A thermostat is a component which senses the temperature of a physical system and performs actions so that the system's temperature is maintained near a desired setpoint.
A thermostat operates as a "closed loop" control device, as it seeks to reduce the error between the desired and measured temperatures. Sometimes a thermostat combines both the sensing and control action elements of a controlled system, such as in an automotive thermostat.
Thermostats use different types of sensors to measure the temperature. In one form, the mechanical thermostat, a bimetallic strip in the form of a coil directly operates electrical contacts that control the heating or cooling source. Electronic thermostats, instead, use a thermistor or other semiconductor sensor that requires amplification and processing to control the heating or cooling equipment. A thermostat is an example of a "bang-bang controller" as the heating or cooling equipment output is not proportional to the difference between actual temperature and the temperature setpoint. Instead, the heating or cooling equipment runs at full capacity until the set temperature is reached, then shuts off. Increasing the difference between the thermostat setting and the desired temperature therefore does not change the time to achieve the desired temperature. The rate at which the target system temperature can change is determined both by the capacity of the heating or cooling equipment to respectively add or remove heat to or from a target system and the capacity of the target system to store heat.
Modern thermostat control was developed in the 1830s by Andrew Ure (1778–1857), a Scottish chemist, who invented the bi-metallic thermostat. The textile mills of the time needed a constant and steady temperature to operate optimally, so to achieve this Ure designed the bimetallic thermostat, which would bend as one of the metals expanded in response to the increased temperature and cut off the energy supply.
Some automobile passenger heating systems have a thermostatically controlled valve to regulate the water flow and temperature to an adjustable level. In older vehicles the thermostat controls the application of engine vacuum to actuators that control water valves and flappers to direct the flow of air. In modern vehicles, the vacuum actuators may be operated by small solenoids under the control of a central computer.
On many automobile engines, including all Chrysler Group and General Motors products, the thermostat does not restrict flow to the heater core. The passenger side tank of the radiator is used as a bypass to the thermostat, flowing through the heater core. This prevents formation of steam pockets before the thermostat opens, and allows the heater to function before the thermostat opens. Another benefit is that there is still some flow through the radiator if the thermostat fails.
Thermostats are sometimes used to regulate gas ovens. It consists of a gas-filled bulb connected to the control unit by a slender copper tube. The bulb is normally located at the top of the oven. The tube ends in a chamber sealed by a diaphragm. As the thermostat heats up, the gas expands applying pressure to the diaphragm which reduces the flow of gas to the burner.
Electromechanical thermostats use resistance elements as anticipators. Most electronic thermostats use either thermistor devices or integrated logic elements for the anticipation function. In some electronic thermostats, the thermistor anticipator may be located outdoors, providing a variable anticipation depending on the outdoor temperature. Thermostat enhancements include outdoor temperature display, programmability, and system fault indication. While such 24 volt thermostats are incapable of operating a furnace when the mains power fails, most such furnaces require mains power for heated air fans (and often also hot-surface or electronic spark ignition) rendering moot the functionality of the thermostat. In other circumstances such as piloted wall and "gravity" (fanless) floor and central heaters the low voltage system described previously may be capable of remaining functional when electrical power is unavailable.
Some programmable thermostats are available to control line-voltage systems. Baseboard heaters will especially benefit from a programmable thermostat which is capable of continuous control (as are at least some Honeywell models), effectively controlling the heater like a lamp dimmer, and gradually increasing and decreasing heating to ensure an extremely constant room temperature (continuous control rather than relying on the averaging effects of hysteresis). Systems which include a fan (electric furnaces, wall heaters, etc.) must typically use simple on/off controls.