Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

The iPod of Thermostats?

Courtesy of Nest

The Nest thermostat aims to change home energy use

A few weeks ago a new home thermostat was announced. While this would normally be news to yawn over, efficiency enthusiasts and techies alike were enthralled. Wired said that the thermostat would “make home heating sexy.”

Why the enthusiasm over a mundane household product? It was likely because the thermostat was an iPod.

Or at least it was designed by the same people that designed the iPod, and is intended to be a similar innovative leap forward. What the iPod did for music, the Nest hopes to do for home thermostats.

How does it work? Once you’ve installed it, you simply rotate the Nest dial until it’s at the temperature you like. Do the same before going to bed, and again when leaving in the morning, and after a week the Nest “learns” your schedule, without any manual programming needed. This is important, the makers say, because most standard programmable thermostats are never set up in the first place, and have a cumbersome interface. Programmable thermostats are such a pain that they were taken off the federal government’s “Energy Star” list a few years ago.

Once the device learns your schedule, it programs itself automatically, but you can always adjust the temperature further. There’s also a feature that senses when you’re home and away, so it can automatically lower or raise the temperature to save energy.

Image Courtesy of Nest

Nest Co-Founder Tony Fadell

Another notable feature of the thermostat is that it’s networked, so you can adjust or program it from your computer or smartphone and monitor how much energy you’re using.

David Pogue, gadget columnist at the New York Times, took a spin with the device and reported back last week. His impressions? “The Nest is gorgeous, elegant and very, very smart,” he wrote. “It will keep your house at the right temperature, save you money and do some good for the planet.” He notes that for each degree you keep your house cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer, it saves five percent of your energy costs. Factor in that heating and cooling make up about fifty percent of your annual energy bill, and the savings potential is huge.

But Pogue ran into some difficulty as well. While Nest claims installing the device is as easy as changing a light bulb, for the techie it was a more involved process:

“…in the end, replacing a thermostat is not a job for a novice. It involves cutting power to your existing thermostats (after figuring out which circuit breaker is responsible); removing your old thermostat (revealing an ugly, gaping maw in your wall); hooking up about four colored wires (nasty-looking and very short); covering up the gaping maw with the included rectangular base plate (necessary only if the maw is larger than the Nest, which is likely); and snapping the Nest into place.”

It took him half an hour to install. Pogue also had difficulties with getting the device to work properly at first. He writes that his Nest was “cuckoo for the first couple of weeks,” doing odd things like cranking up the heat to 73 degrees in the middle of the night. “That was a little alarming,” he writes. “You know those sci-fi movies where our machines turn on their human overlords? Yeah, like that.”

Nest told Pogue the issues were due to “first-release bugs,” and told him to reset his thermostats. After a few reboots, the gadget worked as promised, and “Fortunately, software is fixable.”

There’s a few other caveats, most significantly the price. The Nest is selling for $250, which is five times as much as your average programmable thermostat. But the company says that the device can pay for itself in energy savings over the first year or so.

UPDATE: A company representative says that the thermostats are sold out at their website and at Best Buy’s website for the time being. “A limited quantity arrived in Best Buy’s Home Energy Management stores (one of which is outside of Houston) today,” a Nest representative says, but cautions they may already be sold out. The company says they have “nothing to share at this time” as far as government or utility rebates for purchasing the nest.



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