Saturday, October 12, 2013

Review: Nest Thermostat Self-Installation and First Impressions

Yesterday I installed a Nest Thermostat in my home, all by myself. You can, too. Here's what's involved.

About the Nest Thermostat

If you're not familiar with the Nest, it's a Steve Jobs-style reinvention of your home thermostat. Scott Hanselman has written a very thorough review of the device. It will definitely make you the coolest homeowner on the block: it has an attractive appearance, a cool user interface, can be remotely controlled from your phone or a web browser, has the smarts to learn your preferences and habits, and can save you money. It looks like this--more on what it's like to use at the end.


Is Nest Compatible with Your Home?
One question you might have is, will Nest work with your heating and cooling equipment? The Nest thermostat, in its second generation, claims compatibility with "95% of home systems with low-voltage systems". Still, that's small consolation if you're in that remaining 5%. Fortunately, you don't have to take a gamble. Nest's online compatibility checker will answer this question for you. All you have to do is pop off your existing thermostat, click the wires you see, and you'll get your answer. For me, this looked as follows:

My Thermostat's Wiring

Nest Online Compatibility Checker

Good to Go!

To Self-Install or Use a Professional?
After researching the Nest a bit, and viewing the information and videos on the Nest web site, as well as various on-line reviews, I was hooked and ready to buy. But should I install it myself, or use a professional? I'm not exactly known as a handyman: my wife is usually the one who tackles plumbing and home-improvement and painting projects at home, and the few ones I've attempted haven't usually turned out well. Accordingly, I'm much more likely to pay someone to work on my home than do it myself.

First, I was pleased to learn that if you want to do a professional installation, Nest has you covered with a network of trained and approved certified installers. A search by zip code revealed that of the many nearby options, one installer was only a mile and a half from my home.

On the other hand, everyone I talked to (including some colleagues at work) said it was really, really easy. That all the tools you would need were included. After watching the self-installation video, I decided to summon my courage and try to install it myself.

So off I went during lunch yesterday to my nearest Best Buy, and $250 later I had my very own Nest. All that was left was to install it...

The Moment of Truth

Installation
As I said at the beginning of this article, Nest has been highly influenced by the way Apple does things, and that includes every aspect of designing the user experience, including packaging and installation. The instruction guide lists 12 steps to install:

1. Switch off power.
2. Remove cover.
3. Check your system.
4. Remove any jumper wires.
5. Label wires.
6. Disconnect wires and remove base.
7. Mark where screws will go.
8. Attach base.
9. Connect wires.
10. Attach display.
11. Switch power back on.
12. Setup and Nest Account.

Was it as easy as claimed? Read through for a blow-by-blow account, or go to the end to cut to the chase.

1. Switch Off Power


The instructions say to go to your breaker box and turn off power to your heating and cooling systems. In my case, there was a slight problem because they weren't explicitly labeled. So, I turned off the master switch instead.

2. Remove Cover


In this step you pop off the top of your thermostat (most thermostats pop off easily). This step I'd already done, in order to use the online compatibility checker, so no problems here.

A colleague had advised taking a picture of your wiring with your phone before changing anything, and I found that to be good advice.

3. Check Your System


In this step, you verify that you don't have a high-voltage system. If you do, you can't continue. I didn't, so on I went to Step 4.

4. Remove Any Jumper Wires


In this step, you remove any jumper wires, because Nest doesn't need them. I did in fact have a jumper wire, and removed it.

5. Label Wires


In this step, you take labels provided in the installation kit and attach them to your wires. This is to ensure you hook them up to the right place on the Nest device. I did this to the 5 wires my thermostat had (W-White, Y-Yellow, G-Green, Rh-Red, and C-Blue).

6.  Disconnect Wires and Remove Base


In this step, you loosen and remove your wires (labeled in the previous step). You also remove the screws holding your thermostat against the wall.

It's at that this point you start to feel committed. And here's where I ran into my first wrinkle: in addition to two standard screws, there was also a hex screw holding the thermostat in place. No mention of that in the instructions, and no tool included that fits. I rummaged through my tools, and luckily found a hex screwdriver in the right size. If  I hadn't, my old thermostat might still be on the wall right now...

