated machines, people often jump straight to the “broken thermostat” thought process, forgoing the easy checks and fixes that should be done first.

Begin by checking your thermostat’s power source, whether that means batteries or the main breaker. If the breaker repeatedly flips off, you’ll need to relocate your thermostat to a less crowded circuit. Next, if it’s mechanical, give your thermostat a good (gentle) cleaning, and check the small metal strip inside. If you have a wireless thermostat, try moving it around the home to see if it gets better reception. The last thing to watch with thermostats is where they lie in your home. If it’s in an area (like a doorway or direct sunlight) that has a more varied temperature than your home, it’s likely moving it could solve your issue. If worst comes to worst and you really do have a broken thermostat, be sure to check out the above article for the best new one to buy!