While Sunday may have been the first official day of Fall, Summer is still in full swing down in Florida. As I sit down to type this article it' s 96 degrees (that's 35.5 in Celsius or my international friends) with 64% humidity. Put simply, it's miserable. It's also the time of year where my home utility bill starts to skyrocket. After I received my first bill of the summer season I decided something needed to be done.
I've had my eye on the Nest thermostat since it was introduced. Nest is a programable thermostat but it's so much more. Nest is to thermostat as iPod is to MP3 player. It's simple, elegant and smart. The biggest draws of the Nest, besides its good looks, is unlike conventional thermostat's the Nest is incredibly easy to program and it has the ability to learn about the environment to become more efficient.
Nest's basic premises is that most of us aren't using our current thermostats appropriately. They're either improperly programed, or not programed at all and as a result we're wasting energy, and thus money, by heating and cooling our homes when we don't need to be. Desperate to try anything to drop my utility bills, and always a sucker for a cool gadget, I decided to give the 2nd Generation Nest a try.
First, you want to make sure the Nest is compatible with your heating and cooling system. Most of the problems I've heard about with installation come from systems that aren't 100% compatible. There's a compatibility checker on Nest's site and I was able to take the faceplate off my existing thermostat and confirm the Nest would work. If there's any question, you can send Nest a photo of your current wiring and they'll let you know.
I opted to install the Nest myself. If you're nervous you can purchase Concierge Install Service for $119 but I would imagine most geeks are going to be fine. If you're comfortable replacing an electrical outlet or installing a light fixture you'll find the Nest is no problem. There's a video on Nest's site that will walk you through the process as well as detailed instructions. They even include tools in the box.
In total, my Nest was installed and functional in less than 30 minutes.
Once installed the Nest was able to immediately find and control my heating and cooling system. But the real power comes when you can connect it to the Internet. Unfortunately this is where things went wrong.
I use an Apple Time Capsule with that's a few years old with a primary and guest network. For various reasons, I have the SSID of my primary network hidden. Although Nest supports hidden SSIDs, my attempts to connect to the network failed. On top of everything, entering a complex network password on a Nest a real pain. After multiple failed attempts I tried to connect the Nest to my guest network figuring it didn't matter so long as it had Internet access. Although the Nest would initially connect to the guest network, it would quickly disconnect.
I called Nest technical support and found them incredibly polite and helpful. I learned there is a conflict with Nest and Apple routers that prevents it from working with hidden SSIDs. Unfortunately, at the time the incompatibility wasn't listed on Nest's support site and even the first tier tech wasn't aware. I was able to connect my Nest without incident once I reconfigured my network to show the SSID. Interestingly, I tried a few days later to connect to my guest network and it worked fine and has remained connected without incident. My best guess is the Nest's internal rechargeable battery was low and causing the problem. Nevertheless, I've now configured the Nest to connect to my guest network and re-hidden the SSID of my primary network and had no problems since
Once the Nest was online I was able to setup the companion web service and iOS Apps. While you can configure all the Nest's settings on the screen of the thermostat itself, it's much easier to use the Apps or web interface.
One of the main features of the Nest is it has the ability to program itself. Current programable thermostats are limited in their options and complicated to program correctly. As a result, most people either don't bother programming them, or don't have them efficiently programed. If you regularly adjust the thermostat when you arrive and leave for a week or so, Nest will start to learn your patterns and set a schedule. If your schedule starts to change and Nest senses you're changing the thermostat regularly, it will adjust the schedule.
I tend to have a very regular schedule so I opted to program the Nest myself. Nest did still make suggestions to my pre-program scheduled which I found helpful. Where I found Nest superior compared to other thermostats is not only how easy it was to schedule, but the number of "events" in the schedule appear to be unrestricted. Most thermostats have a few variables you can program for weekends or weekdays. With Nest, it's completely customizable. For example, Tuesdays and Fridays I have a class at the gym and I don't get home till later so I've adjusted the Nest's accordingly. Sundays I'm gone for a few hours in the morning and evening and can program the Nest for these specialized time periods.
Nest will additionally use its sensors to detect when no one's home using a feature called Auto-Away to save energy. Depending on the time, your typical schedule and the last time Nest sensed activity it will put itself in Away mode by turning up or down the thermostat accordingly. I haven't used this setting much because I'm such a creature of habit, but particularly on the weekends when I'm prone to run out for a few hours I've noticed Auto-Away has switched on and turned my air off. Of course, you can always put the Nest in Away mode manually or using the iOS App. Only once has the Nest switch on Auto-Away when I was actually home and those were pretty extenuating circumstances. The Nest is smart enough to know when you're likely asleep so it won't set to Auto-Away mode at night.
