Nest Thermostat, Data Driven for Your Pleasure and Green Health

As Deano and others might say Baby, It’s Cold Outside. And, heating costs are no joke. Neither is about $250 for a thermostat. Nonetheless, data and networks are changing the way we manage heating. As Wired reports, Tony Faddell, founder of Nest Labs makes this compelling point:

Untold tons of carbon were being pumped into the air, with people losing billions of dollars in energy costs, all because there was no easy, automatic way to control the temperature. But what if you could apply all the skills and brilliance of Silicon Valley to produce a thermostat that was smart, thrifty and so delightful that saving energy was as much fun as shuffling an iTunes playlist?

So far, you may be thinking that programmable thermostats are old hat. They are and may not have worked as well as hoped given that the Times reports “Two years ago, the federal government eliminated the entire programmable thermostat category from its Energy Star program.” Yet, there is something different here. Improved, networked climate control is not your father’s Oldsmobile. It sounds crazy, but the pre-orders sold out and demand is high. Others are in the game as well. Some require more tech savvy to install. Regardless the idea is that data and networks will allow one to manage energy costs well.

The Nest seems to be the leader for easy use and install. The Times explains that the design is great but then the iPod designer would have to do that, right? The best part for me is that the Nest uses Wi-Fi which means software updates, programming from the Web or an App, and it learns.

Learns? Yes, learns. The system tells users how much time it will take to raise a house’s temperature (which stops the habit of cranking heat to get to a lower temperature), notes manual adjustments for home, midday, away, etc. to start to offer an automatic cycle attuned to habits. Motion sensors help set basic overrides for heating and cooling to take care times when no one is home. In a nod to behaviorial economics and some things that I think Ryan Calo has been considering, the Times explains that “Nest says that turning down your thermostat by even a single degree can save you 5 percent in energy. To that end, it offers a little motivational logo: a green leaf. It glows brighter as you turn the ring beyond your standard comfort zone. As a positive-reinforcement technique, it’s a lot more effective than an exhortation from Jimmy Carter to put on a sweater.”

I always feel a little sad when reminded of President Carter’s attempt to address the energy crisis of the 1970s. It seems to flow from a view of WWII America when people buckled down for the greater good, but that had perhaps faded years before his plea. Still, if we have learned that other approaches can aid better judgment and action, maybe we will turn those thermostats to 68 and wear that sweater as the then President asked us to do.

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4 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    If people turn down their thermostats because of the glowing of a green leaf, is that the same as their doing so because of concern for the rest of society? From your nostalgia for Carter’s plea, I get the sense that maybe you don’t think it’s the same (I don’t either). BTW here in Japan, people adjust their thermostats for the greater good even without any green leaves; that’s why, e.g., the feared post-Fukushima blackouts and brownouts never happened in Tokyo this summer. So maybe we should recognize that these tech “nudges” aren’t really solutions, but just short-term kludges, and that we should be channeling more of our innovative efforts into rebuilding a sense of solidarity and mutual concern in American society. Merry Christmas.

  2. Ken Rhodes says:

    AJ, I totally agree with you … but …

    I also recognize that many people require some sort of external stimulus to help them with their own behavior modification. Their motive may be pure, but if they have bad habits they might still need some assistance (no matter how silly) to help them achieve their good intentions.

  3. Chris says:

    Here’s another way to do it..
    http://arduino.cc -or one of the many improvements like the seeeduino @ http://seeedstudio.com You’ll also need a way of controlling it – like an
    “Ethernet shield”, at least one “DHT11” temp/humidity sensor and
    as many reed relays as you have things to control. Maybe $20-30 more if you want a snazzy touch screen to light up your hallway.
    Cost can be well under $100, or much less. if you control it via a small web server.
    There are tutorials on the net. Here’s an interesting project http://diy-zoning.sourceforge.net/

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Ken, thanks for your comment, and I don’t deny your point — I’m not proposing an either/or choice for policy. Rather, my comment was in the spirit that emphasizing tech isn’t sufficient, in some societies isn’t even necessary, and that while a focus on tech may help to relieve some symptoms of our societal ills, we should put even more emphasis on addressing the causes.