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Green Building News

Nest Glitch Leaves Some Homeowners Cold

Makers of a web-connected thermostat blame a software update for loss of service to some users

Because Nest thermostats are connected to the internet, they can get software changes automatically. An update in December was apparently the cause of outages affecting some homeowners weeks later.
Image Credit: Frederick Hermann / Creative Commons license / Flickr

The Nest Learning Thermostat lets homeowners control temperatures remotely via an internet connection, the same feature making automatic software updates possible. But an update in December came with a bug that caused some thermostats to malfunction two weeks later, in some cases turning off the heat in the middle of the night.

The New York Times was the first to report the glitch earlier this month, noting that an unknown number of the $249 thermostats went on the fritz. A malfunctioning thermostat could pose serious problems for people who had installed one in a second home where pipes could freeze and burst, The Times noted, or to older or ill people without much tolerance for cold temperatures.

The problem stemmed from a software update that the company pushed out in December. It contained a flaw that didn’t start appearing for another two weeks. The company didn’t say how many users were affected, but said the issue has since been resolved for almost all customers.

Tempers flared, and customers began posting comments to an online forum, complaining about losing heat.

“I guess that there’s some comfort that I’m not the only one with this problem,” one person wrote. “But I’ll be a little bit hysterical — WHAT IS NEST DOING ABOUT IT? It’s the middle of January, and we need heat here in the Northeast. I’ve disconnected from wifi in the hope that there will be enough of a charge to keep the heat going.”

Another wrote on January 7, “I have 2 Nests and they both died! Woke up to a 60 degree house with no way to turn the thermostat up manually. Took 4 calls to customer service with a wait time on HOLD of over 2 HOURS! Some of the worst customer service I have experienced with a tech company. The only answer was to restart the unit! And that didn’t work. I should have gotten a Honeywell!”

Nest posts reset procedure

In a statement posted at its website, Nest said that some thermostats updated to software version 5.1.3 or later “may become unresponsive or may not charge the battery efficiently, causing it to shut down.”

Nest suggested that customers recharge and restart the thermostat. If the thermostat was on but running slowly, or if the thermostat could not be controlled, a simple reboot should do the trick. If the thermostat was off and could not be turned back on, the company outlined a nine-step process to set things right.

Nick Bilton, the Times reporter who initially wrote about the Nest problem, said that it was part of a larger problem in which smart devices go haywire: wireless fobs for cars that can be bypassed by thieves, wristbands that are supposed to keep track of the user’s heart rate but don’t, and malfunctioning touch pads on entry doors.

Bilton said that a clause in the Nest service agreement bars customers from suing the company in the event of a problem. Instead, disputes must go through arbitration.

“So,” he wrote, “if a pipe bursts in your home because the thermostat stopped working, or if your grandmother falls ill because the heat shuts off in the middle of the night and she doesn’t have a micro USB cable, you can’t sue.”

11 Comments

  1. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #1

    At least it didn't auto-upgrade to Windows 10
    :-)

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    For the price of one Nest...
    ...I can buy 10 dumb thermostats that are (apparently) far more dependable.

    I'm really surprised how many Americans have invited this web-connected occupancy sensor and data gatherer -- one with "black box" software -- into their living rooms.

  3. Apollo S | | #3

    Oh it isn't that bad
    I have all 3 generations of Nest thermostats (2 in the office and 1 at home). Recently I added 2 Ecobee3s to the stable. Nest is a goo product. It is only a black box to those not in software development and able to work with Nest APIs.

    That all said, I have removed the Nest and now mostly playing with Ecobee, since I can have additional remote sensors to balance temperature better AND have some other sensors I just use for data collection. Plus HVAC installers seem to like it more.

    Ecobee is just better product at this point.

    Disclaimer: I am a co-founder in a company that works with IoT, indoor presence, indoor GPS, and automation. So I may see some things general public doesn't.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Apollo S
    Apollo,
    You wrote, "It is only a black box to those not in software development."

    Are you referring to Nest empolyees involved in software development or all people involved in software development?

    In other words, are you saying that all Nest software is open-source and transparent to users?

