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Living with the Nest thermostat #1 – installation and the first couple of weeks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Several months ago, I got a Nest thermostat. Last month, I overcame my laziness and decided to swap out our “normal” programmable thermostat with the Nest. Follow along as I document what it’s like having a thermostat that connects to the internet, learns your behavior, and notifies you when you are saving energy. Read other entries here.

If you’re not familiar with it, the Nest is a geeky thermostat from the brain behind the original iPod, that learns your behavior. It’s an attempt to bring some sexiness to a device that’s pretty boring and technologically outdated. It’s a beautiful device and a lot of fun to use (when was the last time you said that about your thermostat?).

The Nest - a thermostat for the rest of us?

The Nest connects to the Internet, allowing you to control the temperature from the web or your phone/tablet, and check up on your temperature settings and other stats. It also makes a great thermostat for the couch potato. Change the temperature from the couch? Yes, please.

The idea is straightforward: you set the thermostat to any temperature as you normally would while the Nest keeps track of every adjustment you make, slowly learning your behavior and comfort level (it pulls weather info from the Internet). Instead of having to program a programmable thermostat, which hardly anyone actually does, the Nest will eventually do it for you.

Installation
For being mechanical engineers, my housemate and I are astonishingly inept at tasks that involve drilling holes properly and mounting things on the wall (oh, the garage drywall shelf incident of 2008!). So of course, we picked the absolute worst time to install the Nest. It’s been well over 100F in Austin this summer, which mean the obvious time to cut the power to your house (including, and most definitely, the A/C units!) and fumble with wires, screwdrivers, and a drill is in the middle of the afternoon.

The actual installation went smoothly, minus a misjudged drill bit diameter and a stripped wall mount. The four wires that control the compressor, fan, heater, and provide electricity hooked right up to the Nest, and once the power was back on, it booted right up.

When it first turned on, I half expected the Nest to greet me with “Hello, Dave”, a la HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, we waited through a 15 minute sequence of software updates, reboots, and more reboots. Finally, after entering in our ZIP code and other settings, we were able to set the thing to cool the house back off. I suppose that’s on par with most gadgets now.

Your experience will probably be better because, well, we’re just not too good at these types of things.

Learning
According to the website, the Nest will learn your patterns in about a week. That sounds about right. We installed ours before having a bunch of people over for the Olympics, so there was an outlier temperature setting in there from the beginning, but we were able to purge that (more on that in a second).

We’ve been running the Nest for two weeks now, so I have a little bit to share about it. I pulled up our temperature schedule on Nest.com:

You can log in to Nest.com and view a schedule of your temperatures.

You can see that we normally keep the house around 79F. The Nest has done a pretty good job of figuring out our desired temperatures, but it’s not perfect. I would actually like to set the temperature a little warmer in the afternoon during the peak hours (~3pm to ~7pm). To do that, I added another temperature point of 81F at 3pm on each weekday, which should be good until the evening when the Nest will cool it off to around 78F or 79F. I also noticed a few stray 75F set points on Saturday and Sunday evenings, so I went ahead and moved those back up to 79F.

You can also teach the Nest by adding or changing your temperature schedule.

It’s all pretty fun. Without seeing the temperatures laid out this way, I would have little information about what our A/C has been doing during the day, or during the night.

As you’re setting temperatures, the Nest provides feedback about settings that will save you energy by displaying a little green leaf. So, when I set the temperature up from 75F earlier, the green leaf showed up to let me know I was doing a Good Thing.

Another super smart feature I have noticed is the Time to Temperature notification. Over time, the Nest figures out about how long it takes to cool your house, and will let you know about how long to expect to cool (or heat, I suppose) your house to a given temperature. As you’d expect, changing the temperature only several degrees, as opposed to five or more, takes less time and saves more energy. But without seeing it displayed, you might still be tempted to crank the temperature way down to cool the house off quickly. When I got home this afternoon, I set the A/C down to 79F from 81F, and Nest told me it would take 45 minutes.

Anyways, I’ll have more to share about the Nest next week. There are some other cool stats available on the website that I want to look into after we’ve logged some more time with it. I’m interested to see how the new weekend temperatures work out for us.

Let me know if there’s anything you want me to check out while I’m messing around with the Nest.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. MoEnergySci 6:56 pm 08/11/2012

    Is there any way to use a Nest (or any external thermostat) to control window units in a home that doesn’t have centralized air? Maybe some sort of wi-fi system?

    Link to this
  2. 2. davidwogan 7:37 pm 08/11/2012

    I poked around and found the Belkin Wemo. It looks like a power strip that you can control via wireless. So you could turn on a window unit form your phone. You would lose the feedback/control you have with a thermostat, though.

    http://www.belkin.com/wemo/

    Link to this
  3. 3. tharriss 8:12 pm 08/11/2012

    Just out of curiousity, how much more power does the Nest draw yearly than a standard thermostat?

    Link to this
  4. 4. davidwogan 9:20 pm 08/11/2012

    @tharriss – I couldn’t find any solid info about the energy consumption of a Nest vs a standard programmable thermostat, but we can take a guess. The Nest has a lot more electronics on board, a wifi radio, and a dense color display, so we could guess that it’s going to draw more power. But because the software is more advanced, I’m assuming that it has fairly robust power saving routines which would shut it down when not in use.

