A new home energy gadget: the sexy smart thermostat

  • November 2, 2011
  • Reviews
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I’m interested to know what TerraPass Footprint readers have to say about the Nest thermostat that has been consuming the tech blogosphere the last few weeks.

Created by the brains fomerly behind the iPod, the $249 device will be able to sense the habits of the household and program itself to function accordingly. You leave the house at 9am? After about a week, Nest will know to turn down the heat and restart it when people begin to come home again. Pretty simple concept and appropriately geared for the lazy(er) consumer, who simply can’t remember to turn down the thermostat themselves.

Then there’s the design aspect – a nifty little wheel gadget to which iPod lovers have become quite accustomed.

And a final plus – installation is supposedly a piece of cake (“if you’re comfortable installing a light fixture, you can install Nest”). Confession: I am not comfortable installing a light fixture.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how consumers react – rumor has it that it will hit stores on Nov. 30th. My reaction?

First of all, I wonder how necessary the device is since programmable thermostats are already commonplace (right? at least that was my experience living on the East Coast in buildings that weren’t built in the 17th century). If you’re already in the market for a programming device, then that might be another story. It would be interesting for readers to comment on how well current devices out there function, and how prices compare to the Nest (my research suggests that the Nest is on the higher end).

Nest advertises (on Google) that this is:

The only thermostat that programs itself to save you energy & money.

Clever phrasing, but I think that wording might be a stretch – it might be the only one that looks like a cool little iPod, changes to red when it’s heating up the house (and blue when it’s cooling down) – but other thermostats may function as well or better, provided you program them or more simply, adjust them as needed.

Maybe I shouldn’t belittle the emphasis on the design so much – if it makes Nest attractive to a large number of consumers who don’t already have functioning programmable thermostats, then a lot more energy bills will go down and fewer greenhouse gases will be emitted.

One final question (maybe laced with a slight undertone of criticism): is this a way to excuse people from having to think about climate change? Says Nest (emphasis from me):

We still try to save energy, of course. We turn down the thermostat when we can, we don’t set it too high or low. But we’re human. We forget. Until we see our energy bills.

I’m the first to admit that I forget lots of things. But is it about remembering to do something, or changing your behavior so you do it in the first place?

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  1. Greg Grothaus - November 2, 2011

    It seemed from the news articles that you don’t program this thing in the same way that you’d program your VCR – which is how all of the programmable thermostats on the market currently work. Instead you program it by just adjusting the heat as needed when you need it. It uses a little bit of machine learning to predict what you need before you adjust it so after a few weeks, it’ll just work. Sounds simpler to understand, if it works.
    It also claims to have “activity” (motion detection?) sensors, which is a little different than a standard thermostat, but that seems only somewhat useful unless you live in a studio apartment.

  2. Chris - November 3, 2011

    I have electric baseboard heating in my townhouse and so have a thermostat in every room. They are all old-fashioned manual dial units, but I upgraded one, in the second bedroom, to a programmable unit when our son was born. We didn’t want to forget to adjust it, and it’s nice to see a number on the screen rather than adjusting the dial to 20ish (that’s Celsius, apologies for speaking Canadian).
    The next certainly is attractive, but is 6 times for expensive than the programmable thermostat I bought, and since I want it to keep my son’s room warm at night the motion detection feature is not terribly useful.
    I’m not so sure this is a winner.

  3. Ajit Chaudhari - November 3, 2011

    There were other music players out there before the iPod (anyone remember the Sony Walkmans?), but the iPod fundamentally changed how we store and listen to music. It didn’t only change it for the early-adopter techno-geeks among us but brought everyone along too. So if this thermostat does the same for home heating and cooling such that many, many of us become more energy efficient, does it really matter whether we got there by making a conscious decision and remembering to stick to it?
    I have a programmable thermostat. They are cheap (our natural gas company is giving them away) but they are really hard and unintuitive to program, even for someone like me who is usually quite good at these sorts of things. So something that makes it easier would be a very welcome change.

  4. pauls - November 3, 2011

    3 thoughts:
    For $250 it better be dam effective.
    It will take a long time to pay for itself unless your heating/cooling bills are really high.
    Requiring installation makes it significantly different than an iPod which you simply turn on.

  5. Rich E. - November 3, 2011

    I’ve had no problem programming a variety of traditional programmable thermostats.
    This looks cool and machine learning helps, but if I install it and forget the turn it up or down, then it never learns when I want the house warm or cool.
    As others have pointed out, the usefulness of the motion detector strongly depends on the location of the unit.

  6. Michael Heggen - November 3, 2011

    According to the Nest website:
    “According to one study, 90% of programmable thermostats are rarely or never programmed. The EPA even took away their Energy Star rating.”
    That’s a pretty strong argument that a device like Nest can make a big difference, and that there really is a need for it.
    -Mike

  7. Phil R. - November 3, 2011

    I would have loved to have purchased a couple of Nest thermostats. I think it’s a smart product that seems to be very well designed. However, after communicating with them for the last couple of weeks, they determined that the thermostats would not be compatible with my heating system. So, I’m very disappointed, but they were very helpful via e-mail and on the phone.
    I agree that the price high, but cost isn’t the only consideration. There is also a comfort and convenience factor. I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
    Phil

  8. Anonymous - November 4, 2011

    Phil,
    Please share what type of heating system you have that this might not be compatible with? How do you heat/cool your home; Wood burning stove? Dual stage forced air? Horse farts?

  9. Goaglen - November 4, 2011

    Motion detector may be useful, unless its sensitivity is not also programmed. A dog may cause it to sense activity. I once had an alarm system which detected mice running across the floor twenty feet away, bringing the police too many times. Once adjusted, the sensors worked fine. Without sensitivity control, this may be a waste of money.