I thought I was being clever a few years ago when I installed a programmable thermostat into our house. We’d just moved in and there was a number of issues with the heating system at the time. The biggest problem was the fact that the hot water system just didn’t work at all, and the shower was fed directly from it at the time. This meant that we had to take a number of trips up and down the stairs with boiling water from saucepans or the kettle to have a bath every night. Not ideal when your wife is heavily pregnant.
After calling three heating engineers they all came up with the same solution..
It all needs ripping out mate, new boiler, new everything.
Now, in my heart I’m a bit of a penny-pincher, so I was a bit concerned at the quotes of £2000-3000 when the heating (but not hot water) worked OK. In the end I found an engineer who initially told me he couldn’t do the job. “I’ve retired, sorry”, he said. However, a few minutes later he called back. He changed his mind as knew the estate we lived on and was familiar with the setup in the houses.
The next day he arrived and I got a bit more history about the central heating and hot water system installed here in my home.
Yes, I know I’m going off at a tangent here but believe me, there is a point to all this. See, our house was built in 1975. Inside the boiler there’s a sticker proclaiming “Install date, May 8th, 1975”. It’s a Glow-worm Spacesaver 50 and, technology-wise, it’s like driving around in an old Ford Cortina.
Keeping with the Ford Cortina analogy for a moment, a 2 litre Ford Cortina engine in 1975 had 98 bhp. Now you’ll find a Ford Fiesta 1.4 with around the same bhp. Cars today are far more efficient, and boilers are too, but I sadly couldn’t afford to replace mine.
The guy turned up and, within minutes he’d rewired and replaced the main timer. It seems that the previous owners of our house had been using the immersion for heating water (electrically heating the water instead of via gas) and hadn’t fixed it. He was done and dusted in no time and advised me that the thermostat could probably do with replacing with a new programmable one. To be honest I’d not taken much interest in the thermostat. It’s a simple thing and basically sits on the wall to check how warm your house, or rather the hall in your house, is. If it’s too cold, it’ll turn your heating on. If it’s too hot (and you live in a country that needs it), you’ll get the air-conditioning turned on. The thermostat lets you define what temperature you’d like it to be. Just turn the dial and walk away. Easy enough, and this is what we’d done for years in the previous house too..
So I fitted a programmable thermostat. The idea behind these things is good, and bear with me a little longer while I explain.
Upstairs, in the airing cupboard, there’s a main timer. In my setup this will control when the hot water comes on. If you’ve got a combi-boiler then this will probably heat your water instantly so you may not need it. The timer was replaced by the engineer and I can have hot water and heating coming on and off when I want, but it doesn’t have the granularity of a programmable thermostat. So, what I have instead is the main timer upstairs turning the hot water to “on” once in the morning and again in the evening. That’s enough to let us wash up and have a wash or bath etc. The heating, though, is permenantly set to “on” on the timer upstairs and, instead, it’s controlled by the programmable thermostat downstairs. This gives me that extra layer of functionality, meaning that I can have the heating come on at different times AND at different temperatures on different days.
As an example, my programmable thermostat (above), which was located in the hall, let me turn the heating to 20 degrees C in at 5PM and then down to 17 degrees C overnight. It’d then go back up to 20 degrees C at 7AM for an hour or so, then back down again until 5PM. It means that you’re not fiddling around with the temperature too much, and it adds a layer of intelligence, even if it’s just very basic.
That’s all good, but there’s a few things you don’t get, even with what I considered to be a relatively “advanced” timer. For example, if your shifts change or you come in and out at the weekends, you’ll need to keep faffing with the programming or you’ll be getting in and instantly whacking up the heating to try and warm up.
Meet the Nest thermostat. Nest, as you’ll know, is a company Google purchased for about $3.2 billion.
In the box is the display / thermostat itself, a base, heat link, power cord and plug, Li-ion rechargeable battery, optional trim kit, wall screws, installation guide, warranty and Nest Certified installation card.
For me there was a number of questions and challenges before it was even installed. I’d assumed that it would simply replace my existing thermostat and I could perhaps install it myself. Then I thought more deeply about it and wondered if it would be compatible at all. This is when you begin to realise some of the difficulties of entering this arena. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) is a pretty complicated subject. After years of work on our house I’ve grown familiar with some of the growing pains and problems that the industry has gone through. Old “imperial” measurements have been replaced by metric, and if you swap a radiator in our house you’ll instantly find that the new radiator is either too narrow or too wide for the pipes. Heating systems have evolved too, and the clunky old system in our 1975 house has been succeeded many, many times by much more efficient and modern systems. Add solar panels, warm air heating, back-boilers and even steam heating systems like the one in New York and you start to see some of the difficulties facing a system like this.
Luckily there’s help at hand. You can install the thing yourself, and it replaces your existing thermostat in a lot of cases. The Nest support site is, quite frankly, brilliant. It has installation videos, troubleshooting guides and – before you buy – a compatibility checker.