You can learn all about the Nest's features and functions on their site. Rather than give you a detailed review I thought I'd tell you how I use the Nest. Most days I never touch the thermostat. I've tweaked my programing such that Nest does a pretty good job of cooling the house to my preferences when I'm here and turning the thermostat up when I'm not. Interestingly, most of my interaction with the thermostat is through my iPhone or iPad. If I'm sitting in my office working (as I was just a few minutes ago) and notice it was getting a bit warm, I'll grab my iPhone and launch the Nest App to adjust the temperature.
I'll also commonly use the iPhone App when I'm out to either turn on the Away feature (or confirm I remembered to turn it on before I left the house). Or if I'm on my way home, sometimes I'll turn on the air so the house will be cool when I arrive. I'll also use the App from time to time to make adjustments to my Nest schedule as my schedule changes.
The Nest is a joy to use. I never thought I'd say that about a thermostat. It's beautiful on my wall and when you touch and interact with it you can tell it's a quality product. Even with all the power and options packed in the Nest, it's simple enough for anyone to use. The similarities to an Apple product are striking.
I've been using the Nest for three months now and it's probably too soon to tell whether I'll reap any true energy savings. Here's a breakdown of how my electric usage compared to the same months last year.
- June: 2012: 940kWh vs. 2013: 716 kWh
- July 2012: 911kWh vs. 2013: 691kWh**
- August: 2012: 1,022 kWh vs. 2013: 1,012kWh
August is historically my highest use month for air conditioning. Note that I was out of town two weeks in July so this was not a good comparison. I think it will take longer than three months to really tell the energy savings story, however, I feel like I'm using my thermostat more effectively than ever before. It's certainly more enjoyable. The Nest utilizes a type of "gameification" to encourage you to save energy. You can earn "green leafs" and it will graph usage each day and show you why you used more or less energy on a particular day. At the end of the month, you get a report comparing your usage to other Nest owners. The more you use Nest, the harder it is to earn a green leaf.‹
What Could Be Better
So far my only negative experience with Nest has been the initial Wi-Fi setup. I'm sure this is something that could improve with software updates. Though since the latest Airport Firmware update, my Airport has been buggy so I'm not sure this one is entirely the Nest's fault. The good thing is many improvements to the Nest can come through software, people don't often update their thermostats until it either breaks or they buy a new home, so I hope Nest will continue to add new features and functionality. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any updates in my three months of ownership to the Nest or the iOS App.
For optimal use the Nest relies on its sensors in the thermostat to determine when you're home and away. While I'm fortunate that my Nest is in a central location and one that I will walk by every time I come in and out, not everyone is. I'd like to see Nest design companion sensors that could be placed throughout the house to sense not only motion, but also temperature. The sensor wouldn't have to be a full fledged thermostat, but a companion product that interacted with the main unit.
I also feel like the Nest doesn't do a good job of sensing when I've failed to come home on schedule. While I expect the Nest to startup and cool down my house according to my pre-set schedule, I would hope the auto-away settings would kick in more aggressively if it didn't sense any activity after the time I'm scheduled to be home. Many times I'll end up working later than usual or going out after work. The Nest is scheduled to end Away mode at 6:30 but even if I don't get home until 9 or 10 p.m. I find the air has been running most of the time during my absence.
The iOS apps are good and they give you access to all the features. The iPad App is really a mirror of the web interface. One thing that could be easier is simple temperature changes. Interestingly, this is something that has changed to become more difficult with App updates. Currently to change the temperature you have to "scroll" (think iPod click-wheel) and you usually end up overshooting your mark and having to go back. The prior version of the App had simple up/down arrows and was more user friendly.
Should You Buy One
If you have some reason to replace your existing thermostat or are building a new home and your system is compatible, I would say absolutely yes. Though remember you'll need a Nest for each thermostat in your home which can get expensive fast if you need multiple units.
If you're already using a programable thermostat and you're using it relatively well, then the decision becomes harder. Realistically it will take you years to recoup the cost of a Nest back in energy savings, possibly longer than the lifespan of the device. So it becomes more than a simple economic decision. You have to factor in lifestyle.
I'm glad I bought my Nest and I hope they expand into other products. This is exactly the direction I think we should be moving towards with our automated homes of the future. Unobtrusive, simple but smart. Personally, I'd like to see a smarter irrigation system that know when my lawn needs to be watered and where, a garage door that will close itself when my car isn't at home and a stove that turns off when pots and pans are removed or food is done. Ahh, the future...
An earlier version of this article first appeared in the August Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/