The Nest Learning Thermostat: Sure It’s HOT, but Is there a Future there?

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Nest Thermostat

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Ecobee Thermostat

By Trish Holder

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the fairest thermostat of them all?”

This question came to me a few days ago as I was searching for reviews on the new Nest™ Learning Thermostat™ – a product I encountered at the AHR Expo in Chicago a few weeks ago.   Looks is what kept coming up as a positive for this new thermostat, an innovation developed by Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, of Apple iPod and iPhone fame.

It is a pretty nifty look, I’ll admit.  But it wasn’t the looks that impressed me so much when I sat down the with a company representative at AHR; it was the concept.  You see, the Nest is marketed as a self-programming thermostat and to me (someone who has to ask the kids which buttons to push to record a TV show) that was exciting.  Mind you, I have programmable thermostats and in terms of ease-of-use have found them to be about as intuitive as a Rubik’s cube.  I hate them.  So when the folks from Nest told me that the Nest learns your habits and programs itself for the efficiency given these habits, I was pretty intrigued.

It’s all about the algorithms – a fancy word that doesn’t get used too much in daily conversation.  Suffice to say that these are mathematical calculations that sort of “automate” reasoning.  In terms of the Nest, think of it as a brain that monitors how you adjust the temperature settings on the thermostat for a couple of weeks, senses your occupancy patterns and comfort preferences, and decides, “Oh – no one seems to be here between the hours of 7:30AM and 5:30PM, so I’m going to back off the heating or cooling during this period to save these hardworking folks some money.”

That is what the Nest is supposed to do, learn your occupancy and comfort patterns, and seek out energy saving opportunities without compromising comfort.

Nest Reviews
I loved the concept and felt my cool factor surge just goofing with it at the show.  But I’m a realist and know that cool “is” only so far as cool “does” so I couldn’t help but dig a little deeper to see what some actual users were saying about the Nest.

It was interesting.  Users seemed to love the look and found it to be just as easy to install as promised.  In some cases, however, enthusiasm started to wane in terms of actual performance.  It seems the Nest’s isn’t quite as ‘intuitive’ about the habits and comfort preferences of homeowners as some anticipated.

I am hoping these kinks, which I think are natural for any new product introduction, will be addressed and resolved, either through better user support and instruction, or by tweaking those pesky algorithms.  I want one, but I’m not rushing to buy one.  Speaking of which, they are a bit pricy for a thermostat at $250.00 a piece.  Would that discourage me from buying one if does everything they say it does?  Heck no!  I’m just looking for a few more field reports before I leap.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for a couple of homeowners to step forward and tell me about their experiences with the Nest.  We’d love to publish a thorough homeowner’s report.   Any takers?

But back to the “Mirror, mirror” question….

About a year ago I wrote about another thermostat I encountered at last year’s AHR Expo, the Ecobee.  The Ecobee doesn’t program itself, but it sure is easy to program.  And, like the Nest, it has sophisticated remote capability, meaning you can access it completely via the internet if you are the nerdy, control freak that many of us are these days.  Anyway, when I started researching reviews on the Nest, I instantly started seeing a lot of comparisons with the Ecobee.

The Nest is sleek and attractive in a minimalist sort of way.  The Ecobee is cute and cheerful in a Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island sort of way.   The question is, which one do you think has the most visual appeal?  Cast your votes in the comments section below.  And may the sexiest thermostat win!

11 Responses »

  1. I’m a big fan of the Ecobee ‘stat. What I like about it:

    a. You can actually program it, easily, intuitively, and in seconds… on the web, from anyplace on earth. It’s absolutely ideal for those who want to know what’s going on in their second home up at the lake or down in Florida, that’s currently unoccupied.
    b. You can see a beautiful, easy-to-read graph of what the home is doing over time… temp, humidity, outdoor temp, furnace cycles, AC cycles… all for exactly *zero* annual cost.
    c. Anytime you want/need to download that data (and any historical data sine the ‘stat was installed), it’s literally a single button click and an EXCEL file lands on your desktop in (I’ve measured) less than two seconds.

