Smart thermostats - worth it or not?
June 17, 2017 2:42 PM   Subscribe

We're doing some home renovations which include replacing the central heating boiler. Partner is set on getting a smart thermostat, like Nest or Hive. I'm unconvinced as I've read that there's been at least one big glitch with Nest's firmware, and I'm not sure I trust a 'learning' system not to decide to turn off the heating just because we haven't walked past the sensor for a while. What are your experiences with smart thermostats, and would you recommend we get one? We are in the UK.

The house has already been set up into 4 zones (two separate areas downstairs, the upstairs, and hot water as a zone by itself). Partner likes the idea that smart thermostats learn your habits - a big selling point of these systems is that they can learn when you're not in and turn off the heating. However my partner's retired mother lives with us, so I don't see this as a huge advantage for us as our house isn't empty that often. (One of those two downstairs zones is her living area).

I've read some online comments about a glitch in Nest's firmware in 2016 that left some users without working systems, and I am concerned about having a heating system that's dependent on the wifi working. Also I don't know anyone who's actually using a smart thermostat, and neither does our architect. So I'm interested in hearing people's experiences with Nest, Hive, Honeywell or similar systems - are they brilliantly simple and efficient, or glitchy and unreliable?
posted by meronym to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've been using a Nest between two houses for about 4 years total. Neither setup was zoned so I can't speak to that. If your WiFi goes down the Nest works like a normal thermostat, you just can't connect to it via your phone or computer. I haven't had any issues with it not working or anything like that.

As for the "learning" It was nice to not have to program it initially as it would just pickup our habits as we adjusted it the first few days we used it, and then again in our new home, but it isn't particularly compelling. I would definitely categorize it as simple and efficient rather than glitchy and unreliable.

A big caveat for you, as you have four zones, is that you will need a Nest for each zone, although I'm not sure the Nest handles a hot water heater "zone" so you'd likely need something else for that. Still, three Nests is a significant investment into something you're not particularly sold on. I'd try to talk your husband into getting WiFi thermostats, sure, but don't bother getting a Nest for its "learning" potential.
posted by sixfootaxolotl at 3:14 PM on June 17, 2017

I was never particularly interested in a smart thermostat until I moved into a house that had Nest pre-installed, and I've been really surprised at how much I like it. We've put the thermostat on a schedule rather than letting it learn our habits; I work from home, and was constantly walking past it during the day when I didn't actually want it on. I think my favourite feature is being able to turn up the heat with my cellphone before I get home and being able to come home to a toasty house, but I live in a very cold climate. I haven't found it to be glitchy at all, and using it is pretty intuitive.
posted by frau_grubach at 3:29 PM on June 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

We have 5 Nests; 4 of them we bought basically as soon as they came out, and then the 5th this spring when we added a zone to our heating. We have a bunch of zones (3 or 4 in the main house and one in the separate apartment). The newer Nests are nicer than the originals.

One of the reasons we bought the Nests was that we wanted to put one in the apartment so we could set a max temperature (about 24C--our previous renters would set the temp for like 30C) for the apartment.

We like them, they work well. They don't integrate with other technologies we have (we're big apple users), and I find google kind of creepy. Probably if we had to do it over again we would buy some other fancy learning thermostat that works with apple. On the other hand, the learning stuff works well.

(it's also awesome to be able to set the temperature to away (e.g., 10C) when you go on a trip, and then remotely, like in an airport, turn on the heat so that it's not so cold when you get home. This is a big deal in Alaska.)
posted by leahwrenn at 3:51 PM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a Nest. Just turn off the learning stuff and use it as a programmable thermostat with a really good UI and an app you can use to program or turn it on or off remotely. I do have the "turn off if you think no-one is home" feature turned on, and it's useful on weekends when the heating is on all day but we often go out during the day and I don't always remember to turn it off manually. We also have the Nest smoke alarms which use their motion detection to inform the thermostat whether anyone's home, which is handy if eg you're upstairs and not walking past the thermostat.

Never had a glitch except the odd occasion where it couldn't connect to WiFi because our Virgin Media router was really old. That just meant I couldn't program it remotely because it wasn't connecting to the Internet. It still functioned fine.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:10 PM on June 17, 2017

Wifi programmable thermostat was amazing.for reasons above. No need to pay for the Nest unless you like the look.
posted by sandmanwv at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Most experts I speak with about hot water heating systems (your boiler system is hot water heat, correct?) is that they are most efficient when kept at one steady temp. The energy to re-heat the systems water is greater than the energy saved when at a few hours at a few degrees colder.

