Smart Thermostats: Better Living, Lower Bills

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By Herndon Hasty (Digital Performance Manager)

My wife and I embarked last year on a renovation project at our house that, amongst other things, getting our home more energy efficient. Just passing it’s 60th year in existence, there were plenty of gaps that needed filling, window glass that needed to be replaced, and insulation that needed power-vacuuming in.

Now, we doubled the size of the house in the process, so the effects we saw on our energy usage were kind of tricky to determine – pro tip: your bills do not go down when you add that much new space.

But from what we could tell, I’m convinced that nothing had the effect that adding Nest thermostats did about a year and a half later.

We first heard about Nest in the kind of nerdy articles we read about home automation: Controlling things in your home via an app, getting appliances to talk to each other, and the most up-to-date ways to both make your home more efficient and confuse your pets. It could act as a first step to making things happen automatically by being the gauge of whether someone was home or not, which could in turn tell the lights to turn off (or on, if you needed to seem like someone was home), the security cameras to start rolling, and even the dryer to toss your clothes around every 15 minutes or so to keep them fresh.

The asides about it managing the temperature in your house to use less electricity seemed cool, but farfetched. We’re conscious of our electricity usage, we do what we can to keep the A/C from coming on when we don’t need it to, surely that’s all it takes, right?

As it turns out, nope. Taking about 20 minutes to add a temperature schedule to three thermostats, and telling them to hang loose whenever we’re out of the house was enough to drop our peak summer electricity bills by 20% in the first month. In boiling-hot Texas, that’s a fair bit of money back in your pocket.

But that’s when the gaming piece of Nest’s equation kicks in. It plays around with temperature levels by a degree or two to save electricity when you might not notice, and alerts you when adding a degree or two could result in big savings by rewarding you with a leaf on the screen. It automatically adjusts for high humidity days. You get a monthly email telling you not just how much electricity you saved, but compares it to everyone around you who’s also using a Nest. The rest of Fort Worth earned an average of eight energy efficient leaves this month? By God, I’m gonna earn ten next month! That’ll show ‘em!

Those triggers were enough to add another 10% after the first month – enough for them to pay for themselves easily in less than two years, and keeping a little more coal soot out of the air in the process.

At $200 – $250 apiece, they can make the most economic sense in places that have really hot summers, or if you have electric A/C and heating units in a more temperate space. If your goal is energy efficiency for efficiency’s sake, of course, it’ll still make a difference, but if you can do so without resorting to adding a semi-permanent Ramen Wednesday to your dinner plans, all the better.

You’ll also need to have them installed. While they do come with instructions, and Google claims that they can be installed by non-electricians in an hour, if you’re like me, I’ll happily tinker with a lot of things but electricity and an HVAC unit are not amongst them. I will, however, make great use of the nifty magnetic phillips + flat head screwdriver that comes with the thermostat.

You may need to poke around for electricians who will install a thermostat that they didn’t sell you, or you can use Amazon Home Services for installation services that are for situations exactly like this.

Once they’re installed, they can be made to communicate with other Nest products, other products specifically built to talk with Nest, or anything that can connect to a service like IFTTT, which can make a lot of things act based on changes seen at another thing, website, or online service.

The energy and money saved by going Nest has inspired us to get solar panels installed this Spring, and the automation we’ve enjoyed is going to extend to the smart plugs and home cameras that are on their way to the house as I type this. So, more adventures in electricity and home automation coming!

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