    So when I had to replace my furnace last year, it was a *very* simple matter to use the downloaded file, sum one column, and therefore calculate exactly what the house required for heating during a period of extreme cold with a stiff wind. Very nice way to validate/evaluate what the HVAC contractor estimated the house needed for heating and AC capacity. (About 60% of the capacity the contractor had wanted to install, in my case. The smaller unit I insisted on has since performed flawlessly)

    Those graphs also were a great help in troubleshooting both the AC system controls, and a problem with the old furnace. The service tech did not have to guess what the unit was doing when it crumped out.. all the records were right there, in very easy to read graphs, along with the outdoor temperature minute-by-minute.

    What I don’t care for about the Ecobee after three years of using it? Only one thing, really:
    a. They really undermarket the device. The company stresses ease of programming on the ‘stat itself, which frankly is still about as confusing as most of the modern ‘stats with graphic interfaces. But the *real jewel* of the product is that web interface. It’s an absolute model of how to control an HVAC system when you really can’t and don’t want to remember how to do it. It’s so simple and intuitive that you can forget about it for a year or so, and then go to change something and figure out how, in less than 10 seconds (Again, I’ve measured my own time).

    Now about the Nest.

    I’m quite prepared to believe the mystical magic of fabulous programming can be wonderful. But without owning a NEST, I have some concerns. For example, I no longer use MSOFT WORD, because I for years I had to spend so much of my effort correcting the boneheaded decisions and assumptions that program makes “on my behalf.” That’s my big concern about the automated decision making of the Nest.

    So perhaps those who own one can help me understand two questions that the people at the Nest booth at the ASHRAE show in Chicago in January were not able to answer (except in generalities):

    a. How does the Nest, with it’s single-point occupancy sensor, avoid making foolish decisions when nobody ever goes into the room where the ‘stat is located?

    b. If the Nest *does* make a series of foolish decisions, how do I change it’s mind, without trekking into the room with the ‘stat periodically to activate the occupancy sensor and let it know there are indeed people in the house, or making manual adjustments at the ‘stat itself?

    c. If I can and do correct bad decisions by the Nest, how long does it retain my instructions before it starts to ignore my past corrections, as it makes it’s own decisions once again over time?

  2. Trish, as you have stated, the Nest is sexy without a lot of depth in function. From my professional inspecting of the capabilities for the Nest stat to work with comfort features of today’s heating and cooling equipment, it falls very short on function.

    The idea of the self programming isn’t all that new either. Honeywell had these features over a decade ago. Why did Honeywell not put self programming features into their thermostat? The answer is that most people want a thermostat that they can control, not one that controls them.

    Self programming features are very erratic during the initial learning period and become erratic again when any changes in lifestyle occur, even if those changes are only temporary.

    The Nest stat is not capable of controlling multiple staged units. It is not capable of controlling humidifiers or variable speed blowers for dehumidification. It’s complete focus is on turning the system off as much as possible, which is not even the best thing to do for system efficiency and definitely not the best thing for new equipment operation and longevity of life. New heating and cooling systems need longer run cycles in order to perform at their best.

    In conclusion, while Ginger may have been a nice one night stand, every guy really wanted Mary Ann. So, no, the sexiest stat is not the winner here.

    • “Trish, as you have stated, the Nest is sexy without a lot of depth in function. From my professional inspecting of the capabilities for the Nest stat to work with comfort features of today’s heating and cooling equipment, it falls very short on function.”

      Robin, that is not exactly what I said….

      I suspect there are a few kinks to work out and I also suspect the technology will evolve. I’m curious and and even hopeful that the NEST functionality will live up to its sexiness. I’m also getting feedback from users that say they are quite happy with the product since posting this blog. So we’ll see what happens.

