By now, many of you have probably heard of the new, ultra-stylish, self-learning home thermostat from Nest. (If not, here are articles from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal). This product is the newest innovation from Tony Fadell, the so-called father of the iPod. Fadell and the majority of his team come from Apple and bring with them the style and user-experience design that Apple is so famous for. In the team’s own words, they were previously designing “toys,” but have now turned their focus to products that matter.
The Nest thermostat is an intriguing product (watch a short introduction video from Nest). At first glance, it’s already sexier than any other home thermostat on the market. But don’t judge this book by its cover—Nest claims to have brains and a personality, too.
The first thing to point out is that you don’t program the Nest like a traditional programmable thermostat. Once it’s installed, it asks the user some simple questions about where they live and the minimum and maximum temperature range they can withstand. From that point on, users are supposed to treat Nest like a normal thermostat, turning the temperature up or down as they see fit. Nest learns from their habits and, after about a week, builds a schedule based on the observed patterns. Once Nest has a schedule built, a one-time change won’t confuse or mess up the temperature schedule, but change the temperature a few days in a row and Nest will start taking notes.
As with their former employer’s products, Nest designers didn’t stop at flawless functionality. They have built in some very cool features. For example:
- A green leaf appears on the screen when Nest senses that you’re saving energy, based on average energy use calculated by Nest.
- An “Auto-Away” feature senses when no one is at home and will automatically adjust temperatures to save energy.
- An “Energy History” feature tells users how much energy they have used, how much energy they have saved in the past week, and specifically how much they have saved by temperature adjustments or through the Auto-Away feature.
- Nest uses a Wi-Fi connection to keep an eye on current weather conditions.
- Users can communicate with Nest using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Users can log in to change the temperature, view and modify the schedule, and check the weather.
- Nest will automatically light up when it senses a user walking up to it. Light sensors maintain appropriate brightness levels on the Nest’s screen, particularly at night.
Though tech-heads and efficiency wranglers will be enamored with Nest, it’s clearly aimed at a small portion of the market. At $249, it’s not priced for immediate mass-market penetration. Using the Apple comparison again, Nest is counting on the innovators and early adopters to jump on board. Apparently the risk paid off: Nest thermostats are sold out until 2012, although no one has reported the actual sales volume.
As a technophile, I’m very excited about a truly innovative product in an otherwise mundane market. But is Nest really worth the price tag? Does it provide enough value over other programmable and two-way communicating thermostats? I think not having to actually program a thermostat will be value enough to the average home owner, but what about services like EcoFactor? This young company offers a product that communicates with two-way thermostats and, like the Nest, learns about the home. It figures out the thermal characteristics of the house, how it reacts to outdoor weather, and ultimately calculates the most efficient way to heat and cool the home. But EcoFactor requires a monthly subscription and doesn’t offer everything the Nest thermostat can. However, EcoFactor presents a more robust energy management system for the homeowner and incorporates demand-response capabilities.
The bottom line in this discussion is that the Nest thermostat doesn’t really have any directly competitive products (insert another obnoxious Apple reference here). It does things homeowners haven’t seen before, but at a hefty price. It also seems likely that features will be added down the road, such as demand response and more-substantial energy management tools. For now, the residential market will give us a preliminary read on this technology. Homeowners and sales numbers will drive the need for case studies and pilot tests, but the real question is this: can a $249 home thermostat possibly gain enough traction in the marketplace that utilities will start incentivizing them? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.