Atlantic Cities

Engineering the iPod of Thermostats

Engineering the iPod of Thermostats
Nest

My quintessentially San Francisco household has a clothesline, composts, grows vegetables (watered by a water-conserving drip irrigation system), and collects rainwater in built-in tanks under our house. We're pathetically PC when it comes to all those 100 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth-type things. We even have a programmable thermostat, which is ... in the garage, in its original packaging.

In our house, we use this thermostat, which should probably be donated to the Smithsonian:

 

 

Changing the thermostat by just one degree can cut your energy use by up to 5 percent, but with our thermostat we can't ever really be sure what temperature it's at. We are not alone in our programmable thermostat apathy. Few are aware that 10 percent of all U.S. energy is controlled by thermostats, which is the equivalent of 1.7 billion barrels of oil per year. Yet the adoption rate for programmable thermostats is woefully low: even if people have them, surveys suggest that 90 percent are rarely if ever programmed. Which is ridiculous really, because the Environmental Protection Agency says a properly programmed thermostat can cut 20 percent off your heating and cooling bill. But "proper" is the operative word here: Even if you've got a programmable thermostat, you're either not using it or you're using it incorrectly. 

Enter Nest, a company that smartly recognized that many of gadgets we need are terribly designed. (The list is long.) Nest's programmable thermostat is easy to install. It's always connected (not always on). It has a user interface Steve Jobs would have loved. You can access its controls online. It's also constantly learning and thus, remembering how to save—even when you forget.

Little surprise that Nest's design team hails from Apple, which has long understood that gadgets can and should have personality as well as functionality. The first Nests, priced at $249, will begin shipping in mid-November. They're compatible with approximately 85 percent of heating and cooling systems in the U.S.

Matt Rogers, who led the team that created the first 18 generations of the iPod and the first three generations of the iPhone, is the founder and VP of engineering for Nest. He answered a few of our questions over email.

The last iconic thermostat was designer Henry Dreyfuss' Honeywell (left, c. 1953) so it's been a long time! Nest appears to have a lot of potential to change the market. What were its predecessors lacking/not delivering? What can Nest provide that might help change ingrained habits?  

Rogers: We challenged ourselves to forget everything we knew about thermostats and to create one from scratch, using the best of today’s technology and design. We looked at the entire experience – from the user interface to the hardware to the packaging to the installation process – and brought it into the 21st century with a simply designed, connected, energy-saving device. We hope to change ingrained habits by giving users information through features like the Nest Leaf and Energy History. 

The fundamental problem with programmable thermostats is that they’re simply too hard to program, so no one does. To help people curb their energy consumption and energy bills, the Nest Learning Thermostat had to be easy to use, so yes, ease of use was very important to us throughout product development. 

There is an amazing (in that it is depressing) study that showed some subjects who received electric bills comparing their energy usage to their neighbors actually responded by deliberately using more energy. It was their belief that it was their right as Americans to consume as many resources as they wanted to. How can we begin to change attitudes about the prevailing notion of resources as infinite?  

Rogers: We’ve found that Nest users enjoy challenging their energy consumption habits and want to save energy. One way the Nest Learning Thermostat encourages that behavior is by rewarding users with a Leaf displayed on the thermostat when the homeowner adjusts the temperature to a temperature that is energy-conserving for that individual. For example, if you usually set the heat to 71 degrees, but adjust it to 70 degrees, Nest will display the leaf. 

I recently heard someone refer to the iPhone as less a tech gadget than a "lovey," like a child's stuffed toy. It's not the technology that consumers are attracted to; it's the thing itself. It seems like Nest is a similar potential object of affection. Did that go into your thinking about it?

We very much hope that the Nest Learning Thermostat becomes a talking point in the home. Our goal was to give new life to this previously unloved part of the home – if affection goes along with that, great!

Allison Arieff is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR. All posts »

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