Monday, August 3, 2015

Nest Thermostat - a 1.5 year review...

Ah, the Nest I love it so. However, is it a love borne of a supportive, and useful, piece of technology...or that of the desires of a gadget fiend to sate the hunger of acquiring more in his 'tech arsenal'? Well, after having lived with it for nearly 18 months, I'm ready to give my verdict...but first, a little backstory.

The thermostat that I had been using was a simple, 'dumb' digital thermostat which was included with the new HVAC system I had installed in 2007. Why 'dumb'? Because all it could do was display the temperature and operate in the mode the user selected - heat, cool, fan auto/on, auxiliary heat. That's it. It wasn't even programmable. And, if I'm being honest, I don't think it ever really worked that well. But hey - it was 'free'...well, it was included in the $7,000.00 HVAC installation, so perhaps 'free' isn't the correct word.

Anyway, it had done its job...plugging away...helping to keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Year after year, season after season, it sat there - stupidly - sending a signal to the HVAC unit to heat or cool as the condition warranted and then sending another signal to turn off when the temperature had been reached. Until one day it didn't.

One weekend morning in March 2014, I began to emerge from my slumber and heard the HVAC system running. It had been a cool night, so the fact that the heat was running wasn't unusual. After a few minutes, while still lying in the bed, I heard the system turn off. As I lay there, pondering whether or not to get up, I heard the faint sound of the heat re-engaging. Knowing that wasn't right, I immediately sprang up to check the thermostat - maybe one of the kids had messed with it...I hoped. such luck. The thermostat indicated that the system wasn't running, and that the inside temperature was several degrees higher than the set temperature...yet the system was obviously still cranking out heat. After several minutes of troubleshooting, it was apparent that the thermostat was to blame. I knew that installing a thermostat to pre-existing wiring was a pretty simple task, so I headed off to a home improvement store to get a replacement.

But what kind of replacement? Another 'dumb' unit? How about something a tad smarter - something that could be programmed? Or...maybe...that awesome piece of HVAC hardware for which I'd been lusting for a while: the Nest Learning Thermostat. But was it worth it? At $250, it is significantly more expensive than other, less "intelligent" thermostats...but it has a svelte appearance, and the gadget fiend in me *really* wanted it. After a few minutes of internal debate, I opted for the Nest and headed home, ready for a quick installation.

Prior to even needing a new thermostat, I'd watched several videos about it...and almost all of them made it a point to say how easy the Nest is to install. Having seen many people, of vastly different skill sets, install it, I had little trepidation about the task ahead. After removing the faceplate from the old thermostat, I proceeded labeling the different wires as to their function (labels are included in the kit). Labeling complete, I unfastened the wires and removed the old thermostat from the wall...exposing a large, ugly hole in the drywall, from which the bundle of wires emerged.

As I examined the set-up, it was obvious that I would not be able to mount the thermostat directly to the wall. Though unfortunate, as it would diminish from the aesthetics a bit, Nest had included a mounting plate for just such a situation. However, using this plate meant that the length of the wires was just a tad too short. So I had to get the wire strippers out to cut the cable sheath so the individual wires would be the correct length. It took a bit of finagling (that's a proper engineering term - trust me), but I eventually had the wiring complete and the Nest mounted. After a quick boot-up process, it was now time to configure it. Was installation as easy as I was expecting? No...but it wasn't that difficult, either.

Configuring the Nest was pretty simple. One connects it to their wireless network (you do have a wireless network, right?), answers a few simple questions, and then selects which mode to enable (heat, cool, heat/cool). One can get configure many, MANY more options via the web interface and/or the smartphone app.

Usability and Worth
OK, here is the information about which one is likely the most curious: How easy is it to use, and is it worth $250? To answer the first part, very. The settings, both on the thermostat itself and on the web/smartphone interfaces, are easy to understand and implement. Some settings - such as 'auto away' and 'time to temperature' - are only available once the Nest has had time to 'learn' the individual characteristics of one's home and HVAC system.

As for the latter part of the question, maybe. Yes, that's right - it might be worth $250...or it might not. It all depends on what one expects to get out of it. I hoped to see a noticeable decrease in my energy bill, but I didn't. Apparently, since I had set the Nest to the same temperatures that I had used on my 'dumb' thermostat, I was already in an energy-efficient 'zone'. Additionally, it is rare that my home is wholly devoid of people, so the Nest's 'auto away' feature was almost never utilized. Therefore, I was disappointed that I was unable to have the Nest 'pay' for itself in any real capacity.

However, I do enjoy being able to check, and change, the temperature from the comfort of my bed...or couch...or chair...or from halfway across the country. Not only can I check the temperature, but I can get a humidity reading, too...which was quite helpful this past Spring. Though the inside temperatures weren't bad, the humidity had risen to the point of concern for mold growth. Yes, I could "feel" that the humidity was high, but having definitive proof was definitely helpful.

Of course, all of this information at one's fingertips might also have a downside: I tended to micro-manage the HVAC settings. In a clever ploy to entice energy conservation, Nest gives a 'green leaf' indication on the thermostat if the settings are deemed to be 'energy efficient'. Much as an economy meter in a car may encourage one to drive with a lighter gas pedal, the green leaf may prompt one to turn the temperature up/down a few degrees to earn that coveted green leaf. I know I did that. In fact, I had the settings configured so that I earned a leaf EVERY DAY. I was in the top 5% of users in my area. Good, right?

Well, not so much. With all the 'good feelings' from the leaf awards, I could buy a coffee at long as I also had $5.00. In the meantime, the people in the house were miserable because the humidity was unbearable. I live in Georgia...and if you've ever been here, you know that we're not known for our dry summertime air. With the AC running less, there was little opportunity for the HVAC system to pull the moisture out of the inside air. Dropping the temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit (from 78F to 77F) made all the difference in the world. Humidity dropped nearly 20 percentage points and the house was comfortable...but I lost my leaf. Though I still occasionally feel that competitive tug, I've since given up on earning any awards for energy conservation. I don't know if Nest *really* differentiates geographic areas in their definition efficiency...but if they don't, I think it's important they do so since 90F in Atlanta is far more uncomfortable than 90F in Albuquerque. 

I also feel that Nest is missing out on a key supplemental product line: remote sensors. Though our house has two levels, we only have one HVAC system. If Nest were to produce a remote sensor I could place in the basement area, the main thermostat may conclude that simply turning on the fan for 15 minutes to 'stir' the air might reduce temperatures enough to preclude running the compressor for a while. Seems like a simple enough addition to the line.

Would I buy the Nest Thermostat again, given the opportunity? Possibly...but I would also take a closer look at some of the other systems out there. Seeing as how I gained no savings by integrating a smart thermostat, the key selling point (beyond price) is going to be the device's feature set and extensibility. There are more competitors in the market today, and though Nest is still the frontrunner, they're no longer the only player in the game.