by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 31, 2012.
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 37°C (98.6°F). 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 off—or, 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 a thermostat?
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 static—meaning 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 with a digital reading in degrees Fahrenheit. This one works slightly differently to the mechanical one shown in the top photo. The display is linked to a digital thermometer that measures how hot the room is. If it's too hot or too cold, you press one of the arrow keys to make the room cooler or warmer, as necessary. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL).
How thermostats work
So how does a thermostat work? Most things (with the notable exception of water) get bigger when they heat up and smaller when they cool down. 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.
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.