Nest Thermostats: Making Home Energy Use Smarter & Sexier

Nest Thermostats: Making Home Energy Use Smarter & Sexier

About 40 percent of the 92 million residential thermostats in the United States are programmable, which would be a great thing for energy saving, except that only about 10 million of devices are actually programmed.

The problem is that most of the gadgets are too hard to use and people aren't inclined to figure them out, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers told attendees at the GreenBiz Forum today in San Francisco.

Instructions are complicated, the thermostat is often confusing and, surprisingly, the prospect of saving energy and money isn't alluring enough to inspire people to scale the learning curve, according to Rogers.

But what if the programmable thermostat in your house were as easy to use as your smartphone -- and, as a plus, good-looking, too?

Those are challenges that Rogers and his business partner, Tony Fadell, are taking on at Nest. The co-founders, both alums of Apple who worked on development of the iPod, want to create technology that's innovative, attractive and can make a difference, which is why they turned to the thermostat, said Rogers, who laid out the genesis of his company and its Nest Learning Thermostat in a "One Great Idea" presentation at the GreenBiz Forum.

"The idea being," Rogers said, "let's give consumers a way to save energy and let's make it as easy as possible. Let's bring great technology and design into a space that has none."

Energy devoted to heating and cooling is generally not considered a sexy subject, even though it accounts for about half of home energy bills, Rogers conceded. But if the control device for heating and cooling were re-envisioned, that could change, the Nest founders reasoned.

"There's really been no breakthrough innovation in the space for about 50 years," said Rogers, adding that in those years people have come to expect more from the technology and tools in their everyday lives. "We call this the iPhone generation ... they don't read manuals."

The solution Nest devised is "the first learning thermostat," Rogers said - it learns from you.

The Nest Learning Thermostat is designed to be easy to install and use and to operate intuitively so that it programs itself based on the habits of a household:

  • Set a reasonable temperature in your home when you're in it and a green leaf appears to indicate energy efficiency.
  • Turn it down when the household goes to bed or leaves for day, and the device remembers.
  • Adjust the thermostat when it becomes too warm or too cold, and the device remembers that. too.
  • By remembering and analyzing those changes, the thermostat learns the patterns of the household and adjusts the controls across a day, a week, a month or season.

"We reinvented the thermostat," said Rogers, who added that wasn't enough for him, the vice president engineering for Nest, or for Fadell, the company's CEO.  "Why shouldn't you be able to turn your thermostat up or down on your phone wherever you are?"

So the company devised an app for that and, following their training at Apple, the Nest leaders looked at other aspects of their product that they could change for the better. Which is why, Rogers said, the Nest thermostats come in wrappings made from bamboo and paper and not plastic.

"It shows the consumer we care and it shows that buying this thermostat is buying into the culture of sustainability," Rogers said.