We can use Home Automation devices to monitor our homes, keep us secure and turn our lights on and off. So why not use technology to help monitor and control the energy used to heat and cool our homes? The Nest Learning Thermostat can do just that – on its own- via the web and also through an app. Nest isn’t totally new, but the latest version, the 2nd generation model, is certainly much improved and you don’t have to be a geek to make the most of it. Great news if you’re a resident of Alberta, you may have an opportunity to get one free from Direct Energy.
The biggest thing to appreciate is that Nest is more than just a programmable thermostat – setting the device to turn on and off at predetermined times. It knows when you turn it up and knows when you turn it down and even knows when you’re away. It monitors usage and learns your habits, when you want to be toasty warm and when you want it a little cooler. It does this for about a week or so after installation and then it programs itself. When you configure it upon set up, you also give it your postal code, so it knows what the temperature is like outside so it can also learn vis-a-vis your actual environment.
Sounds pretty cool – and it is. There’s so much more it can do. But before you get too excited, you must first determine if it’s right for you and whether it’s compatible with your existing heating and air conditioning system. You need to pop off the cover on your current thermostat that is typically pretty straightforward and look at how it’s wired. Skip over to Nest.com/works. There’s a little interactive widget that asks you to select which wires (i.e. Rh,L,W,Y etc.) are connected and then tells you if your wiring is compatible. If you’re not sure, take a snapshot and email it over to them and they’ll tell you whether or not you’re good to go. They do tell you right up front that Nest is a no-go if you have a high voltage system or if wires are held together with screw-on wire nuts.
Now I’m pretty handy when it comes to gadgets, but when it involves heating, plumbing or electrical I usually leave it to the pros. Surprisingly, Nest is totally user installable. The box contains a screwdriver, screws and trim kit – a larger plate designed to cover over any holes or area left by the old thermostat, a two-piece base & display. It uses easy install push button wire connector release and even has a built-in level. A helpful video shows you how to turn off your power, remove the old thermostat and install the new one if you need guidance. I was able to get it installed in about 15-20 minutes.
Nest has a built-in battery so it powers up automatically and with its large LED readout guides you through the setup process. It’s a good idea to have your Wi-Fi password handy. The entire face is one big push button and the stainless steel ring around it is your navigation wheel. You’ll need to enter some basic information including your postal code, type of furnace, and hi-low temp settings to get started. Once you’ve connected to the Internet, any updates will be automatically downloaded; the time will set and adjust for Daylight Saving Time or standard time.
Using its built-in algorithms, including activity, humidity and temperature sensors, Nest adjusts as it learns. For the most part, you can set it and forget it. However, I like that you can turn off the learning function and you may also periodically interject manually when required. So if you’re a tad cold and want to temporarily bypass the auto function and up the temp from 18C to 20C, Nest’s “What is Time-to-Temperature” performs ongoing calculations and will tell you how long it will take to reach that temperature. Plus it will indicate that it’s set there “until XX:XX time.” In that case, you’re seeing the time until the next set point that is actually on your schedule.
For example, if you set the temperature to 20C, but the next scheduled set point is 17C at 11:00PM. You will see “Heat set to 20C until 11:00p.m.” Even cooler, pardon the pun, is that if subsequently the next point happens to be 19C at 6:30 A.M. you can configure your system settings to either turn on at 6:30AM and warm up to 19C or tell it, ” I want the house to be 19C at 6:30 AM when I get up” and by enabling Early-On, it will calculate when the furnace needs to kick in so it will be 19C at 6:30AM.
The easiest way to talk to NEST is via the web, their iOS (6.0) or Android (2.2) app, which you can easily enable by quickly setting up an account. There, you can perform most tasks remotely including adjusting the temperature as well as your schedule and settings.
Once Nest is auto-programmed you can go in and make adjustments to the weekly schedule (You can also manually program it). You can make single changes or even use copy and paste for multiple changes.
Other functions Nest offers include remotely viewing your energy history. You can see when heating and cooling was on and for how long and what affected its energy use. There’s an auto-away feature that senses that you’re away and drops the temp down to save energy. There’s an option to toggle the display setting to illuminate when you approach it, instead of turning it on. You can also periodically check the voltage of your battery, and more.
I also like that if you’re unsure what the optional settings are to help you save energy, a green Nest leaf will appear when you turn the thermostat to a temperature that’s energy efficient.
Except for having to reset my router and the small annoyance of Nest illuminating every time I walk by it, the only challenge I had was that it didn’t appear to properly engage the auto-away.
As for illuminating, I understand the system calculates its sensitivity to movement on a rolling 24 hour schedule to avoid turning on when you’re simply walking past vs. actually trying to interact with it and the auto-away senses lack of movement. I suspect both of these could be due to where the Nest is located (in a quiet hallway).
There were a couple of times where the heat seemed to kick on in the middle of the day even on a day that seemed to be warmer outside, but it didn’t happen often.
Elsewhere, there have been some rumblings around the net with respect to compatibility, Wi-Fi connectivity and issues with battery charging and multiple fan control. This is not surprising given the myriad of combinations of furnaces, HVAC systems, 2-wire and 3-wire systems and a plethora of wireless routers that are out there in the marketplace.
Nest says that Nest is most certainly compatible with low voltage conventional two wire heating systems. There is about a 1% chance that any given system, including conventional heating, cooling and heat pump systems, will have an issue with the way the Nest Thermostat charges or may cause the furnace to act abnormally. Here, it’s possible that it might require a 3rd wire, common-C wire, which in some cases is easily added.
With respect to fans, I’m told that Nest should handle multiple fans nicely if the furnace handles fan speeds independently of the Nest Thermostat. But should the thermostat require a special wire that controls the fan (multiple G wires) then Nest is not compatible with it.
For Wi-Fi connectivity, Nest does maintain a list of known unsupported Wi-Fi access points.
At $249.00, Nest does cost more than your average programmable thermostat, but if you live in a place that has significant temperature swings and your home is an environment where your energy needs can fluctuate day to day, then investing in a Nest could potentially pay for itself sooner rather than later.
I’m impressed with just the fact that you can whip out your iPhone from anywhere in the world and control your furnace so you’re toasty warm when going to head home unexpectedly early or if you leave on holiday and forget to lower the thermostat. The functionality of learning your usage habits and the ability to adjust and fine-tune your energy use in your home without messing up the programming has a significant value.
And if you have the luxury of an Air Conditioner, Nest can help you there too, although I did not have an opportunity to test it out.
Whether I was able to save a significant amount of money over the short two-month period is hard to tell, given the significant fluctuation in temperatures and lack of comparison. But being home during a significant part of the trial, once I made adjustments to the schedule after the auto-learning period there were only a few occasions where I had to manually override the systems settings which I think is a good signor what it can do.
I do wonder about the fact my home is connected to the Internet. While it’s unlikely someone would break in to my home to muck about with my thermostat, even with a personal code, I do wonder about possible hackers potentially hijacking my furnace, possibly turning it off in mid winter even as a practical joke. And with Google purchasing Nest a few months back, is my usage data being harvested?
Albertans can get one free via Direct Energy
If you live in Alberta some warmer weather may soon be upon us, but it’s still not quite time to shut off the furnace just yet. The good news is that if you like what NEST can offer they’ve partnered up with Direct Energy offering new customers in Alberta a Nest Learning Thermostat for free when they sign up for the 5-Year Comfort and Control Dual Fuel plan at DirectEnergy.com/NEST.
Nest is also available at Home Depot stores across Canada and Amazon.ca.
Rating: 4 / 5
Select photos courtesy Nest.
Greg Gazin is the Real Canadian Gadget Guy.