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Can power companies control your thermostat remotely?

When Texas was hit by a heatwave in June, local people were asked to conserve power. However, things took an unexpected turn when some users learnt their smart thermostat temperatures had been raised by their power suppliers. So, can your energy company remotely access your thermostat without you knowing? And worse still, can hackers and cybercriminals do the same?

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez

Jun 29, 2021 · 3 min read

Can power companies control your thermostat remotely?

The Texas smart thermostat program

An air conditioner at home during the hot months is a blessing, but it also consumes lots of energy. Texas power utilities asked locals to enroll into a smart thermostat program that would let them remotely adjust thermostat settings for residents during peak hours to reduce strain on the grid.

However, some citizens claim they didn’t consent to the program, and still had their temperatures raised, causing alarm and potential health risks.

Participating in the smart thermostat program was voluntary, but many users probably didn’t understand what they signed up for. Is it really a good idea to allow someone to play with your thermostat?

How can temperature changes affect your well-being?

Increasing your thermostat temperature by a couple of degrees might seem like an innocent energy-saver (it lowers you air-conditioning energy output) but this could significantly impact the well-being of children, the elderly, people with health conditions, and pets. Everyone tolerates heat differently, and for some people it might be dangerous.

Some medicine can even make you more susceptible to hot weather, making it harder for your body to tolerate temperature changes.

Smart thermostats are designed for remote control, and that can save you money and offer some additional convenience. But is that worth putting your health at risk?

Smart thermostat dangers explained

Smart thermostats are appearing into millions of households around the world, and it could be just a matter of time before this technology connects billions of homes into a single vast network. Let’s discuss some of the security associated with this kind of expansion:

  • Data collection. While a smart thermostat allows you to manage your home temperature using an app, it also collects a lot of data about your habits. Some thermostats are designed to learn when you’re away and adjust your heating and cooling accordingly.

    If this data is intercepted by wrongdoers, they can track your movements and even rob your house after you leave for work.

  • Home Wi-Fi security. Most thermostats rely on your Wi-Fi connection. If your router has a weak password, your whole smart home system could be compromised and sensitive data stolen. That’s why it’s a good idea to use a VPN on your router and protect it from any unexpected invasions.
  • Remote management. Power suppliers use remote management systems to manage thousands of devices with one click. They can send commands, collect data, troubleshoot problems, and reboot the whole system. A cyber criminal or a malicious employee could remotely adjust temperatures for specific houses or the whole state, endangering thousands of people. While this is only a hypothetical situation, there are growing concerns around the dangers of IoT devices in homes.

  • Large-scale cyberattacks. Hackers often target critical infrastructure, putting at risk thousands of people and creating chaos. Colonial Pipeline hack and Florida water supply attack are recent examples of how far this can go.

Underlying problems in the Texan power grid

Texas’ power system is isolated from the rest of the US, and the state has always opposed integration with the nation’s energy grid. This stubbornness has already caused fatalities.

In February 2021, Texas was hit by severe winter storms that left millions of people facing freezing temperatures at home without electricity. Texas’ power plants were not prepared for the extreme cold and went offline. Since Texas’ grid system is isolated from the rest of the country, it was difficult to import the energy from other states when it was needed most.

A few months later, as people suffer through the current heat wave, the Texan power grid is still struggling . Locals speculate that energy suppliers haven’t recovered from the damage they suffered in winter and are experiencing technical issues. While it’s hard to tell if this is really true, one thing’s for sure — this isn't the end of the state's energy troubles.