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Smart Heating and Cooling

Moving from the living room to the entire house, today's smart home movement is being driven by smart thermostats, which serve as controllers for your furnace and air conditioner. The smarter the controller, the smarter -- and more efficient -- your heating and cooling.

Which brings us to the Nest Learning Thermostat, perhaps the best-known smart device available today. This little device not only learns how your family wants your home heated or cooled and adjusts itself accordingly, but reports back to Nest about these habits. The company then furnishes this data to your local utility company, for them to use in adjusting their own load levels.

Figure 3 The Nest Learning Thermostat.

The Next is an attractive unit, with a sleek metallic dial and round LCD display that looks more like an Apple product than the industrial equipment you find at your local Home Depot. The display goes orange when the heat is one, and displays a cool blue when you're using the A/C. Operation is simplicity itself; turn the dial to the right to turn up the heat, or to the left to cool things down.

What's really neat about the Nest thermostat is that it learns from your interaction. After a bit of time it knows that you turn up the heat when you wake up on a winter morning, or turn down the air when it gets warm on summer afternoons. All it takes is a week or so and it knows all your habits -- and adjusts itself accordingly. It even knows when you leave the house, so it can put itself into energy-saving Away mode.

Speaking of being away, you can easily monitor and control the Nest thermostat from wherever you are, via the Nest Mobile smartphone app. Want a hot house cool when you arrive home from work? Just make it so via the Nest Mobile app.

Even better, the Nest connects (via Wi-Fi) with other smart devices to offer enhanced functionality. Some examples:

  • Connect the Nest thermostat to your Chamberlain garage door opener so that when you leave the house, the garage door opener tells the Nest thermostat so it can activate Away mode.
  • Connect the Nest to Whirlpool's Smart Front Load Washer and Dryer, so that when you're way the laundry equipment adapts its operation to use longer (i.e. cooler) dryer cycles to save energy. (The smart dryer will also keep your clothes tumbling till you get home, to avoid wrinkles.)
  • Connect the Nest to Jawbone's UP24 wearable device to know when you're awake or asleep, and adjust the temperature accordingly.
  • Connect the Nest to the LIFX smart lighting system to automatically turn on or off lights throughout your house to make it look as if you're at home when you're not.
  • Add Nest thermostat controls to the Activity screen of your Logitech Harmony remote, so that when you start an activity (such as watching a movie or listening to music), you adjust the room temperature as well as turning on the proper equipment.

None of this functionality comes cheap, of course. The Nest costs more than a typical programmable thermostat -- $249 vs. $50 or so for traditional thermostats. Nest says you'll save more than the difference because of more efficient energy usage, and that's likely.

By the way, Nest doesn't have a monopoly in this market. Honeywell, for example, offers a Nest-like Wi-Fi thermostat dubbed the Lyric Thermostat. And the Ecobee3 Smart Thermostat is Wi-Fi enabled and can be controlled via smartphone app, like the Nest, but also uses motion and proximity sensors to know when you’re home or away.

Figure 4 The Ecobee3 Smart Thermostat.

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