You've heard the term, you've heard you may need one, but what exactly is a C-wire? C-wire stands for Common-wire, and despite its name, it is not exactly a household term (unless you are an HVAC professional). C-wires are often required for proper smart thermostat setup and consistent functionality, providing the thermostat with continuous power by connecting it to your furnace.
While older, simpler thermostats can effectively run off of batteries for an extended time, smart thermostats cannot. This is because all of their cool features (Wi-Fi connectivity, self-programming, colorful touchscreen displays...) use a lot of power! By using a negative charge to supply continuous power to your smart thermostat, it ensures your thermostat's display, internal processor, and Wi-Fi connectivity are up and running 24/7.
Though all smart thermostats can use a C-wire and arguably may be more reliable with the use of one, not all smart thermostats require a C-wire to function. Some models, such as Google Nest, are designed to work even if your home doesn't have a C-wire.* On the other end of the spectrum, many smart thermostats from Honeywell Home, Emerson, and ecobee do require a C-wire but may include an adapter kit as a workaround. We'll discuss this more below.
The takeaways and short answer:
*Depending on your HVAC system, particularly if you have a heating or cooling-only system or use a zone controller, a C-wire or other power-supply accessory may be necessary.
You may be surprised to learn that many older homes are not equipped with C-wires. To determine if your current thermostat is using one, do the following:
If you don’t see a wire in the C-terminal, you may have one hidden behind the wall that is currently not being used, so double check!
Missing a C-wire and your smart thermostat requires one? Not all hope is lost. There are two workarounds - use an adapter or install a C-wire.
Electrical work is not for the faint of heart! If you are not completely comfortable with the following steps, please consult an HVAC professional for help and to confirm that your home is compatible with a C-wire.
If you don’t see a wire in the C-terminal, you can simply use a 24V C-wire adapter.* Made specifically for smart thermostats, on one end you'll find two stripped wires ready to plug into the thermostat, and on the other, a plug for a standard wall outlet. Some thermostat models such as ecobees include an adapter, but if yours does not, they are very affordable and readily available in stores and online.
If you do not like the appearance of wires coming from your thermostat, you may prefer to have a C-wire installed in your home. This is typically a simple and straightforward job for a professional, making it quick and cost effective.
*Be sure you do not have thick, black wiring connected with nuts, or wires labeled 120V or higher. This means you likely have line voltage heating that is not compatible with smart thermostats.
To learn more about smart thermostats and choosing the proper one for your home, visit our Smart Thermostat Buyer's Guide.