Set each zone at an appropriate temp for that part of the house and don't mess around with a Nest or even an adjustable thermostat.

I guess if your wishes are simply comfort that's one thing, but the Nest probably won't save you any energy and those hours-long lags in heating the system up and down won't give very accurate temp data anyway.
posted by littlewater at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2017

I had a Nest for a year and then sold it on Ebay. Six months in the Nest's baseplate went bad, they replaced it for free.

A cheap thermostat does a really good job of keeping your house the proper temperature.

If you want something fancier just get one of the wifi programmable thermostats.
posted by gregr at 4:19 PM on June 17, 2017

I adore my Nest! I've had it for years, first or second generation. It has definitely saved us a bunch of heating and cooling costs -- paid for itself after around 28 months and I quit keeping track -- but my 100% favorite thing is being able to grab my phone and turn up the heat in the winter or the A/C in the summer when I'm sleeping and it's uncomfortable. I'm a work-at-home mom but we use the "away" feature more than you'd think when I go out for four or five hours. You can set a top and bottom temperature for "away" so that your house doesn't get too hot or too cold. When my internet goes out, yeah, I can't use my phone to set the thermostat, but I can still use it like a regular thermostat and it remembers its regular programming and top and bottom temperatures -- it doesn't just turn off. I actually installed it myself and I'm not handy, it's dead easy.

My other favorite thing is setting it for away when we're on vacation and then on the way home, when we land at the airport or we make our usual gas-station stop when we get off the freeway, we use our phones to wake it up so we walk into a nice warm or nice cool house.

In the winter I let it go down to 55 at night because I LOVE to sleep cold, and then it turns itself on about 20 minutes before people start getting out of bed, so the house is warmed back up by the time we're moving around. So great! I do like the "learning" function -- I set it with programmed times but then I let it "learn" on top of those, so it learns that on Wednesday we tend to sleep a little later or on Mondays we're often out in the afternoon and adjusts for that. I also have it set to "cheat" my temperature setting up or down a bit ... so if I have the A/C set at 73, it'll see if it can go to 74 without me complaining. That saves a lot of energy over time. If I complain it's like "Oh, okay, 73 it is."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:59 PM on June 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

We installed an Ecobee3 this winter, and I've been singing it's praises to anyone willing to hear about a thermostat. I researched smart thermostats forever before pulling the trigger on the ecobee, and I was never sold on the "smart" aspect of them. We have small children so someone is usually home, but not necessarily moving around in the room with the thermostat. My favorite part about the ecobee is its intuitive app. I can control all of the thermostats in the house from my phone from anywhere. If it turns out we'll be away for most of a day, I can easily dial the heat down and then have it kick back on a a little while before we get home. I can program vacations while in the car or airport so it's one less thing to remember while we're scrambling to leave. I can adjust the temp up or down one degree while in bed. My love for this thermostat runs unnaturally deep.
Although I've turned off its person sensing capabilities, it comes with satellite sensors that run on a watch battery and can sit on a shelf to monitor the temperature in a smaller space within a zone. For example, my daughter's room is the coolest one upstairs, so at night, the thermostat regulates the temp for the upstairs zone base on the reading in her room. LOVE.
posted by defreckled at 5:54 PM on June 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a Nest and I love it. I also have the Nest smoke alarm. A++ would buy again.

I can turn the air/heat up or down before I get home and I can super easily program it. None of that stupid, endlessly annoying tap-tap-tap bullshit you have with regular programmable thermostats. It's nice to just have the thing WORK.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:55 PM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have had a 2nd gen Nest since 2013? When we got it we liked it for a while, then kind of regretted it. They used to have very bad algorithms for handling 2-stage heating systems, but that's fixed now. (All their engineers lived in California and didn't know what heat was for. Wonder if that's why they tried repeatedly to hire me!) There have been a few firmware versions that have made the WiFi flaky, and I can also confirm the Nest had a firmware glitch some time ago that caused very incorrect operation (system turned on and off every couple of minutes). It didn't cause any permanent harm for us but definitely was annoying.