    A standard thermostat has a pretty basic display and other electronics on board.

    It all depends, of course, on how each thermostat is being used. Once a Nest has a schedule down, it probably doesn’t consume that much energy. The wifi radio will be active at times to check for software updates or incoming instructions from the web or your phone app.

    If you find any more info about it, please share it.

    Link to this
  5. 5. johne 5:16 am 08/12/2012

    This is a bit like putting a brick in the toilet cistern in a 3000 sq ft house to feel good about saving the environment. Keep the house at 79 degrees-please! 68-70 degrees is reasonable so save the planet by turning the temperature down, not by buying a cool thermostat

    Link to this
  6. 6. Swiss422 10:22 am 08/12/2012

    Uh…it’s summer time, dude. You save energy this time of year by keeping the temperature up at 79. To get it down to 68-70 takes a heck of a lot of electricity.

    Link to this
  7. 7. davidwogan 11:22 am 08/12/2012

    @johne – Perhaps. The Nest probably is overkill for our house; we already keep the temperature on the warmer side, and would set it up to 81 or 82 when leaving the house. For normal people who don’t think about saving energy or know all that much about cooling and heating loads in homes, my guess is the Nest can, at the very least, provide info about their behavior. Ideally, that information would be used to adjust behavior and save energy.

    Of course, some people just like to keep the house cold, and if they consistently set the thermostat at 68F, it will learn that as the normal temperature.

    Link to this
  8. 8. collettedesmaris 6:10 am 08/14/2012

    Hey David – does this “Nest” device configure itself with your “Smart Meter”? In the event that is does, indeed, interface with your Smart Meter, it may behoove you to ditch it and revert back to manual operation – it’s a simple equation; really.

    I saw an expose’ a couple of weeks ago that said that with the advent of the “Smart Meter”, in addition to all of the other “smart device” type technology that is being incorporated into literally every appliance and consumable sold today, that the transition of all this stuff was aimed towards the goal of tracking it all on a multitude of levels. And, they made it abundantly clear that it wasn’t for a reason as benign as learning what you like to buy. Does it ever occur to anyone to entertain the thought that just because the “latest thing” is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean one should just jump on the bandwagon and use it? I mean, it is really that difficult to take control into your own hands and operate the darn thermostat yourself? (Providing , of course, that you can afford a luxury such as air conditioning in these dire financial times.) There has been a plethora of reports of Smart Meter malfunction, resulting in extraordinary over-billing, etc. to the point where I daresay if your Nest is hooked into the smart meter grid (which it probably is) – I’d be keeping a watchful eye on that if I were you; to insure that you don’t get overcharged or over Air-Conditioned, or what-have-you; you know what I’m sayin’? The possibilities are endless for over-billing if they have control of your devices – the Smart Meter fiasco has already proven that. Just a friendly cautionary warning, is all.

    Link to this
  9. 9. davidwogan 11:18 pm 08/15/2012

    Hey Collette,

    Our Nest isn’t hooked up to a smart meter – only the internet to grab weather data, software updates, and connect with the web/mobile apps. Our house does have a smart meter, as does every other single family residential electricity customer in Austin Energy’s service territory here in Austin. But the smart meter isn’t performing its full range of functions. Right now, the utility can collect billing data from the smart meter without sending meter readers to all of the houses and apartment buildings in the city.

    As for it being difficult to use a normal thermostat: ‘normal’ thermostats aren’t super hard, but they aren’t exactly easy to use. We never programmed our thermostat, but were always diligent about the temperatures we set it to. I can’t speak for anyone else, though. I know people program their thermostats to achieve maximum comfort in their home (or savings), and some who don’t put that much thought in to it.

    Link to this
  10. 10. duddleydo 3:56 pm 09/15/2012

    David,
    Good information, keep it coming. I Live in Arizona, and like TX it can get pretty hot. I live in a 2 story with 2 units and 2 thermostats. Does the Nest communicate with each other if I had 2? Does it make adjustments for the upper level being Warmer?

    Keep up the good work. I’ll be following your blog to learn more.

    Link to this
  11. 11. allanmullaly 4:40 am 12/20/2012

    nest thermostat is good no doubt about it because in past I have used it and it is indeed a high efficient one. Recently I am using Emerson thermostat and satisfied with it too.
    http://www.cleanairheat.ca/emerson-white-blue-selecto-thermostat.php
    This selecto is quite good..

    Link to this
  12. 12. johnloyd 3:25 am 03/11/2013

    Wow! Nest thermostats are so cool in performance. I don’t think so that in the presence of best thermostat one can get others. In spite of that I have Goodman thermostat too.
    http://www.afgheating.com/thermostats/15

    Link to this
  13. 13. zorcean 7:42 pm 01/17/2014

    I have a pro1 home thermostat from http://pro1iaq.com and so far it has saved me a ton of money. Do we really need to update to a nest? Has there been any cost analysis done on the savings or are we to buy because of features?

    Link to this

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