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Reinventing the Thermostat

Two former Apple executives develop a $250 thermostat that incorporates Apple-like design and ease of use

Posted on Oct 26 2011 by Richard Defendorf

It might seem odd that two former Apple executives who helped lead development of the iPod and iPhone would, upon venturing out on their own, choose to focus on developing a better thermostat. On the other hand, their thermostat – the Nest Learning Thermosat – incorporates a lot the features that Apple’s fan favorites do, including user friendliness; slick, updateable software; modest installation requirements; easy operating instructions; and a simple overall design.

The product was Tony Fadell's idea. In 2009, Fadell discussed it with engineering expert Matt Rogers. By May 2010, Fadell and Rogers, who both had extensive product-development experience at Apple, had co-founded Nest Labs, based in Palo Alto, California, and focused their attention on making the thermostat as nifty a consumer product as a thermostat can be.

“I loved my job at Apple, and had a great team,” Rogers told the New York Times. “But in essence, we were building toys. At Nest, you can build a product that could have a huge impact on a big problem.”

Teaching a new fixture new tricks
The problem Rogers refers to is, of course, excessive energy use, and the potential positive impact of the Nest Learning Thermostat, which can be ordered for $250 through the company and Best Buy and will begin shipping next month, is tied entirely to how it might help the occupants of a home operate their HVAC system as efficiently and easily as possible.

Many thermostats on the market feature touch screens that offer homeowners plenty of programming options pegged to time and temperature, and many are remotely controllable via computer or smartphone. The Nest thermostat gives users the option to not program the device at all – or at least not in the usual fashion. Rather, as users turn Nest’s simple, circular dial to set the temperature to their liking as each day progresses, the device “learns” the settings. After a week, the thermostat, which also includes a motion sensor that detects when the house is unoccupied, has stored enough data to keep replicating the first week’s operating schedule, which remains constant until the occupants alter the schedule to accommodate a sudden weather change or a change in season.

Nest also indicates, with a green leaf that appears on the dial, when a thermostat adjustment will save energy: lowering the temperature one degree, Nest’s developers say, can reduce energy use about 5%. The company estimates that heeding Nest’s energy-saving indicator and operating an HVAC system on a set schedule can reduce an annual energy bill of $2,200 by about $173 over 12 months.

Seeking favor with consumers
There’s evidence that many consumers are not motivated to diligently track home energy use, no matter how user-friendly the monitoring gadget or detailed its tracking – though the consumers who do use these devices tend to see significant savings. The Nest thermostat requires relatively little sustained attention. The trick will be to convince prospective customers that it is worth spending the $250 on a Nest thermostat when competing devices can be had for half that. Nest Labs is aiming its thermostat at customers who like stylish products – even if it’s a thermostat – and want something that is intuitive, easy to operate, and does most of the learning for them.

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Image Credits:

  1. Nest Labs (images 1 and 2), Honeywell (image 3), 3M (image 4)

Oct 26, 2011 4:43 AM ET

This is interesting
by Martin Holladay

In an article I wrote for the October 2003 issue of Energy Design Update, I included the following comment on difficulties encountered by developers of programmable thermostats: "Everyone recognizes that a better solution would be the development of a programmable thermostat so user-friendly that homeowners don’t recoil from the prospect of learning how it works. It remains to be seen, however, whether such a device can be invented."

Perhaps such a device has finally been invented -- we'll see.

Oct 26, 2011 9:46 AM ET

Energy Savings
by Doug McEvers

Predicting energy savings for a programmable thermostat is very difficult. The energy savings from thermostat setbacks is real but is only the difference in the Delta T for that time period versus a steady state temperature.

Oct 26, 2011 9:56 AM ET

Interesting, but...
by Armando Cobo

Interesting development and I'm all for educating the public, but I wonder if this thermostat can operate the ventilation and humidity of the equipment as well, like an IAQ thermostat. As we all know, it's not only about energy efficiency.

Oct 26, 2011 10:16 AM ET

Edited Oct 26, 2011 10:19 AM ET.

Good point Armando
by Doug McEvers

You are right about having the ability to control whole house systems with one control. I would not be without a programmable thermostat, once programmed there is nothing more to do and they are easily overridden when going away.

Very energy efficient homes will benefit less from a programmable thermostat as they lose or gain heat much more slowly than their business as usual counterparts.

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