Living with Nest

There’s one element of the home over which even the most design-minded homeowner has traditionally had  little control – the ugly beige  thermostat that comes bundled  with most heating/air-conditioning systems. There it is, plunked in the middle of an otherwise beautiful wall – a nondescript blob of plastic with a crummy little LCD display and Shinola for brains. But this is 2012, the age of the iPhone. We can do better!

A month ago, I was invited to become a beta tester for the amazing Nest Learning Thermostat (would love to share the access, but don’t ask – I can’t get you in :). The premise is so simple you have to wonder why no other company has tackled this niche: Make a thermostat that’s as gorgeous and intuitive to use as a smartphone, tie into the sensor revolution, build in WiFi so you can control it remotely, give it the intelligence to learn your schedule so it can optimize your energy consumption, and treat it more like a small computer (with remotely update-able software) than a piece of uninteresting functional hardware .

Of course there’s a long history of programmable thermostats on the market, but Nest is doing something different, integrating “programmable” with a modicum of artificial intelligence and sensor monitoring. Plus, get this:

What’s wrong with existing programmable thermostats? For one, they are often so hard to use that half of them aren’t programmed at all. A study actually showed that programmable thermostats used more energy than non-programmable thermostats, which led to the EnergyStar label being pulled for all of them.

Nest wants to move beyond that problem, and it looks like they’ve nailed it.

Living in Northern California, we don’t have an air-conditioning unit, so unfortunately I could only test the heating controls, not the cooling. But that experience has been enough to convince me that Nest is onto something big here.

Unboxing

Nest’s packaging is sexy as hell – paying attention to all those little details adds up. A tiny bubble level in the backing plate helps make sure you get it mounted perfectly. Little stickers to affix to your old wires as you disconnect them, to make sure you get everything hooked up with minimum hassle. Extra cover plates to hide any blemishes in the wall left over from your old thermostat (I instead took the opportunity to do some plaster work I’ve been putting off for the past eight years – thanks for the kick in the pants, Nest). A gorgeously designed multi-tool/screwdriver comes in the kit so you don’t have to go hunting for a wee screwdriver. A Quick Start guide that feels like it was written and illustrated by professional interaction designers. It’s all about getting consumers to see a boring product category through new eyes.

The unit itself is a 3″ disc of elegant silver and glass, with an outer dial that rotates smoothly with a subtle clicking sound. I’m sure the common comparison will be to a designer hockey puck, but it’s sized more like a  Ding Dong (i.e. deeper than a hockey puck, not that it looks like junk food).  Pause for a moment as you’re walking by, and motion sensors cause it to wake from sleep. Its face glows blue and white, blooming orange if you turn up the heat. Turn it down, and a small green leaf lets you know you’re saving energy (“The more often you see a Leaf, the more you save”). Give the dial a gentle press, and a circular menu of options lets you view and review your energy consumption over time (How many hours was the heat on yesterday? Or on this day last week?), tell the Nest you’re away (so it won’t kick in the heat even though it’s “learned” that it should on this day), edit the learned schedule, change the wifi connection settings, etc. etc.

But while all of those features are cool, I had a much better experience monitoring and controlling energy consumption through the web interface at home.nest.com, where you can experience them in a full-width browser, and drill down into usage segments with actual mouse control. The web team have outdone themselves with an interface every bit as debonair as the thermostat itself, with enough granular reportage to stir the loins of eco-data geeks everywhere.

Here are screenshots from the Energy Usage and Schedule interfaces in the web UI, which is a far better way to control and monitor the Nest than from its own small, mouse-less screen.

Click on a usage bar for a granular view of exactly when the heat threshold changed throughout the day.

Each control point can be dragged around, turned up or down, or added/removed.

And of course there are companion apps for iPhone and Android to let you control the unit from anywhere, e.g. to wake it up when your plane lands so the house is warm (or cool) by the time you get home. Unfortunately, while the web site said I should be able to access my usage history from the  iPhone app, that option never appeared for me – all I could do was to turn the heat up and down. But that’s OK – I’d never reach for a phone to do that kind of thing when the web UI is so much more manageable anyway.

The one functional flaw I experienced during the beta was that it seemed to be “learning” too quickly. While the box literature  said it would initially take seven days to learn our schedule, the Nest told me that “Initial learning was complete” after the first day. While the support team later told me this was normal, and that it really did mean initial learning, not full learning, the unit proceeded to treat every day in the subsequent week as if they were all like that first (aberrant) day. Soon after, they injected a beta of the 2.0 firmware into the unit, and I did a full reset to let it start over. While the 2.0 software again threw the confusing “Initial learning complete” message at me, the subsequent learning did seem to be much smarter, and the device did a better job of re-learning from my manual adjustments.

Pattern Recognition

Now that a few weeks have passed and Nest has had a chance to get comfy with  our real-world usage, we’re finding that we rarely need to make manual adjustments. After years of habituation, it’s still a treat to walk up to the thermostat to turn it down only to find that it’s already done it for me. Or to get out of bed in the morning and find that it’s stared warming up the house 15 minutes before it thought we’d wake up. Pretty brilliant.

The programming challenge seems simple on the surface, but must be insanely difficult to code for: How can the Nest software tell the difference between a request for a momentary blip of extra heat vs. a lifestyle pattern that should be permanently learned? What about days when the kid is home sick from school, or I come home early from work? Are those new schedules to be learned, or temporary aberrations? It’s all about smart pattern recognition, and the more data it has to work with, the better it gets. But at the same time, Nest wants you to have a good experience from Day 1. Some fascinating puzzles for them to solve here.

The big question is, will it really save you money over time? If you’re going to sink $250 into a high-end thermostat, it’s reasonable to expect that it will earn its keep in energy savings over time. But it’s tricky to calculate these things. Sure, I could compare our gas bill this month to the same month last year, but the weather this month isn’t the same as the weather was in April 2011, or April 2010. It’s tough to get an apples-apples comparison.

According to a “national simulation” run by Nest, the unit should pay for itself in two years, i.e. save you $10/month or more (since turning down the heat even one degree can equate to a 5% energy savings, the Nest doesn’t really have to have all that much intelligence to achieve significant gains).

Estimates from the Nest site sure look impressive:

If those savings pan out, the cost of admission will be worth it for nearly all homes and businesses. Our family has always been very mindful about not wasting heat, but the Nest helps us to know when we actually are, and how our days compare to previous days, giving incentive along the way. But of course we won’t know whether Nest is really saving us energy for a while to come. For now, it sure feels like it’s saving energy, going by the UI feedback if nothing else.

To maximize Nest’s energy-saving potential, you do have to give it some thought, and “train” it a bit. I found these posts really helpful:

The only major improvement I can imagine that would result in more significant savings would be if the Nest were to put its foot down sometimes: “No, I am NOT going to honor your request to turn the heat up again. Put on a damn sweater already!”

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