The Weekenders: Trusting Technology

  |  January 25, 2013

The Nest thermostat

During the winter, one thing we think about a lot is our heating system up at the house.  Is it warm enough or are the pipes gonna freeze?   Is it too warm or are we wasting lots of oil/money? Is the boiler even working properly? Did we remember to reset the thermostat to the right temperature before we left?  Did we leave the kitchen cabinet doors open so warm air gets to the pipes under the sink?  Did we turn off the main water switch so that if something bad DOES happen, it won’t be pumping water everywhere?

When we replaced our boiler this fall, we definitely feel better about the boiler working properly question.  We had programmable thermostats installed, but they are only five day thermostats, not seven day ones.  This means that we can only program Monday – Friday at the same temperatures, but we can’t, for example program it so the heat goes up  on Friday evening from the 55 degrees we keep the house at during the week, to the 62 we set it at when we are there.  My fantasy (a simple fantasy, I know) is that we can come into a warm house on Friday evening.  We’d also like to be able to check in periodically on the house to make sure that everything is ok.

At work, we do weekly meetings where we present or talk about technology or gadgets or things we are working on that either represent design challenges or are examples of good design.  A few weeks ago, a colleague did a presentation on the Nest thermostat.  Nest is a “learning” thermostat – it keeps track of when you turn the temperature up or down, and it can tell when you’re away from home (maybe kinda creepy?)  It can also be programmed manually, and can be accessed via Wi-Fi so you can monitor and change the temperature in your house when you are away.  He swore by it, said  that even though they aren’t cheap ($250 for the second generation unit) it had already saved him money.

On the Nest site, they claim that they work with 95% of all boilers and AC systems, though some of the Amazon reviews tell a different story.    Of 503 reviews for the second generation thermostat, 48 are negative  (one star) reviews, many of which tell horror stories about thermostats overheating, not being truly compatible with many systems, not giving accurate temperature readings, not connecting to some Wi-Fi routers and not very good customer service.

Despite these stories, and even though it’s supposedly really easy to install, we decided that since the plumber was coming up anyway to install some antique radiators, we’d  go ahead and buy one and have him see if it truly was compatible with our boiler.   He hadn’t heard of it, but he called the boiler company and they had had many people install them, but mentioned it needed an additional wire or transformer or something so that it didn’t have the power issues that some negative reviews mentioned.

So next week, we’re having it installed.  In the mean time, I’ve learned about many other internet connected,  remote (i.e., iPad, iPhone or Android) controlled home devices  that you can get for your home.  These include the Belkin WeMo  home automation switch that allows you to turn on and off lights or other electronic devices via a iPhone or iPad app, and the Phillips Hue, LED light bulbs that allow you to change colors, turn lights on and off, and program “light recipes” to affect your mood or set an ambiance.  As a weekender, anything that will allow us to monitor our house from afar, or will make it seem less enticing  to potential home invaders (like the ones I wrote about  previously) seems like a good idea.

Truthfully though, I’m a little concerned about the technology used for these devices not being fully mature, especially in a rural area like ours where we don’t have access to true a broadband connection (we are only able to get satellite internet  – no DSL, Cable or Wireless is available to us).  Controlling your lights is one thing, but trusting your home heat in the depths of winter to new technology – a little scary.  There’s also the issue of the fact that many of these companies are collecting your usage data.  Nest claims they use this information to improve their product (after scrubbing it of identifying information), but one could envision a future where this information is used to market products directly to you or people like you.

Does anyone have any experience – good or bad – with using a Nest thermostat in your weekend home?

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