Hands on: Nest learning thermostat and Protect
8 October 2014 | 0
There is no doubt that home automation is the next big thing, as smart meters of various kinds will allow us to bring intelligence to things like water usage, climate control and entertainment systems.
Nest is a company that has developed a set of intelligent home devices that have been on sale here since September. Google famously bought the company for more than $3 billion (€2.3 billion), which many thought was high at the time, but it may yet prove to be a prudent purchase.
First, let us dispense with some of the hype around smart meters. Yes, you can log into the system remotely, using either the web page, or the mobile app and turn on the heating to have it toasty when you get home, but that is not the real functionality here. The really valuable functions of the devices are awareness of surrounds, the external weather and the movements in the house itself.
The Nest thermostat itself can be wall mounted, free standing or entirely mobile as it has an internal battery. It is a pleasingly designed device with a clear screen, but somewhat awkward controls. The external bezel rotates and the screen itself responds to presses, but is not itself a touchscreen. By rotating the bezel back and forth and then pressing the screen, you can set various parameters. However, for those of you who never achieved more than 90 words per minute in the old style of text messaging, putting in a Wi-Fi pass phrase in setting it up was an absolute pain. Fortunately, it has needed no further intervention on that front and so was a one-time gripe.
To get started, the thermostat’s controller is wired into your system, in place of existing controls. It then controls the boiler’s on-off functions to bring on the heat, for either programmed or calculated periods. However, you may discover that if you have separate timers and thermostats, as did we in a house that was built circa 2004, then you may find that you are limited in where you can place the Nest controller as it needs a power feed, which many older, passive thermostats do not have. Another knock-on of the more European style of heating system is that if you have a two zone system, as in one passive thermostat to control upstairs and another for downstairs, then you’ll run into trouble as you’ll need two thermostats, presuming you can find the power for the second one.
And here is where the issues arise. The Nest thermostat can use motion detectors to tell when people are in the house. When it detects no one, it turns the heat off to save energy. It uses the outside air temperature and other parameters to determine how long it will take to heat the house to the desired, or required setting, when you either ask for it or schedule it.
This is all very clever and can indeed help you to see not only your real usage, as opposed to what you think you are using, and also eliminates waste and necessary operation. The control box that comes with the thermostat has a handy button on for instant heat if you want a quick blast or just allow manual control.
However, in many US houses, the water heating system is entirely separate from the climate system, as there are often air conditioners and heaters wrapped up into one. Now, in most European style systems, and most Irish ones too, the water is heated and stored in a copper tank by the same system as supplies hot water to the radiators for climate control. Over recent warm weeks, we have had the thermostat set to 18c, as there was no need for the radiators to be heated. However, with a young family there is the daily requirement for hot water for showers in the morning. This was easily accomplished with the old system by simply turning down the thermostats and setting the timer to have the heat come on from 06:00 to 07:00 every morning to ensure piping hot water for three or four showers. Not so with the Nest.
Even though the Nest has a schedule function, it is set primarily by temperature level, and time. So for example, the only way to achieve the same effect as that described above was to physically turn off all the radiators at their shut-off valves and then create a Nest schedule for 25c at 06:00 every morning, returning to the nominal 18c at 07:00. There is no way to simply programme it to have the heat simply turn on for one hour at 06:00 every morning.
These small niggles add up to a different way of operating that simply reflects the fact that these technologies were developed for a different market and have yet to be updated sufficiently for this one.
The other item reviewed was the Nest Protect active smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detector. This device looks like the thermostat controller and has the characteristic Nest ring in the centre which functions as a warming light and a night light. The night light uses a motion and light sensor to know when it is dark, and someone goes past. It then gently, but swiftly brings up a light to aid your safe passage.
With a 5 year battery, the device also connects into your Wi-Fi to pull in external information and allow it to convey reports on its operation and the parameters it measures. However, the party trick of Protect sensor is the fact that it uses a voice warning when dangerous levels of smoke or CO are detected. It not only knows which room it is in, it tells you which type of alert is active, which is critical in the case of carbon monoxide, as it is colourless and odourless.
The Nest system is a worthy step in for built in intelligence and home automation, as the thermostat in particular builds a picture of activity and requirements and learns how best to accomplish that with minimal resources. However, the system needs a few tweaks for the Irish market certainly, before it can deliver its full potential to users here.
The Nest Thermostat is available in retailers such as Harvey Norman, or direct from nest.com. It is priced at €229, while the Protect detector and alarm is €109.