That said, they do seem to have it working reasonably smoothly now and assuming they don't go and break things you should be happy with it. I got one for my parents about a year ago, and they've had no problems.
posted by doomsey at 6:52 PM on June 17, 2017

You know how sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and your sweating and you need to turn the air down but you don't want to get out of bed and parade downstairs to do it?
With the Nest you roll over, grab your phone, and turn on the airs

Our last house had two Nest thermostats and two smoke alarms and I miss them dearly. We are going to install them into the new house as soon as possible.
posted by teleri025 at 7:25 PM on June 17, 2017

Nest says you will need a separate Nest for each zone.

You really need advice from people that have done this with hot water heat systems with zones. Most US people have forced air which is very different.
I think it will be complicated, frustrating, expensive to install and probably lead to higher heating costs since it won't choose to keep a constant temp which is how a boiler is most efficient.
posted by littlewater at 8:31 PM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

UK Nest user here - installation done last year. First on installation: you will see some footage online of people self installing these systems. Here in the UK - with combined heating and HW systems - the whole process is a lot more complex than it seems to be in maybe the US - and I would say that getting an installer is going to be essential. These are the people who you should contact and ask questions of before going ahead. You should be able to find a local installer from the Nest site. Don't assume that any heating specialist will know about these systems - you need people who know both heating and IT.

I've found the product to be well designed and reliable: a pleasure to use. I don't value the smart learning thing very much - but I do like being able to set and adjust a schedule with ease - and turn on/off remotely. This is particularly the case when it comes to cold days in summer or warm ones in winter - no need to have a different schedule for special days as the system just adjusts throughout the year - and takes the outside temperature into account. In the end this can save both the hassle of adjusting the system to make things comfortable - and the extra energy costs that can be implied.

We have 2 zones but only 1 Nest. The second zone uses TRVs with digital timers to open or close the valves in the evening - and otherwise just picks up the heat that the Nest is or is not providing. You could have multiple Nests - but that does indeed get both expensive and confusing.

Having a well designed product like a Nest, does not mean that your Wifi will be perfect or that your underling heating system will not give you problems, of course.

If you view the product purely in terms of money saving - I am not sure that it makes much difference. It depends on how good your existing thermostat is and how rigorous you are at adjusting it. And perhaps there are steps other than installing a smart thermostat that will give you a much better ROI? But the system wins out in terms of convenience, programmability and comfort.
posted by rongorongo at 1:49 AM on June 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am in the UK and have a Nest. It copes fine with hot water heating systems.

I love it. I very rarely have to fiddle with it at all. It knows when I'm coming home (because it's tied to my Android phone) so it does its best to have the house warm for me when I get back. It very occasionally turns the heating off when I'm in, but I can turn it right on again with my phone (or I don't even notice because the brick house holds the heat so well). I like that it knows how long the house will take to get up to temperature, so it can come on 20 minutes before I get home some days and an hour before on colder days.

I'd like it even more if I had multiple zones so I could keep the upstairs cooler than downstairs during the day in the winter.

Just the convenience is worth it, never mind the energy savings.
posted by emilyw at 5:57 AM on June 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a nest that experienced that bug, but aside from that it has been great. remote control has been nice, learning has definitely saved us money. get the latest generation and don't get a refurb would be my advice. their support has gotten MUCH better.
posted by evilmonk at 12:40 PM on June 18, 2017

I found the learning stuff on the Nest to be annoying in practice and turned it off. What I like is the simple UI and the ability to work it with my phone, whether upstairs or miles from home.
posted by w0mbat at 5:07 PM on June 18, 2017

We love our Nest. I like that I don't have to remember to fiddle with it when my work schedule changes from four 10s to five 8s in the winter or on a new job site.
posted by teslacoilswoah at 7:26 PM on June 18, 2017

I have a Nest and think it's a terrible product. There have been several crippling firmware bugs over the years, including at least one disastrous one that left people's houses cold because the thermostat was completely dead. You had to take it off the wall and charge it externally. The learning stuff does not work very well and common advice is to turn it off entirely, particularly if (as you say) someone's home all the time. The UI is pretty good but they've changed it a few times over the years and it's quite frustrating to have to figure out, for instance, that "away mode" has been renamed "eco mode" for some reason.

I also have a Carrier MyInfinity wifi thermostat, something even more expensive than the Nest that is necessary to drive the Carrier furnace/AC. The UI is terrible, but it's better than the 20+ year old programmable thermostats. And it works simply and reliably. It made me appreciate that all I really want in a thermostat is one with some sort of Internet interface so I can program and manage it from an external app instead of on the device itself.

There are many cheap wifi thermostats that get the job done well. Stick with those.
posted by Nelson at 7:47 AM on June 19, 2017

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