The Nest thermostat is a test case for the proposition that better consumer products can save the world. It is indeed an excellent consumer product, but the early results on world-saving are inconclusive.
Most programmable thermostats are clunky at best, and their user interfaces are about as intuitive (and technologically advanced) as the clock on a VCR. The Nest, conceived, constructed, and very cleverly marketed by a former Apple design engineer, was supposed to bring some much needed West Coast design mojo to this crucial but unexciting appliance. Sounds good! I got mine in May, and the installation and wiring were simple enough. It took a little while to figure out how to navigate the physical interface, which involves twisting and clicking an exterior ring—not the easiest method by which to enter my WiFi password—but things got easier from there. Twist left, the temperature goes down, twist right, the temperature goes up. Click the whole thing like a mouse and you get a menu of options—and once the WiFi is up and running you can do most of the serious programming by way of an elegant Web interface.
Thermostats don’t have to make a lot of choices. Turn on the heat, turn off the heat, turn on the AC, turn off the AC. That’s it. The environmental argument is that the motion-detector equipped Nest will “learn” how to make those decisions at the optimal intersection of comfort and efficiency. I set it up and let it go, per the instructions, but alas—as Brooklyn entered yet another record-breaking summer heat wave—I could detect no particular logic to its approach. Sometimes the apartment was too cool, sometimes too hot. Since adjusting things manually was
easy enough, I ended up treating the Nest like any other programmable thermostat: One temperature by day, another by night, and cranking it up or down as comfort and eco-guilt demanded.
The Nest is excellent in other interesting ways nonetheless. The immediate thrill of the Nest is that you can control it from anywhere. I did a lot of traveling this summer, and it was satisfying to remotely fire up the AC as soon as I hit the tarmac, both because I like having yet another gadget to fool around and because it is inarguably excellent to have a non-scorching apartment waiting for me at the end of a long trip.
The true world-saving features of the Nest are psychological, though. First there’s the nudge factor: When you set it within certain energy-saving parameters, Nest displays a little leaf, a pat on the back not unlike that delivered by the “energy monitor” on the Toyota Prius. There’s no denying it: I like to see the leaf. The Nest also emails me regular reports on my energy usage. Some months I do well, some months I don’t. My guilt varies accordingly.
Then there’s the larger, slightly weirder psychology of having a thermostat that’s fancy enough to play a non-trivial role in my life: As I’m turning on the air conditioner from the airport, I’m forced to reflect not just on the fact that I’m flying too much, which is probably the worst thing a person can do for the environment, but also using too much air conditioning—a close second in terms of generating a massive carbon footprint. An irony of the consumer world is that now you can spend a lot of money on products that remind you what a terrible person you are for consuming so much.
That said, being reminded to consume less is certainly better than being reminded to consume more. And I’ve become very fond of my Nest. Move a hand past the motion-sensor and it comes aglow with a lovely temperature display: red if it’s heating, blue if it’s cooling. Sometimes at night I’ll walk by and wave at it just for the little burst of color.