Nest thermostat reviewed: A smart device for all seasons

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Nest introduced its smart thermostat in October of last year only to find that there was greater initial demand for its product than originally thought. It has taken months for supply to catch up. The well designed, $249 device evokes images of an Apple product — not surprising since it was designed by the former chief architect at Apple — and promises to learn your heating and cooling habits. That should save money on utility bills and also alleviate the need for constant knob turning to adjust your home’s temperature.

Essentially, the Nest thermostat should look good when you see it and manage your environment automatically in the background. If that’s the case, the Nest should simply be forgotten once it learns your comfort zones. Does it achieve that goal? Yes, it does. In fact, it does it so well that I’ve had my review unit far longer than I should have because I haven’t needed to adjust the Nest in months.

Nest Installation is a snap

My home is relatively new; only about 8 years old and I had no problems installing the Nest. The wiring system is all color coded, so if your HVAC system is relatively modern — say from the last 20 years or so — I’m willing to bet that the Nest install will be relatively painless. All it all, it took about 15 minutes to screw the base plate to the wall, connect the wires and attach the Nest. The device has Wi-Fi built-in, which you connect to your home network at the time of installation. You can use the Nest with secured wireless networks.

Included with the Nest is a small screwdriver to assist with the installation. The base even has a built-in bubble level to ensure your Nest won’t be askew. And there are optional mounting plates, which you can paint, to cover up any holes from the prior thermostat. I used the largest one in my installation.

The old thermostat module I removed is also a smart, programmable device; I’ve been using it since 2010, even flipping on the heat from halfway round the world. More on which one I like better in a bit.

A thermostat can actually be sexy and fun to use

Most people don’t think “bling” when describing a thermostat, but the Nest is beautiful to see. It’s a round metal knob with a circular display on the front. That’s it. To navigate the Nest’s interface, you simply turn the wheel through menu options and push the Nest in to choose an option: Simple, effective and intuitive. You can manually adjust your temperature by turning the wheel. And the screen won’t waste energy by constantly displaying information.

Instead, the screen times out in a few minutes and automatically wakes up when it senses you nearby. Yes: there’s a motion detector in the Nest and it’s not just for the screen. When Nest senses you’re not at home, it can adjust the thermostat up or down to automatically save energy. When Nest “sees” you get home, it disables the Away mode. Other useful items on the display include a blue or red background when cooling or heating, respectively, the current temperature and a green leaf when you’re saving energy.

How smart is the Nest?

Unlike traditional programmable thermostats where you have to key in various temps, times and days, you simply set Nest manually throughout the day and evening for a few days. In about a week or less, the Nest learns your climate habits and tells you that you no longer need to adjust the thermostat. From then on, Nest handles it all.

You can manually modify your temperature at any time, of course, and Nest will keep learning from that interaction. But I found that I really didn’t have to adjust the thermostat much at all over time. Even better, the Nest app for iOS and Android make it easy to remotely adjust the temp without even walking over to the Nest. Or you can log in at Nest.com via a web browser to make the adjustment.

And that’s where the Nest really shines compared to my old smart thermostat. Because your thermostat is tied to a Nest account — via an email address — there’s no complex setup to get remote access to the Nest. In contrast, for me to remotely access my old device, I had to play with router tables, network configuration and punch a hole in my network firewall; all things that take away from the simplicity.

Does Nest save energy?

That’s a difficult question for me to answer, but I suspect so. My heat source is liquid propane in a 1,000 gallon tank and I can’t monitor the propane use at a very fine level. I can say that we went longer between propane fill-ups this past season. And our summer season has only just begun. You can view your Nest usage and schedule directly on the thermostat or in the app, however. It doesn’t show actual costs, but tells you the hours you spent heating or cooling, and if you saved any energy with little usage.

Additionally, the Nest team recently added a new cooling feature called Airwave that should save money. The theory is that your air conditioning keeps making cold air for 5 to 10 minutes after it shuts off. The Airwave feature takes advantage of that cool air by blowing it in the home after the A/C shuts down. As a result, your air conditioner could run a little less while still cooling the home.

Would I buy one?

Given that I already have a smart thermostat, you’d think I’d pass on the Nest. But after I return the review unit, I may spend the money on one anyway. There are pros and cons here for me, although I think most people would benefit from a Nest. Since I have a whole “smart home” project in mind, the Nest actually doesn’t fit it. Why? Because one of its strengths is a weakness in my home: It’s a standalone device. As a result, my home automation server can’t speak to the Nest and I can’t control it from the same app and framework used to control my lights, web-cams and doors.

Still, the simplicity of the device may trump this particular issue. And most consumers don’t already have a home automation system to integrate with a thermostat, so all in all, it’s likely not a problem for you. I’m on the fence for now, but chances are the good looks of the Nest will get the better of me and I’ll retire my old smart thermostat for a better looking, younger model.

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