As I write this, I’m sitting comfortably in my new house, where it is cool and dry. Last week in Houston, however, it was 100 degrees (near record-breaking), and humid. I’m no stranger to heat, having spent most of my life in central California with a brief sojourn in Las Vegas, but it was particularly brutal when I moved here and, of course, the air conditioner immediately broke.
There were actually several things that went wrong in succession, but one of the most frustrating by far was the thermostat, a “Nest” device produced by Google (who bought the Nest company some years ago) that came with the house. I’m constantly flummoxed by the number of people who buy into and praise the “internet of things” – the idea that many “smart” devices surrounding you can improve your life.
The Nest is the perfect example of why such inclinations are perilously short-sighted, and is the prime exemplar of the “internet of shit.” It’s a device that makes the simple complex and fails at its primary purpose. Trying to get the air conditioner to kick on when your thermostat imposes a 2-hour delay is annoying enough, having to deal with the equivalent of a bricked cell phone when all you want is for it to not be 90 degrees inside is much worse.
On the surface, it’s a smooth, slick and minimalist device, which looks both cool and inconspicuous as it sits on your wall. You can control it with your phone, which is pretty neat when it’s all working. Its interface is simple while not particularly easy to use, clearly designed by someone at the tech-giant with some experience. It has a great wiring harness. But once you get past that, it’s a pile of shit that makes your life worse in a multitude of ways while offering next to no benefit for all its flaws.
A thermostat in concept is a simple device. When the temperature reaches a certain level, it completes a circuit with the furnace (or blower) that turns on the A/C or heat. In the old days, this was accomplished with a spring and a bead of mercury. In an emergency (as I found out), you can take the thermostat off the wall and jump the connections yourself. A modern thermostat can schedule these temperatures, but at the heart, the mechanics are the same.
Thus, the Nest, with its many “features,” is a device in search of a purpose. That purpose, if you believe the advertising is to save you money. An inquisitive mind will wonder how it will accomplish this, given the way a thermostat works. The short answer is that it won’t save you money except by making you more uncomfortable for a very long period of time. The Nest is expensive at 200 dollars (or more, if you were an early adopter). A Honeywell programable thermostat is 40 dollars.
The Nest makes up that 160 dollar deficit by running your air conditioner and furnace less often. That’s the only way to “save” money with a thermostat, which just completes a circuit to turn on your equipment or disconnects the circuit to turn it off. Supposedly it will learn when to turn things off by tracking your every movement, noting when you leave the house or when you return, and what you set the temperature to while there. Besides being a bit dystopian, this level of tracking is both unnecessary and possibly detrimental.
A programable thermostat performs this function already. If you get home from work at 6, you can tell your thermostat to start lowering the temperature at 5, so you step into a cool house. The Nest presumes you are either too lazy or stupid to do this yourself, or else your schedule is too complicated for a programable thermostat (which would really be something). That 160 dollars will be hard to make up.
In practice, the thermostat doesn’t work as well as a basic Honeywell. It delays turning on the equipment (sometimes for hours) according to some internal (or server) algorithm, will turn the compressor on and off randomly without ever reaching the target temperature, and of, course, doesn’t work with all its features when not connected to the internet (which it wasn’t, since we just moved and were painting all of the rooms).
For months or years your life will be slightly (or significantly) less comfortable to save 160 dollars’ worth of energy. But it’s worse than that.
The smart thermostat will die. Mine did. Then you will have to replace it for another few hundred dollars. I would, based on other tech devices, expect the lifespan to be a few years. The Nest is, like other small computers, dependent on various updates to maintain its function, and may be subject to feature pruning at any time or service depreciation, leaving the user in the lurch. Meanwhile, that cheap Honeywell will perform its function flawlessly for decades. And it won’t leave your pets in a 100-degree house because they didn’t walk in front of a proximity censor or because the ISP went offline.
When my Nest kicked the bucket, displaying the “G” google logo in perpetuity no matter what I did, I quickly discovered how widespread basic failure of the thermostat is. It seems like everybody has had a problem with theirs, either major or minor. The best solution according to the internet was to reset the device TEN TIMES to get it to work. This worked once and never again. At one in the morning, I had to bring my cats to my mother’s house because I would be unable to operate the thermostat. I could jump the wires, but since I wasn’t staying at the house yet, I wouldn’t be able to turn the system off.
Manually jumping circuits is something most consumers are not going to know how to do, so of course the internet is full of people complaining about how their Nest decided to die on a 100-degree day and tech support is about as good as one can expect from Silicon Valley. Reading this you can probably imagine a person on the other end of a phone treating you like an idiot after you sat on hold for an hour. “Is your router online? Is the Nest connected to it? Did you try turning it off and back on again? Turn the dial to reach the menu icon…”
The real tech support replies are much worse. Reset it 10 times. Take it off the wall and plug it into a phone charger to bring up the internal battery. Plug it into your computer and see what files are on it.
All this for a device which is supposed to close a circuit when it gets warm.
While the internet as a whole is quite robust, an individual’s ability to connect and utilize the internet is fragile. In some places in the country, depending on that fragile connection to utilize climate control can be dangerous. Phoenix at 120 degrees is potentially lethal when your Nest can’t (or won’t) turn on the AC. And then there are the interconnectivity issues, like the fact that the Nest depends on your google account to function.
Your fridge letting your ice cream melt because you said the N-word on Twitter is bad enough. Your thermostat could try to kill you.
But that’s the Google Nest. It’s a piece of shit that, when it doesn’t work (which it inevitably won’t), will destroy any goodwill stored up from when it did work. It might be the worst example of a smart device I can think of. When I replaced it with a cheap Honeywell, my wife responded by joyfully deleting the Nest app from her phone and searching for a hammer to smash the nest.
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