Smart homes and smart gadgets are all the rage now but from what I read and from a couple of abortive personal experiences, it seems as if most of them are not quite there yet. At the moment, most of them require you to do extra work for the Gee Whiz experience and are not the seamless life improvers that are advertised. I want things that make my life easier AND give me a Gee Whiz experience. I have found one house gadget that fits the bill.
I had toyed with the idea of trying a NEST thermostat for several years. Finally, with a new (old and leaky) farmhouse complete with a generic thermostat hanging out of the wall by its wires, the time had come to upgrade.
The installation is really simple (with a couple of caveats). The instruction book takes you through setup step by logical step. It even comes with a nifty little screwdriver and paper tags to tag the wires you take off the old gadget. I found that it helped to set the booklet on a tall stool so I could refer to it as needed but have both hands free. Once you have removed and tagged the wires one by one from the old thermostat and have fastened the NEST mounting ring on the wall, you just have to insert the wires into the self clamping mounts on the mounting ring according to the paper tags on the wires. In my case, the tags were somewhat superfluous as the wires were colored correctly (R tag for red, O tag for orange, G tag for green, etc.) but I did it anyway.
CAVEAT # 1
The nest unit has a small battery and is designed to work without power directly connected to it. This means that when the battery gets low it steals power from the fan when it’s running. If the system doesn’t run much this is a problem because the NEST freaks out and can’t function properly. Think of some of the bad decisions you have made when tired and hungry. Therefore I would be very doubtful about a successful relationship without a thermostat dedicated power wire. Fortunately, I think most HVAC systems do have the power wire. And if your system runs constantly because you have no insulation, it’s probably not an issue. This is not an engineering error but a way to increase universality.
CAVEAT # 2
There are more kinds of heating/cooling systems than you can imagine. Fortunately you can go to the NEST website and check out your system by what you can tell about it and the color/number of wires coming out of the wall at the thermostat. Once you input the information, the site will tell you if your system is compatible. If you have a standard heat pump/forced air for heating and cooling, you’re probably golden. If you have radiant/radiators/trolls shoveling coal in your basement be sure to check with NEST. I would check with NEST regardless but I’m pretty paranoid.
Once you get the wires coming out of the wall correctly mounted in the NEST mounting ring, all you have to do is plug the NEST unit into the ring. It starts up and starts working.
“So,” you may ask. “What can NEST do for me?” NEST is a self learning thermostat that can be controlled from your phone or computer as well as from the wall. The first week or so, you need to think about what kind of usage you want and dial it in pretty religiously. The NEST learns so that it will adjust temperatures however you want over a 24 hour period over the 7 days of the week. If you have the sun baking in in the afternoon and want it cooler from 2:00 to 6:00 PM, and yet another temperature over night, nest will learn your preferences. Want it cooler for sleeping in on Sunday? NEST will learn. You can also set this up on the app. If you mess up, you can reset and start over.
Further, the wall unit lights up every time you go by which lets you see the temp, if the system is currently running and the interior humidity and local weather outside since its hooked into your WIFI. The light up feature makes a decent night light in the hall too! You can also check the usage in the app to see how to save more energy. There are a bunch of other smarts that NEST does automatically or that you can set up like running the fan after the compressor stops to get all of the heat/cool out of the coils and running the fan at set times to fluff the air when the unit isn’t usually running.
Every time you walk by and NEST lights up, it is acknowledging your presence. You can set high and low temps for AWAY MODE so after a couple of hours when it’s sure you’re gone, it will adjust to save energy. There is also a drop dead temp you can set so the system will run in a crisis even if turned off at the thermostat to protect pipes, pets, etc.
My set up was not without excitement, however. The NEST worked like a champ for two days and then one evening the HVAC breaker popped. I reset it and within an hour it had popped again. I spent a long day on the phone with the NEST support folks who were wonderful. Since they couldn’t resolve it they authorized a service call from a local authorized tech. He found the main 230 volt wire arcing where it was clamped to the air handler in the basement and fixed it. (The problem had nothing to do with the NEST). I sent his $100 bill in to NEST and they paid it! I really can’t say enough about NEST support.
Since that time, the NEST has worked flawlessly, including a month on AWAY Mode while we were out of town. It knows our schedule. It does what it’s supposed to do. I play with the app some but don’t really need to. It is fun to be several states away and be able to check on the house temps. There’s a NESTCAM and SMOKE DETECTOR that will give you even more. Anecdotally, I believe it is saving energy. There is supposed to be a two or three year payback period but mileage varies with energy costs, equipment condition and how hot/cold you like it. I’m always amazed to look at the history and see how little my equipment runs.
IS IT WORTH IT?
You can get a programmable thermostat for significantly less and program it yourself if you have at least a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Actually it’s probably not that bad but you will have to work at it. Of course it will be an ugly plastic blob on your wall since the same guy who designed the putty colored desk top computer stuff seems to have designed most of the thermostats too. NEST was designed by some ex-Apple engineers and nothing says, “Let me do that for you” like Apple. That’s a compliment because even though I prefer to fiddle with my Android phone, I don’t particularly want to fiddle with my thermostat. And I don’t think I should have to!
Therefore, the only real consideration in my mind is cost. I believe it will pay for itself in a couple, three years but there is that initial expenditure. If it was $100-$150 it would be pretty much a no brainer. However, for your money you get an amazingly beautiful, functional and self programming machine that just works. And it is so beautiful compared to those putty colored lumps. Every time I walk by it, it lights up and greets me with HVAC info and I say, “Gee Whiz!”
Please Note: This is an unsolicited review of a product I purchased myself. My unit is a Nest Learning Thermostat, 2nd Generation
NEST I’s are still available and a NEST III has just been announced. As far as I know the differences are only relatively small hardware changes. The software is updated automatically over WIFI which is needed for the NEST to operate.