    • it would be a little short shigted to write this thing off on the price alone. Remember that the iPod launched at, what, $400? Early adopters will buy in, and prices will come down in time.

  3. Trish–I’ll be looking for follow-ups with real-life homeowner experiences! I’m intrigued by where this technology could go. My gut feeling right now, never having used a Nest, is that this is a early-adopter item rather than an everyday-consumer choice at this point.

  4. I would also like to hear from a homeowner or two re: the Nest and it’s “smartness”, but honestly I find it really, really ugly! It looks like the Staples “Easy” button – or a fire alarm – and I certainly wouldn’t want that on my wall. I think the Ecobee looks more like an iPhone – sleek and simple. And since you can program it remotely via the internet… and I’m almost always within reach of my phone – that would make it “automatic” enough for me :-) Thank you Trish for always introducing us to new products!

  5. Hi Trish, Keep up the great work.

    I have been very interested in the NEST ever since I heard about it last fall and have recently looked at ordering one for a house I am building for a client. My client actually brought it up as an option he was interested in. The house will be one of the first SIP prefabs to be built in New York City and it will be rather energy efficient so NEST could make sense but I have some of the same questions as Lew above as to how does the NEST make programing decisions and how can it be corrected and as Robin states it does have some serious limitations even if it’s looks are great.

    I will be taking a closer look at both of these thermostats and will report back in the near future.

  6. Hey Trish, Good feed on this product. Smarrrrrt Tech! Can I test one? And in the future (you seem to get around to all the fun stuff) let me no about any controls and or materials, since I am a IAQ and materials guy for feedback…I would appreciate it and lean at the same time!

    -Robert

  7. Sounds interesting. Seems like a lot of factors such as folks in over-tech-overload, economy, initial cost we have seen a renewed interest in the basic honeywell offerings. We still do the multi-zone, touch pad, gee-whizzz-Bang models BUT not so much. When we show up for a service call and the client needs a new dependable, easy to “get” stat and I pull a unit out of my truck that they know and tell them that the installed price is less than a hundo they are like “What are you waiting for, do it!” I can do the initial programming in a few moments and after 5 min of intro have the client confortable with their purchase, no disappointment and more important NO comback-service calls.

  8. Here’s the thing about the Nest, and others like it – it’s essentially a first step for most homeowners into the world of home automation. While I haven’t “gone there” yet, I can see the day coming (in the not so distant future) where not only lighting, audio/video, and HVAC are commonly automated in a home, but also security, window shades, irrigation, and more. And all of this is going to mesh nicely with the coming SmartGrid technology, enabled HVAC & appliances, renewable energy technologies, and even plug-in hybrid vehicles (which will not only work to save petrol, but also be storage capacity “on the grid” to help utilities even out peak loads without firing up extra power plants). This isn’t the Jetsons, it’s happening now.

    The problem with this is that folks are buying a thermostat here, lighting controls there, home security stuff somewhere else, and an iPad that they hope will help control them all. Unfortunately, since the industry hasn’t settled on good standards yet, these systems rarely “talk” with one another. Actually, they can interfere with one another, making the automation more trouble than it’s worth. Working with one manufacturer for all automation can solve this problem – you just want to get started on the right track by finding a system that will be expandable over time.

    That said, the Ecobee, with its ability to keep track of a system over time, and how a home uses its heating & cooling (for maintenance diagnostics and eventual system replacement help) sounds like the best bet, since there’s a long-term benefit. Still not cheap, but it’ll be more likely to pay for itself.

    If you’re concerned about looks, many companies offer remote sensors that are hard to detect, and let you leave the actual thermostat control in a closet. That’s even better than a thermostat that calls attention to itself with a flashy look . . .

    • How can you say that the industry has not developed a standard for these devices to talk to each other? Wifi, bluetooth… both have been around for a long time and aren’t going anywhere soon. Sounds like an industry standard for communication. I don’t understand how these devices could possibly interfere with one another.

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