“Just get a Nest!” My journey into the world of connected thermostats

After unpacking and trying out a package of sensors and a hub that promised to let me really experience the promise of the connected home and the internet of things I realized I was missing a really important element — a connected thermostat. As I wrote in a previous post, when it comes to recouping your investment in a connected home platform, a thermostat might well deliver the most bang for your buck.

You can use it to program your thermostat to respond not only to the time of day (like any programmable thermostat) but it might also lower the temperature when sensors tell it you have left the house. Or if no one is in an area that’s on a separate thermostat, it could turn off or adjust the temperature. Eventually that connected thermostat might even talk to your utility or your other appliances and communicate how much juice you’re using.

Ecobee smart thermostat
Ecobee smart thermostat

But today, with the platforms available for connected homes, buying a thermostat that can talk to an existing platform might be harder than you think. When I mentioned wanting a connected thermostat, the most common response I received from friends and salespeople was, “Just get a Nest.”

The Nest thermostat has probably done more than any device to cement the idea that the internet of things is real, but as connected devices go, the Nest is smart (as it learns what temperature you like and sets it automatically as opposed to you programming it), but it’s not open. While it uses ZigBee, it doesn’t support platforms such as the SmartThings one I’m playing with right now and so far no one knows if Nest wants to play nicely with other platforms.

To me, that openness is more important than a beautiful thermostat (it is pretty) that is arguably one of the smartest on the market. Luckily, there are a slew of Z-wave and ZigBee thermostats that are more open, such as this Honeywell one that works with the SmartThings platform already, or several Wi-Fi enabled ones such as the Ecobee or this one or this one. Also, since I work all day from home, I tend to keep a fairly stable temperature all day long no matter if it’s a weekday or not.


The downside of Wi-Fi thermostats is they can suck battery life and it’s recommended that you attach it to the electrical wire in your wall (if you have one behind your thermostat). You can call an electrician to do this (it is a job that costs about $25 where I live) or buy the thermostat through a professional installer. Handy people can probably install it themselves.

Since my local utility also offers a rebate for certain thermostats if I then participate in a power saving program, I decided to narrow my choices to the Nest, Ecobee and the Homewerks thermostat that enabled me to apply for the rebate. None of them worked with the SmartThings platform out of the box, but SmartThings and Ecobee recently said they were working together. So I expect support relatively soon, even if I’m no longer trying out the SmartThings stuff.

That’s why I chose to purchase an Ecobee Smart Si thermostat for $203 from Amazon and will actually get my dad to teach me how to install it if needed. Ecobee offers a more expensive one that works with a line of sensors and smart outlets, but my hope is that Ecobee’s open stance with SmartThings means that it will open up support for other platforms and devices as well.


But in my search for a connected thermostat, I was awed by the number of tradeoffs I had to make. Did I want a learning thermostat a la Nest (Ecobee has a learning software option in beta right now), something that worked with a specific radio protocol, something that runs on batteries as opposed to needing outside help to install it, or something that seemed more open?

Throw in energy rebates or a person who cares about aesthetics and this process is daunting, especially since it’s a rare individual that probably thinks about their thermostat’s capabilities. And I wasn’t even concerned about how many programs it could store or the more thermostat-like functions of the device.

And this level of effort just to get a connected thermostat so you can more fully automate your home isn’t really worth it if all you hope to do is create some kind of Away setting that changes your temperature as you leave the house.

What I really want to see is more links between the thermostat and a utility (maybe the utility lowers/raises the temperature in response to high demand for power) or the thermostat and my gadgets helping me reduce my energy consumption and automate my life. So far, the Ecobee comes closest to fulfilling those needs, even if it won’t do all of that today.

And since most consumers aren’t trying to immerse themselves in covering this new arena, they’re likely going to sit back a while and see how things shake out. Personally, I think that’s the right idea.