7. Mark Where Screws Will Go


In this step, you mark with a pencil where your screws will go (there are two of them). The Nest has a built-in level to avoid a crooked installation.

It's at this point that you have to consider whether you might need to cover up holes from your old thermostat. If you do, you can opt to spackle and paint (which I wasn't prepared to do), or use the handy trim plate included with the Nest. That's the way I I opted to go.


8. Attach Base


In this step, you simply screw in the base (along with the trim plate, if you've decided to use that). Although Nest includes a clever screwdriver for you to use, this step took me some time. Eventually, I switched to a larger Phillips screwdriver I had at home, which gave me better leverage.

9. Connect Wires


In this step, you connect those wires you previously labeled to the Nest. The Nest makes this easy, with touch connectors.


Nevertheless, I had some trouble here: one of my five wires was not very long and did not want to cooperate. I had to get some pliars to get the job done, and it took a while to get right. That pesky green wire labeled G really gave me a run for my money. Once all the wires were connected, I ensured they were flush flat against the wall as directed.

10. Attach Display


This step was easy: Just connect the main part of the Nest to the base, aligning a pin connector.

11. Switch Power Back On


In this step, it's back out to the breaker box to turn power back on. Then back in, to set up the Nest.

12. Setup and Nest Account


It was heartwarming to see the Nest power on, and do cute things on the display. Before long, I was finding my home Wi-Fi network and entering my password. I sat through a very long wait while the Nest downloaded a software update, restarted itself, and then proceeded to download another update.

The longest part of the setup

After that, we swiftly proceeded through the rest of the setup. The way Nest has set up interaction with the device is very innovative--after all, all you can do to communicate with it is rotate it or click it or walk up to it. It's amazingly well done.


I had a heart-stopping moment when the Nest displayed the wires it detected. I had connected five, and it was only showing four of them! Remember that pesky green wire labeled G? Not shown as detected! It was at this point that I wondering if it had been a mistake to self-install. After all, I needed this thing to work!


Not wanting the house to burn down or something like that, I removed the front of the Nest, turned off the power breaker, removed and re-connected the green wire, and put everything back and tried again. Well, it still wasn't showing the green wire as detected. I decided to let it proceed, and... well, everything works. It heats, it cools. I'm still not sure why the green wire (which I've learned controls the fan) didn't show as detected, but there don't seem to be any problems.

Life With the Nest
It's only been 24 hours since I installed the Nest, so it's a little premature to give it a full review... except to say that so far, we love this thing! How did we get by without it?

The display background is blue when cooling, red when heating, black when inactive. The display turns off after a few minutes, but comes back on when you walk up to it--only one of many nice little touches that gives the Nest personality. In no time it will have you thinking of it like a pet or a member of the family!


It's amazing how versatile the display is. It can show you a lot. It can do a lot.

It's truly neat to be able to control the temperature with a phone app (available for iOS and Android phones and tablets) and not have to get up. It also raises the specter of temperature wars, but that was a possibility way before the Nest appeared on the scene as you likely already know. But now you can subtly make adjustments without getting up and being seen. There's also the possibility of practical jokes now: a family member can be away, but still exercise control over the thermostat! If this turns out to actually be a problem, there is a lock feature.

You can control the Nest remotely from your iOS or Android phone/tablet, or from a web browser. Here's what the iPhone app looks like.

Nest iPhone App

Turn your phone sideways, and you can get to a lot more, including settings and schedule.


Nest iPhone App (Landscape orientation)

So far, we're really liking the Nest Thermostat. Once we've had it for a full week, it will have learned something about our preferences and habits and we'll start to see how it learns by observing.

Let me say, if you consider yourself a self-respecting geek, you want one of these. While I can't say the installation was 100% trouble-free, it was nearly so. The attention to detail Nest has put into the process and the product is something I really appreciate. Their claim of having re-invented the thermostat is a true one, and I look forward to other products from the company. They already have another product on the market, smoke and CO detectors.

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