I took the easier option and had someone install it for me. You can click on the Nest installation page and find a local professional to do this. The prices range from £50 to £125 on top of the £179 for the actual Nest Learning Thermostat itself from Google Play. Yes, that installation cost is quite variable, I agree. The reason for that, as this Nest FAQ explains is that it’s difficult to tell quite how much it’ll be without an engineer looking at your existing setup…
In general, the cost of installation varies based on where you live (usually more expensive in major urban areas), the complexity of your heating system, and your installer’s pricing. In most homes, installing a Nest Learning Thermostat is easy for a Nest Pro Installer.
So, if you live in London and have a complex heating system, expect to pay a bit more. The guy that did ours had to rewire the existing setup a little and placed the “Heat Link” in our airing cupboard.
This thing is little talked about and usually hides away out of sight. In the UK, Ireland, Belgium, france and the Netherlands this is what connects directly into your heating system to click the heat on and off. It also means that the long wire between your airing cupboard / loft and the old thermostat just isn’t needed any more because the new Nest thermostat talks to this Heat Link wirelessly. This is another benefit, because it means that your thermostat no longer has to live in the hall. Who sits in the hall? No-one, that’s who. You can put the Nest in a stand (sold for £29) and it’s powered / charged by your standard microUSB cable. If you spend most of your time in the lounge, stick it in there. It’s a good solution if you don’t currently have a thermostat or if you’re replacing an existing wireless thermostat.
For me, I wanted to replace the thermostat on the wall with this one. Within the box you’ll also find a faceplate, which is great for us Brits as a lot of existing thermostats are rectangular or they leave a messy hole when you remove them. The Nest is a modern circular design made from stainless steel.
It’s a beautiful thing, even though it protrudes a little from the wall. Putting the rear faceplate on will hide your torn wallpaper :)
Why all this fuss though? Why should you spend £179 getting a posh-looking thermostat on your wall? Well, this is where things get clever. In fact, although I went in and programmed it with our required temperatures (just like the older programmable thermostat), you don’t really need to do this. You can simple get it installed and let it “learn”. This is a thermostat with a brain.
Every now and then, mainly due to the design, I started having flash-backs to the “HAL 9000” computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Is it watching you? Is it learning your habits? Where you are? Who you’re with? What you’re saying?
Well yes, some of that is indeed true. It uses something called “Nest Sense” to ensure that it’s not heating an empty home. It also means that you have a much more efficient heating system.
Let’s take, for a moment, my previous setup. I had what I thought was a fairly intelligent system, only heating the house to 20 degrees C when we were due home from work. Trouble is, especially with my wife, she’s in and out of the house at random times and I can be late or early home too. My son is out and various clubs and we’re out at the weekend at all sorts of times. Our old heating system couldn’t deal with this unless we made a point of turning down the heating when we left the house. Sure, you might remember to do that a few times, but do you remember to do it every time you leave the house?
Also, what happens when you come back to the house at a slightly different time? You either have the heating blasting out (heating a completely empty house) or it’s freezing cold and you over-compensate by whacking it up to 25 degrees C or more.
I’m one of those people who likes to know exactly how this happens. The details from Nest are a little vague but it basically relies on a stack of sensors and information provided over the web. Let’s not forget that this thing is connected to the internet via your WiFi. Inside there’s activity sensors with a 150 degree wide-angle view. They’ll see whether there’s any movement in your home. Add to that humidity sensors to ensure that your home isn’t too humid or dry plus three temperature sensors to track how quickly your home changes temperature. Outside weather information is fed from the internet so that the Nest can understand how the outside temperature affects your use.
Clever technology inside will learn just how quickly your house heats up, which helps it better understand how much time is needed to reach a set temperature. It’ll also provide you with an energy report and shows you when you’re saving energy and it’ll build an auto-schedule. This last part takes about a week, so for the first few days you can find yourself fiddling with the Nest, turning the temperature up in the evenings and then perhaps down again just before you go to bed. As the days roll by, Nest will learn all these changes and will copy and enhance this schedule by applying other rules – such as turning off your usual requirement for a toasty warm house when you’re actually miles away in a pub.
Better still, if you’re in the pub and you want to adjust the temperature for any reason, you can use the Nest app (available for iOS and Android) to tweak the temperature up or down. The app, which hooks into your Nest account, lets you adjust your schedule, settings and check the Energy History report I mentioned earlier. You can also log in online if you wish and, with the new “Works With Nest” system, Pandora’s box is opening up with your car or you (via Google Now) telling your heating to come on as you head home.
Yes indeed, you can now talk to your phone and tell it to adjust the heating in your home. There’s other additions too, such as lights that can automatically turn on when Nest sets itself to “Away” mode. These LIFX bulbs will come on and illuminate your home when your Nest thermostat shows that you’re out the house. Again, this is where the power of the “connected home” and the “internet of things” really starts to hit home. It can effectively make it look like you’re at home, even when you’re not. All you need to worry about it leaving the house – no worries about lights being on timers or having to turn down your thermostat. Just get on with your life while your house takes care of itself.
More gadgets and ideas are constantly coming into the Nest offering. The “if this, then that” system will let you select a predefined “recipe” which means that you can set your heating to a certain temperature when you exit a certain geographical area.
