Like many of you, I never really gave much thought to something as basic as my thermostat. So long as it kicked on the heater or air conditioner when I needed it to, I was happy. Nonetheless I’ll admit I was a bit intrigued when I read about the Nest Learning Thermostat when it was announced back in October 2011 but even then, the thought of purchasing one never really crossed my mind.
I followed Nest and the success they were having with their connected thermostat over the course of the past two years and after making the decision to replace all incandescent light bulbs in my apartment with energy efficient LED units, I also decided it would be as good a time as any to see exactly what the Nest was all about.
The Nest Thermostat is currently in its second revision and has been for a little over a year now. When asked about a possible third generation unit, a representative for Nest’s PR agency told me they had nothing to share on the subject and were instead focusing their efforts on the Nest Protect. Fair enough.
With that knowledge in hand, I felt less apprehensive about buying something that was already a year old. And even if a new model was on the horizon, the Nest had to be better than the basic non-programmable Honeywell model I’ve been using for the past five years.
A quick check of Nest’s online compatibility checker revealed my heating and cooling systems were indeed compatible with Nest’s offering. An order for the thermostat was placed shortly thereafter.
Installation and Setup
The Nest arrived in a brown cardboard box with a basic slide-on sleeve. I half expected a bit more flare from the retail packaging of a product co-designed by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers but then again, maybe they’re confident enough in their product that they don’t need to oversell users on the packaging.
You’ll find everything you need to get started inside the retail box including the thermostat itself, the mounting base, all of the necessary mounting hardware like wall screws and optional steel plate screws, a screwdriver, a trim kit, an optional mounting bracket and detailed installation instructions.
Nest claims most users can install the thermostat themselves in 30 minutes or less. Aside from the included installation manual, Nest has an installation video on their website and a detailed .PDF file to help walk you through the process. In the event you don’t want to try and tackle the project yourself, you can find a certified installation professional directly on the company’s website. Pricing will vary by company, of course, and nearly every service provider in my area needed to be contacted directly for pricing.
Instead of installing the device by myself, I recruited a friend with an electrical background to lend a hand. In hindsight, I could have easily done it myself but something about working directly with electricity scares me.
After cutting power via the circuit breaker, we removed the old thermostat, connected four wires to the mounting base, attached the included trim kit and then plugged in the Nest. The trim kit will likely be a necessity for most users as I found a gaping hole in the wall after removing my stock thermostat. Perhaps if you were building a new house or relocating your thermostat controls, a trim-free installation would suffice but otherwise, the trim piece will be needed.
Nest thoughtfully included a bubble level directly on the mounting base to help ensure you don’t fudge up the installation in terms of being aligned properly. Nothing perturbs me more than seeing something installed crooked (think bumper stickers, window decals, framed photos) so having a level built in was a nice added touch.
Once connected, the Nest enters setup mode where you can input basic information like heating and cooling preferences, wireless settings and location data. It’d probably be a good idea while in the settings to check for a firmware update. Nest has been known to roll them out occasionally and of course you’d want to start with the latest and greatest.
The Nest features a respectable color display although it isn’t touch-enabled. Instead, the outer metal ring of the thermostat is used to control everything. Spin the dial right or left to cycle through menu options in the direction you wish to travel. To make a selection, simply press the dial toward the wall.
The display remains off to conserve energy while you are not interacting with it yet when you approach, the screen comes to life courtesy of a built-in proximity sensor. The backlighting matches the system you are controlling at any given time – orange for heat, blue for air or black when neither system is selected. Most menu options are either blue or white and are all tasteful and easy to read.
Another nice feature is the fact that the Nest doesn’t require any batteries. Not that replacing the batteries in my old thermostat once every year or so was a drag, but it’s one less thing I have to worry with now.
After configuring the Nest and connecting to your home Wi-Fi network, you can control the thermostat remotely from your computer, smartphone or a tablet either by visiting Nest’s website or downloading the app for your mobile device.
You’ll need to give the Nest a solid week or so to learn your habits, a feature known as Nest Sense. The unit includes three temperature sensors as well as a humidity sensor to help accurately gauge the temperature inside your home.
I suspect most people operate on a pretty routine schedule in which they wake up, go to work then come home in the evening and repeat the process again the next day. The weekends will likely be a crapshoot but the good thing is you can always manually adjust temperatures as you see fit.
Once Nest has learned your schedule, it will begin to make adjustments on your behalf. For example, if you typically turn down the heater / AC during the day while at work or turn it off completely, Nest will learn this behavior and save you from having to do it each day. A one-off change won’t throw off Nest’s learned behavior but if you consistently change temperatures a few days in a row, it’ll catch on and adjust automatically.
Another benefit of Nest Sense is the fact that when you adjust the temperature, it’ll give you an estimate of how long it’ll take to reached the desired temperature.
The problem with many programmable thermostats on the market is that they can be so difficult and time consuming to set up and maintain that many people often grow tired of fooling with it and revert back to manually adjusting temperatures. Nest Sense effectively eliminates this nuisance.