    If so, how many of you software-developer types could spot the glitch that shut off the heat in the homes of Nest owners? If this is all obvious stuff, do you monitor software changes? Did you spot the glitch instantly, even though Nest software developers evidently failed to notice the glitch?

    One thing is sure -- I've learned this fact from talking with Michael Blasnik: the reams of data gathered by Nest are not public. The data are closely held by the company.

  5. Alan B | | #5

    @Dana
    Don't give them any ideas ;)

  6. User avater
    Sean Cotter | | #6

    Love ours...
    Didn't suffer from this issue - if so, we might feel different.

    We have had zero issues. Comfort is certainly improved and we have saved a bit on heating costs as well. It's best benefit is that it learns your comings and goings and adjusts accordingly.

    Looked at ecobee and that looks cool too. Neat really needs to add products and features to the lineup though. Remote sensors, etc.

    Anyone looked at the cent control systems like Keen?

  7. Malcolm Taylor | | #7

    Martin
    Don't worry, you can always escape the gaze or Mordor's eye by getting into your car. Then only Onstar can track you.

  8. James Morgan | | #8

    Last winter was our first
    Last winter was our first with the Nest. With almost exactly the same number of heating degree days over the heating season (2729 vs 2696) our electricity cost was around $220 less, I.e. it pretty much recouped its purchase cost in the first season. I think this was largely due to its better management of the ducted heat pump system resulting in greatly reduced use of the heat strips. Happy to say we were not among those who experienced problems with the recent software glitch.

  9. Apollo S | | #9

    Martin,
    I really hope you

    Martin,

    I really hope you realize how unfortunate your statement like "how many of you software-developer types could spot the glitch that shut off the heat in the homes of Nest owners? " sounds. It is like saying how many of you building science types could prevent some building condition that got widespread because of an unforeseen circumstance.

    Nest failure was the perfect storm of dumb HVAC "brain" interacting with much more powerful "brain" in Nest. There is no such thing as bug-free software, just like building science isn't without failures. Deep details of the issue weren't published, but having seen something like this before, it was likely issue isolated to those without Common wire. Nest tries to charge by scavenging from other power inputs and some HVAC boards cut off the power. Something in charging algorithm set off chain reaction in certain HVAC untis.

    As far as data goes, as I said, you want more visibility into what your smart thermostat does and data it collects, get Ecobee.

    I would be more worried about profile credit card company has built of you.
    Nest... as long as I am not connecting their camera and smoke detector, I am not going to lose sleep over it.

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Apollo
    Apollo,
    I referred to Nest software as "black box" software. You have explained the likely mechanism whereby the Nest algorithm failed to keep the battery on these devices charged. In other words, there is a reason that these things broke. I get that.

    However, to most Nest owners, even owners who are software developers, these devices have "black box" software. That statement isn't intended to impugn the skills of software developers. It simply describes the way that a Nest is different from a Honeywell Round, which I can open up and fiddle with.

  11. Apollo S | | #11

    Martin,
    Nest, Ecobee,

    Martin,
    Nest, Ecobee, Honeywell Round - same stuff, different manufacturer. Only thing that differs are small features and design. All of them have APIs, all the APIs are giving you access to basically the same functionality. All of them susceptible to bugs. It is the price you pay for having a smarter "brain" on top of the HVAC. You can read through developer docs and it is very likely you will come to the same conclusion.

    I completely understand and support why these thermostat makers keep certain or most parts of the system as closed source - end users aren't as smart as they think they are and support costs are very high, because we don't want India answering our calls. But if you ever had to call either Nest or Ecobee for support, you probably discovered how nice and professional their staff is. Go ahead call Honeywell as a regular consumer (not installer/HVAC pro) and see how far you will get.

    Another point to think about in this "debacle" is, before we used to yell in our own heads when things would not work or call and be on hold for hours on the 800 number and give up. Now we take out our frustrations on social media, blogs, comments sections, etc. Products got better, yet consumers got louder and more vitriolic in their "feedback." I sure admit I have fallen into that easy trap, just like probably you have too.

    Now there is always an option to go back to moving to Appalachia and going off the grid. Everything is in your control then. But since I do like the civilization and I do like to tinker, with the side effects of stuff breaking sometimes (often due to my own fault), it is a small price to pay for the incredible progress we have seen just in the last 10 years.

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