Nest’s elegant learning thermostat — but is it transactive?

Lynne Kiesling

A team of highly skilled and design-savvy engineers have revealed Nest, an elegant, well-designed thermostat that can learn your preferred settings, analyze your data to spot energy-saving and money-saving opportunities, and look lovely on your wall. Earth2Tech has a review article on Nest, as does Greentech Enterprise. This summary description, from the Earth2Tech article, indicates why this device has strong potential:

The Nest thermostat, on the other hand, is supposed to learn your energy consumption behavior and program itself, and then automatically help you save energy in a convenient way. Once installed, the thermostat takes about a week of hardcore learning to recognize the standard way you heat or cool your home, and then recommends settings that are slightly more efficient than what you already do. It also automatically turns down the thermostat at times that are convenient to you. The device also continues to do lighter learning of your behavior via pattern recognition and your manual interaction with it, throughout the life of the device. …

The Nest thermostat has five sensors — temperature, humidity, light and two activity sensors — and the activity sensors can notify the device to turn down the heating and cooling when no one is in the house.

The Nest thermostat also has a feature called “time to temperature,” which shows the home owner how long it will take to heat or cool the home.

I love the idea of this “time to temperature”, because most people don’t realize how large an effect the thermal mass of the home has on energy use, and how pre-cooling and pre-heating before a high-price period can save both money and energy.

Nest also offers a website with more granular data, remote adjustment capabilities (and I expect that those adjustments can be automated, although the article doesn’t specify), and money-saving energy-saving suggestions.

But even more importantly, Nest comes equipped with a Zigbee chip and wi-fi, so it will be a discoverable device on your home network, and able to communicate with a digital meter and other digital devices in the home. It sounds like it has enough intelligence in it to be extensible over time to be a portal for automating the behavior of smart digital devices in the home … and it can be transactive, and consequently make the home transactive and the homeowner capable of automating the responses of a wide range of smart devices in the home to respond autonomously to price signals. If a grid is not transactive it’s not a smart grid, and Nest looks like it will be a step in that direction. The other necessary condition for a smart grid is retail choice and the customer being able to choose dynamic pricing that Nest can automate. Without retail choice and dynamic pricing, the smart grid is not smart.

A final interesting note about Nest is its path to market: rather than going the mass utility deployment route, Nest is going direct to consumer, hurrah!

However, Nest is one of the only companies that is directly targeting consumers for its thermostat. Nest plans to sell its thermostat at Best Buy, via building specialty channels, and through its website. Fadell tells me the company wants to “connect with the iPhone generation where it shops.”

I’ll be watching this development with great interest.

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11 thoughts on “Nest’s elegant learning thermostat — but is it transactive?

  1. A very cool device. But it better save you a LOT of money given that BestBuy wants $250 for one of these. Can a thermostat be an object of conspicuous consumption for the Greener-than-thou set? Time will tell.

  2. I guess I’ll have to wait for the version that can manage multiple zones and deal with control of multi-stage heat pumps and add-on heat pump systems.

  3. Ed, judging from a comment on one of the Nest videos on Youtube, I think their idea is one thermostat per zone. (Eek, I was idly contemplating a purchase but just realized that that means $500 to me since our home has separate heating/cooling systems for the front and back side of the house.)

    If it could shave 10 percent of my power bills June-August and December-February, maybe that is a five or six year payback period.

    I wonder if the software updates, so it can get better over time?

  4. OMDB. We put those things in our houses and the Federal Government will be running our thermostats and turning off our lights.

  5. Michael, don’t forget your history of technology: Edison’s electric lighting was the iPod of the 1880s for New York’s high society, and they paid a pretty penny for it. That’s how new technology adoption occurs, and it’s a good thing — it’s innovation and product differentiation that the high-income/intense preferences folks guinea pig for the rest of us, and we are all better off for it, when we let it happen, which we haven’t done in this industry.

    Fat Man, why not focus your efforts instead on ensuring that customer data is the property of the individual, and that the individual must give consent to parties who want to use or share it … including the utility? And last time I checked, unless you live in a muni service territory, the regulated utility is not “the Federal Government”. Either that, or you need to signal your sarcasm better so simpletons like me can see it …

  6. Mike,

    My main system is a 4 zone system with separately controllable on-off cycling, served by an add-on heat pump system with a two stage compressor and a condensing gas furnace with variable input and fan speeds.. My second floor system is a single zone system served by a two stage heat pump. That would require 5 thermostats, assuming that they could effectively control the two stage heat pumps and the gas furnace switchover.

    My thermostats control system capacity to achieve the desired humidity conditions in the conditioned spaces. They lack the capability for remote control and responsive learning. However, the newer versions available from the manufacturer offer the remote control capability over the internet. I question how much advantage the responsive learning capabilities would provide versus the systems I use now. I have no interest in giving someone else the ability to alter the conditions in our conditioned spaces, unless it is done based on a set of decision rules we have specified and provides the opportunity for significant savings in operaitng costs relative to the resulting inconveniences.

