Tag Archives: Smart Controls

Nest Thermostat Improvements!

Today Nest announced it’s newest version of their programmable thermostat.

I had the incredible luck of buying a Nest “1.0” on the day it was released (10/25/11), *by accident*. My previous thermostat had died the day before and after adding it to our e-recycle box (thermostats have mercury and other materials that need to be correctly handled i.e. not chucked on the top of a landfill where it will slowly seep into the surroundings) I googled for thermostats and the Nest showed up – I read about the features and after some frustrated attempts at their website (“Why does the checkout page keep crashing!?”) I placed an order. Only later did I realize it had been unveiled just hours earlier and all the web was a-twitter about the new product of Tony Fadell, a former Apple designer I admire for taking on a job to more directly work on things that are good for our ecosystem.

Nest Thermostats are a form of smart control that are make it easy and automatic to keep your house comfortable using less. Nest improves efficiency by taking into account furnace types and heat inertia to better time when gas has to get burned; and reduces waste by allowing you to control it remotely and sense when everyone is away.


The little data I have suggests the Nest has reduced the heating natural gas used in my household by about 20% – once I correct for water heating, the only other use of natural gas use at our place, and a series of efficiency upgrades we did shortly after.

Analyzing it from a perspective of “Dollar to % savings”, it has been about 10x as efficient as changing our insulation (a $6000 job that improved our heating efficiency drastically) or the prospect of upgrading our furnace (depending on installation costs, it could be $5000 to replace a 80% efficient furnace with a %97 efficient furnace, without considering a heat pump system for simplicity of the comparison).

  • Nest: $250, for ~20% improvement,
  • Upgrading furnace: $5000 for ~17% improvement,
  • Replacing insulation in attic & crawlspace: $6000 for ~ potential $20%.

The previous thermostat was not optimally programmed to week by week changes, it was a hassle to program anyways, did not modify its own programming based on your real day-to-day behaviors, did not sense when we were out of the house, and did not allow us to control it anywhere via our phones (think of the convenience to turn the heat on from your car as you approach home at the end of a day outside), did not provide nice monthly reports to give you a sense of what’s going on, etc. etc.

I am also glad I got rid of the Honeywell device due to their corporate practices selling weapons worldwide and their ridiculous suing of Nest for patent infringement in -get this- “round thermostat” design and asking you setup questions. Nest is trying to get the USPTO to see the ridiculousness of those patents.

Honeywell sues Nest over ridiculous patents

Further improvements that affect heating efficiency we do or have done include:

  • Replacing some windows for double-paned models (very low savings-per-dollar compared to simply installing cellular curtains)
  • Closing off crawlspace ventilation in the coldest months, reducing air leaks
  • Using electric space heaters in spaces where insta-heat is better than heating a whole house (e.g. when changing babies at 4AM)

I don’t want this post so sound like an ad, but the Nest did save a lot of burnt natural gas for everyone, and saved money for us. Plus, it looks stunningly gorgeous on our wall, and I especially like how the screen fades on and off as I walk by.

Use Less with Smarter Controls

In general, to reduce the footprint of a resource I look at the following strategies:

Smarter control is really a means to reduce demand or increase efficiency, but I like calling it out as it forces me to think of new areas of improvement. Smart controls avoid the use of resources when they are not needed because of real-time environmental conditions, they allow remote or automatic control, give you more fine-grained options on how to use a resource, and can even learn your behaviors and nudge you into less demand. The difference between a control and just a sensor/meter is that it does stuff.

Examples of some controls I have installed:

Gas & Electricity: Nest Programmable Thermostat

Nest Controllable Thermostat

Nest Thermostat

This is the energetic rockstar of my house, and a design beacon for the growing industry of smart controllers. Based on my data, I can attribute an approximate 20% on heating gas savings this last winter to this device alone. It has been the item with the highest energetic ROI-per-dollar in my house since. The Nest thermostat allows me to control my heating remotely via my phone, learns common patterns, turns of unnecessary heating, and nudges my behavior via little ‘green leaf’ icons and monthly points I can accumulate, gamefying my energy conservation. It’s worked so well it will get a bunch of blog posts on its own.
Nest’s website

See the Nest thermostat and reviews on Amazon.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving Outlet

Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving OutletThis smart power strip senses if a ‘master’ outlet is being used, and if not, shuts off the power to most other outlets. I use this strip  to reduce “phantom draw” from peripheral devices around my computer, for example. USB Hubs, speakers, and other accessories are all plugged into the secondary/slave plugs. When I take my laptop away or it is not drawing power from the source, all these devices loose their source power within a few seconds.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Outlet with Timer

This small plug adapter from Belkin has a built-in timer that can be set to 1/2, 3 or 6 hours. Press the button, and the outlet will deliver power for that long. It’s that simple. I use this for:

  • My external monitors. In addition to the power strip above, it just turns all of them off every 3 hours. If I’m in the middle of something I just click them back on. The timer also takes care of external monitors when the computers’ driver for some reason or other forgets putting them to sleep
  • A power strip that feeds to electronics I rarely use but for some reason tend to stay on like printers.
  • Our home theater assembly. After 3 hours, it turns all the gear off (except a network switch and a Roku, which are fanless solid-state devices that draw a few watts combined combined). I also plugged the Xbox is also on a non-timed outlet, for long downloads to continue independently, but the Xbox is pretty good about turning itself off when it should.

Water: Timed/Regulated Watering

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation.

I’m on the fence on this one, but I’ll include it as it touches upon using smarter controls for water conservation.

I am not a fan of using mains water for irrigation and I believe automated timers have done more harm than good in conserving water (I haven’t seen data either way, but it’s a strong hunch), even with the growing popularity of drip irrigation. Anyways, I recently wired some solenoids (water taps that can be controlled via electricity, in this case 24v) on a couple of irrigation lines and hooked them up to a timer device. It stays off and we use it as a manually activated timer on seldom occasions. If I could hook it up to soil humidity sensors I would feel better about leaving them in automatic. I guess this “Smart control” isn’t so smart yet. Maybe it will be an Arduino project for a rainy weekend to improve this. It rains so often here that capturing some of that would make the most sense.

Another example of a smart control for water conservation would be those simple toilet-flushing buttons that give you two options to use more or less water based on what needs to be flushed. It’s simple but I haven’t installed these yet.


Smart controls can help us reduce consumption and increase efficiency. Sometimes they may seem expensive but if you make sure to  keep measuring your gains you may be surprised! There are many other ways to reduce, reuse and conserve resources that don’t require you to buy anything, but these controls are an example of technology playing a good role in helping improve our lives and the planet.