In the event you have children or plan to install the device in a public location such as a business, you can enable a 4-digit PIN code to prevent anyone from tampering with temperatures. That’d be much more convenient than having to lock controls behind a box like I’ve seen in countless stores.
Another nifty feature is the Nest Leaf, an icon that appears when you make an energy-efficient temperature change. For example, if you typically run your AC at 73F during the day but decide to manually adjust the air to a warmer temp or turn it off completely, you’ll earn a Leaf as an indication that you’re saving energy and ultimately, money.
Nest keeps track of how many Leafs (that’s correct, not Leaves) you earn per month, a figure that is reported in each monthly energy report. For some, earning Leafs can be a fun way to save energy – think of them as an achievement in a game.
Nest owners can also take advantage of Airwave, described by the company as exclusive software algorithms designed to automatically lower air conditioning costs. To understand how Airwave works, you need a basic understanding of the AC system in your home.
Your air conditioning system is comprised of two energy-consuming components: the compressor and the fan. The compressor uses a great deal of energy while the fan sucks down very little power. While many thermostats simply reach a desired temperature then turn off completely, the Nest is different.
The compressor coils can remain cold for five to 10 minutes after your AC shuts off. To take advantage of this, Airwave will turn off your compressor when the system is close to the desired temperature but continue to run the fan to use the cold compressor coils to their maximum potential. All of this happens automatically once the relative humidity in your home reaches a certain level and things are timed just right so that you still reach your desired target temperature but without consuming as much energy to do so.
Usage, Findings and Conclusion
I’ve been using the Nest for nearly two months now and without jumping right to the conclusion, I can say it is an excellent and well-rounded product in terms of hardware as well as software.
I was initially drawn in by the lure of lowering my monthly energy bill but unfortunately, I’m unable to determine if that’s actually happening or not. This time a year ago, I was living by myself but now with a girlfriend staying in more often than not, that means more cooking, more laundry and more energy usage in general, so of course I’m using more power and my bill is higher than it was a year ago.
To get a somewhat accurate assessment of whether or not the Nest is saving me a considerable amount of money, I’d need several more months of usage data so I could compare year-over-year with and without the Nest based on my current living arrangement.
With energy usage being inconclusive, the second major selling point for me was the ability to control the thermostat remotely via my smartphone. I can’t count how many times I’ve left home for an extended period of time and forgot to turn off the AC / heater. There’s no sense in cooling or heating my pad when I’m not there and that’s simply money down the drain.
That’s no longer a concern as I can adjust the thermostat anywhere I have an Internet connection. This is useful for the above mentioned situation but for many others as well. For example, now that it’s getting cold out, it’ll be nice to kick on the heater a few minutes before I arrive home from running errands for the day.
But above all else, I simply love being able to adjust the thermostat without having to get out of bed. I like it really cold when I sleep at night so I set the air to 64F before bed. The problem with this is that it’s always ice cold when I crawl out from under the covers in the morning. Not anymore – I simply turn off the AC when I wake up, turn on the heater and wait a few minutes before getting up. Ahh, perfection!
When I first started using the Nest, the mobile app was extremely lacking. It looked as though the company simply whipped something up overnight with only the most basic of controls. A recent update, however, remedied this problem and now the app looks great. Unfortunately, Nest didn’t do a great job of making it clear how to access some settings which left many users frustrated. The most recent update pushed out just a few days ago makes these features more visible, we’re told.
I’ve always been curious just how frequently the AC kicks on at night while I sleep, especially during the winter when it’s already really cold outside. Thanks to Nest’s daily energy history reports that are accessible from the thermostat, the mobile app or online at Nest’s website, I now know the answer.
The energy report gives a breakdown of how much time was spent heating and / or cooling your home each day. Digging in deeper, you can see exactly when each system turned on and how long it ran for as well as learn about any factors that may have affected usage that day (higher or lower than average temperatures in the region, for example).
My only complaint about the energy history report is that it only dates back 10 days. It’d be much more useful if Nest could provide a monthly breakdown at the very least and preferably, have your entire energy history on tap to view. With any luck, this will be addressed in a future update.
All things considered, I’m happy with my Nest purchase. The device affords a level of convenience that simply wasn’t possible with my basic Honeywell thermostat. Sure, there are other connected thermostats on the market but even some that are priced in the same range as the Nest don’t come close to matching it in terms of aesthetics. It looks right at home in my living room.
I can’t speak to the operation of other smart thermostats but I can say the Nest is incredibly easy to use. After all, it programs itself automatically during the first week of use. How many other devices can say that?
Aside from the aforementioned energy history limitations, the only other metric that will likely keep more people from purchasing a Nest is the price tag. At $250, it is much more expensive than a basic thermostat or even a mid-range programmable device. But in my eyes, this is another case of getting what you pay for and the Nest is a winner in my book.
Pros: Sleek design, easy to install, easy to use, learns your heating and cooling habits, can be remotely controlled via a smartphone or browser.
Cons: Expensive, energy history report only dates back 10 days.