The Nest: Excellence in Product Design and Customer Service

I’ve turned into my dad. Really. I’ve got to be the hardest person on the planet to buy for. My poor wife pestered me for weeks to expand on my Christmas list (she pre-populated it with: “If you don’t add anything, you get a vasectomy!”), and I amounted to two things: sweatpants, and a new silicone scraper for the kitchen.

So leave it to my sister to — yet again — pull off a miracle. She has a knack for this. I don’t know where she’s acquired this skill, but she’s got it down and I’m fairly envious of it. (I struggle every year to return the favour. I suck at it.) Last year it was the most comfy sweatshirt I’ve ever owned. This year? She delivered to me one of the most whiz-bang things I think I’ve ever been given:

A thermostat.

Not just any thermostat. Oh no, this is not your run-of-the-mill doohickey. This is a Nest.

If ye not seen a Nest before, you need really only understand this: it was (originally) designed by the same guy who helped design the iPod product line, and was an Apple BigWig for a few years. If you’ve owned an iPod, or even seen an iPod, you have an idea of how much the iPod (and its kin) have changed user experience.

That’s what the Nest is doing for home heating. It’s a learning thermostat, and in about 7-10 days, it’ll figure out how we like to have our house heated, and we should (hopefully) start to have a better home heating experience. Either that, or this is really just the first step of SkyNet, and it’s going to boil us to death in the middle of the night…

Anyway, the experience starts with installing the thing. This is usually where most people freeze up — this is electrical and could potentially turn your house into either an oven or an icebox, if you’re not careful.

The thermostat itself (a little less than the diameter of a softball) is accompanied by a simple booklet, a wiring/seating plate, optional decorative (aka “hide the crap the old thermostat left behind”) plate, a rather nice multibit screwdriver, and self-tapping drywall screws — no anchors needed.

Mounting the plate was a snap. Did I mention that there’s a built-in bubble level in the bae plate to make sure your Nest is absolutely straight-line level? Brilliant move, that. Wiring? There’s an app for that. (Sorta.) It not only ensures that you can use a Nest, but also how the wires should translate from your current thermostat to the Nest.

Installation time? Less than 10 minutes.

Then the little unit booted, in a suitably cute way. Once it was up and running, it prompted me to connect to the internet. No, I’m not joking — it’s got a WiFi connection, so I can control the heat in my home from my iPhone. No, I’m not joking. I’m actually giddy about this. Then it asked me a few more questions, and then — without any prompting — updated its own software.

And that’s when I got the first error. E24. There’s a full explanation of that error on their website, too. Now this is where I was really awed. There was the typically cryptic error message that usually drives people bonkers. Someone had the foresight to have the actual thermostat tell me to go to the URL and use the guide.

Again: THE THERMOSTAT HELPED ME INSTALL ITSELF.

I went through the steps … and didn’t really get anywhere. The website told me to call Nest. This is usually where I cringe, as I’m about to talk to low-paid, likely distant people who are utterly disconnected from the company in question, and read from scripts. Every time I get one, I want to hang up. I can’t handle them anymore.

This person — and I deeply regret that I no longer remember her name — was (reasonably) cheerful, and immediately started by asking me for my email address. My email address is the unique identifier used to configure my account, and the Nest unit. Not some idiotic number, or even my name (which is equally pointless), and helped her identify not only the unit (which operates over Wi-Fi, so she could see the unit’s data, too), but also how to communicate with me later.

And so we started trying to figure out what was going on. Turns out our renovations introduced some rather strange behaviours that the Nest doesn’t much like. We have R (the power line), G (the fan line), Y (the cooling line), and W (the heating line), which run down to the blower in the basement, which divvies up the lines and figures out what needs to be done — including telling the boiler to start pumping hot water. In principle, these are mapped 1:1 (though the R became Rh, Y became Y1, and W became W1) on the Nest.

Y turned out to be pointless, since we have no cooling unit to begin with (it rarely ever gets hot enough here to worry about). Rh was moved to Rc (dunno what the difference is). We slowly made progress. The unit started reporting better electrical states (apparently it disliked having a dead Y, which I can now only assume was part of the issue), and the boiler could start and the heat would flow.

Only the blower’s fan would never turn off.

Eventually, it was determined that we have a “variable speed” fan (on, off, and low, instead of just the on/off), which the Nest doesn’t much like. In other words, technically incompatible.

To get to this point was 1:04. That’s ONE HOUR and FOUR MINUTES, by the way. I was on hold for about 10 minutes of that; the rest was us discussing what was happening, and trying different things. At no time did the tech show ANY signs of frustration. Not. Once.

I’m impressed by this – extremely so. For those of you who’ve not read this blog extensively (lucky you!), I used to do tech support. I know the types who call in for help. I know the burdens that are placed on you. Nest Labs, you have a fantastic technical support team, if the tech I talked to is representative of the lot. 

So first we have a simple device. It has no visible buttons, just a dial that spins infinitely in either direction; to select an option, you merely press the front. It has more options than my damn microwave, and is much simpler to operate.

Next, we have a company that recognizes that just because you have a simple device, you might not have a simple situation. HVAC systems are notoriously complex, especially when, like me, you’ve got some oddities out there. So provide smart, patient people who guide people though the (periodically complex) steps of setting the unit up.

Incidentally, I did get it working. The last instruction had been “remove the G wire, and plug it into Y1″. I’d gotten as far as “remove the G wire” and gone no further. That’s when the tech and I decided that I needed to do some more research on our blower and figure out how to disable the multi-speed option.

But, y’know, I just had to go back and try putting the G in the Y1. 

Boom.

It’s not exactly what we had before. Our old (dumb) thermostat somehow managed to turn the blower fan off completely when the heat wasn’t on. The Nest, for whatever reason, can’t. So when the heat’s off, the blower fan goes to a low setting, barely moving air through the house (I’m convinced it’s actually running slower than the old thermostat could on just the “fan” setting). Which, really, I don’t think I’ll mind.

Now I just need to stop staring at the thermostat data. It’s hypnotic…

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  1. Pingback: An open letter to Nest Labs: please don’t outsource your support | The Observer's Log

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