Now, to go back to the installation part for a moment, a new thermostat usually means a huge manual, some hard-to-understand setup process and a complex scheduling system. None of that here. If you don’t want to bother setting a schedule then you don’t have to, but if you do it can all be done via an online portal or the Nest app. You can also use the interface on the Nest itself, which I should perhaps introduce… :)
The unit itself is controlled by that gorgeous stainless steel outer ring and you press the whole unit in. It kinda reminds me of the “dice popper” in the way you select items….
You create a Nest account and give the thermostat some essential details. You setup the temperature units you’d like (celcius or fahrenheit) plus the “away temperature” and “safety temperature” which you set to prevent freezing pipes, so if your house drops REALLY cold it’ll kick in. Mine is set to 4 degrees C. You also need to tell the Nest where it’s located – whether in hallway, living room, kitchen, bedroom, dining room etc. It’ll also need to know what heating system you have, so I’ve set mine to “gas” and “radiator”.
All of this is kept secure and the thermostat updates itself automatically over your WiFi, so it never goes out of date.
The system, with the help of your address, also finds out what the weather is like outside. Weather information comes in so that the thermostat can decide whether it’ll need to heat the house a bit more. You also get to lock the thermostat if you don’t want it played with and you can set a schedule.
Now yes, you can let the thermostat build a schedule itself. You don’t need to set a schedule and have it change temperature depending on the time of day, but the ability to do this is still there. You can do this via the quite beautiful and simple interface on the thermostat itself or, if you prefer, online and via the mobile app.
It’s just a matter of choosing the day of the week, the time you’d like the temperature to change and what temperature you’d like it to be. I’ve filmed a hands-on video to show off most of the interface in action so that you can see just how easy it is to do this.
As ours was professionally installed the “Heat Link” which actually does all the “switching” of the heating, was tucked away quite neatly. Here it is..
If you ever have any problems with your thermostat, you can manually turn the heating on and off by pressing the button on the front of the Heat Link. You can also reset the connection between the thermostat and the Heat Link if you need to. Either way, it’s not overly complex even if things break down, which they really won’t.
As you’ll notice, the Nest was installed on the wall in the video. It’ll operate briefly on battery but to be honest you’ll need it plugged in, so the Nest has to be fairly close to a socket of some kind. It’s a standard microUSB connection and you can see the charger sitting inside our coat cupboard which sits behind this thermostat.
As we saw in the video, you can simply adjust the temperature by walking up to the unit and turning that beautiful stainless steel ring. You can, of course, use your phone, tablet or the online portal from anywhere in the world to do this. When you adjust this it’ll help build up a schedule and, using the sensors, it’ll decide whether you’re in the house and whether it should be heating or not. Initially I thought it was using the location of my smartphone (perhaps based on GPS) to decide whether I was in, but it looks like (at present anyway) that it’s motion sensors within the thermostat doing this. You can also set the “Away” mode from your phone and it’ll set to “Home” automatically when you get back.
As well as the schedule, settings and temperature and humidity readings, you can see your energy history, which will detail just how efficient you’ve been. From here you can see when the heating was on and a little summary as to how efficient you were that day. It’ll detail whether the heating was on for longer than usual or less than usual along with information as to why that occurred.
A raft of settings enable you to adjust where the thermostat is installed, your address, and the equipment. You can also add a second thermostat or other Nest equipment. To be honest, although the web portal or mobile apps are the easiest way to setup your Nest in terms of schedule and settings, the interface on the thermostat itself is really easy to use and quick to master. This IS NOT one of your usual “oh my god, I hop I never have to do anything remotely complicated because it’s a nightmare to operate”-style thermostats.
I’ve got to admit, this is an amazing bit of kit and has a huge amount of potential going forwards. Yes, I could be more efficient and eco-friendly if I bought a new boiler, but right now this Nest Thermostat is like an on-board computer for my 1975 Cortina. Imagine taking your Cortina out on the motorway, hitting the accelerator constantly, slamming on the brakes as you come up behind someone then, as you drop back a few yards, you accelerate hard again. The Nest stops all that, introducing a smooth and efficient ride where you only hit the throttle when you need to, and it knows just how long it’ll take to get up to cruising speed, what the road conditions are like, what the weather is like and how well it’s doing.
The Nest is £249 (nest.com/uk) if you want the professional installation (which I’d recommend) or you can buy it alone for as little as £179 from Google.com or your regular DIY places like B&Q, Screwfix etc.
It’s a programmer and thermostat all in one. The Nest will let you change your home temperature, adjust your schedule and view your energy use either on the device itself or anywhere in the world via the app or mobile portal. The auto-schedule mode and the way it magically knows when you’re out, what the outside temperature is and just how long it takes to warm your house up is nothing short of fantastic.
Yes, a new boiler and a whole new set of radiators would make my house more efficient, but even after replacing an existing programmable thermostat, this has made a huge difference to our heating usage and bills. Sure, it’s a bit of a cost up-front, but give it a couple of years and I reckon you’ll make that back.