  7. The WSJ has a review of the Nest thermostat today by a writer who had one installed at home. She liked it a lot, but more or less agrees that it isn’t going to save money for most people. (That is okay, like Lynne suggests, since the richer energy geeks of the world can go first, help fund continued development, and if it succeeds well enough then like the iPod the price will fall and the capabilities increase over time.)

    The review did answer a question I had, the thermostat is capable of downloading and updating its software.

    (So yes 1984 fans, if the government takes over Nest then one day Big Brother could be watching you via your thermostat, or at least sensing whether you have walked by your thermostat recently.)

  8. Dear Lynne: If it were just AEP and me, I wouldn’t worry about a thing. I spent 35 years practicing law and I know where the Federal court is and the State, and Municipal Courts, and I know the jurisdictional limits of each of them.

    The problem here is that you are a good and nice person who thinks that everybody in the government is like you. That their motives are pure, and they play by the rules. I, unfortunately, am saddled with the knowledge that they are $o8s and their mothers. In particular, the folks who are now running the Federal government are what we, in flyover country, call watermelons. Green on the outside, and red on the inside. And many of them are from your hometown.

    Underneath their pronouncements about saving the planet, and giving peace and justice to everyone, (blather for the rubes) lives their raw red beating hearts that are motivated solely by their will to power. Anyone who can keep a straight face and tell you that the Federal government has the power to order you to buy insurance, or those hideous light-bulbs, laughs at the Constitution and the history of the USA.

    Their ultimate goal is a world in which they are the philosopher kings, and we are the plebes. They believe that their right and duty is to order the most minute details of our lives. In that world, they will attend glittering parties in penthouse apartments, travel by Gulfstream, and eat natural organic food prepared by french chefs, and we will walk, and when their limousines drive by we will scatter away like so many little birds, remove our cloth caps, and bow toward them as we should to our betters.

    This is not a partisan story. The other team were the ones who imposed the light bulb ban. They are little better, just slower, more tongue tied, and less facile with the malarkey.

    A smart meter is, to them, not an instrument for making us all equal in a great marketplace. It is another chance for them to control us. “You plebes will get electricity when we think it is in your best interest to get it. Now stop whining about being cold, and put on another sweater.”

    So, I must conclude that a smart meter is a neat idea, but. My electric bill is $200/m a smart meter might save me $50/mo. My freedom is worth more than that, so I must conclude that I will refuse a smart meter, unless I am ordered to use one at the point of a cocked and loaded gun. When they do that, as they most assuredly will, I will use my best efforts to hack and sabotage the thing.

    Are there any conditions under which I would accept a smart meter. Well, restore the Federal government to its constitutional role by shutting down about two thirds of the agencies in Washington, voiding the heinously overreaching laws that have been passed since the Wilson (may his name be blotted out) Administration, return to constitutional money (specie), and close the “entitlement” programs. Then we can talk. But not before then.

  9. Mike,

    Any seven day programmable thermostat has the potential to save the user significant money, assuming that it is actually programmed to allow temperature to drift at night or during periods when the space is not occupied. Such programming can save ~1% per degree Fahrenheit per 8 hour period, simply based on reduced energy consumption, with no contribution from real time pricing.

    The incremental savings possible through automatic response to unscheduled periods when the space is not occupied are likely minimal.

    Fat Man,

    I love sweaters and cords. I look forward to keeping the house cooler (68F day / 55F night) during the winter. I’ll even admit to having started doing that during the “Carter era”. I just never stopped. When we lived in Clumus, Ahia the temperature in the house actually got down to 55F in the early morning hours. I used to think of the rumble of my Lennox pulse combustion furnace at 5:15 am as the sound of us saving money. However, I’m with you. I want to set my own thermostat; and, it’s my business what I set it at.

  10. Ed: You have brought to mind, a Blues standard from the Great American Songbook:

    “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”
    by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins

    There ain’t nothing I can do, or nothing I can say,
    Some folks will criticize me.
    So I’m gonna do just what I want to anyway,
    And don’t care if you all despise me.

    If I should take a notion
    To jump into the ocean,
    It ain’t nobody’s business if I do.

    If I go to church on Sunday
    And I shimmy down on Monday,
    It ain’t nobody’s business if I do.

    * * *

    Sung by luminaries such as Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Lady Day, Dinah Washington, Hank Williams Jr., Freddie King, Mississippi John Hurt, Eric Clapton, Otis Spann, Taj Mahal, and Willie Nelson.

  11. Fat Man,

    I was not familiar with the song, but I agree with the sentiment. :-)

    I am familiar with some, but not all, of the artists your mentioned. However, I associate Hank Williams, Jr. solely with “all his rowdy friends”, just before a football game. I even learned about Pink that way. Regrettably, they’ve both moved on, as have Pat Somerall and John Madden.

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