The Report

Are we still waiting for smart thermostats to outsmart us?

Posting in Design

Home thermostats have undergone a serious makeover, but they're only as good at curbing energy consumption as humans are -- for now.

Americans are using less energy but are still failing to conserve energy.

That sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. Because new homes are better insulated and heating and cooling system are more efficient, Americans burned around 10 percent fewer British thermal units to heat and cool their homes in 2009 than they did in 1993, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But during that same period, the amount of energy consumed for appliances, electronics and lighting grew by around 10 percent.

In other words, Americans' love affair with flat-screen TVs, computers, smartphones and appliances is undoing the good work they've done managing the building envelope.

Fear not, say the makers of Nest, a Web-enabled, sensor-powered thermostat with an Apple pedigree that premiered to much fanfare among design fans in late 2011. The slick, small Nest uses sensors to manage heating and cooling output. Over time it "learns" user's temperature preferences and sets itself to match them. Users can control the Nest remotely -- say, they went on a ski trip and forgot to lower the thermostat before leaving -- via a smartphone or computer.

The Nest isn't the first "connected" or "smart" thermostat on the market -- Ecobee and EcoFactor are two incumbents -- but it was the first to garner significant attention and excitement among homeowners.

But will these reinvented thermostats really reinvent home energy management? The jury, says Alan Meier, senior scientist in the Building Technology and Urban Systems Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is still out.

"There is a big question about whether consumers will persist using any of these wonderfully convenient devices," he says. "Each appeals to a small group who will find it convenient and will stick to them. Whether the overwhelming, unwashed majority of us will convert, that to me is still a very open question."

After all, most homeowners have largely failed to take advantage of programmable thermostats the Nest is meant to replace. Meier was part of a study that found around half of participants did not even use the programming features, which are designed to conserve energy when occupants are sleeping or gone for long, predictable periods (as in week days).

Even more disturbing are older studies that suggest when people forego programming thermostats and instead manually turn temperatures up or down, they often save more energy.

Perhaps that will turn out to be key to the success for Nest, et al -- since these gadgets provide a way to virtually turn the dial up or down from afar (or from the couch).

Therese Peffer, a program director at the California Institute for Energy and the Environment, says she was an hour into her Christmas vacation when she remembered she'd forgotten to turn her Nest down manually. "I set the temperature down to 58 [degrees] on my iPad," she says.

The ultimate goal of connected thermostats is that they will become nodes in the smart grid, linked to smart meters and acting as portals through which utility providers can better manage energy supply and demand (this is already happening in some parts of the United States). But in the near term, connected thermostats might best programmable thermostats not because they're easier to program, but because they're designed to accommodate both manual and automatic settings, seamlessly.

In the long term, says Peffer, smart thermostats will track our location via our smartphones and automatically adjust the temperatures in our homes based on our location. Heating or air conditioning systems will go into energy-saving mode automatically when residents leave, but then will sense as they (or their phones) make their way back home, so the temperature reaches a desired setting when they return.

Call that Big Brother if you like. I'd call it being outsmarted.

Image: Nest

Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure