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Review: Is the high-tech Nest thermostat worth the $250 splurge?

08/08/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 10/08/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Walk into a big box home improvement store and you'll find a huge selection of thermostats, with basic programmable units typically selling for as little as $40.

Or you could go online and pay $249 — and another $10 for shipping — for the Nest, a high-tech thermostat for the iPhone set.

But is there any reason to spend so much on a thermostat?

Nest co-founder Tony Fadell, the lead designer of Apple's iconic iPods and iPhones before leaving the company in 2008, thinks well-heeled consumers will buy into the concept. He conceived the Nest as a slick-looking alternative to typically boring, old-fashioned thermostats, with Internet connectivity that allows it to be controlled remotely, and enough smarts to automatically save homeowners money.

Using the web or an Android or Apple mobile app, you can adjust your home's temperature from bed or an outside location. The same interface can be used to easily program a schedule for temperature changes, and the Nest can also pick up on your habits and automatically make money-saving adjustments. It has a sensor that tries to tell when the house is typically empty and will save energy while you're away. And if you keep setting the house a little cooler or warmer before bed every night, the Nest will eventually sense that pattern and repeat it automatically.

Fadell argues that while the Nest is sold at a premium price, it will eventually pay for itself once energy savings are factored in. And he bets there are plenty of homeowners willing to pay more to have the snazzy looking object on their wall, as opposed to a boring white or beige box.

"There's a new generation of people who appreciate higher-end products, they understand what they're buying and they understand the value that they bring," he said in an interview earlier this year.

Fadell claims the Nest can save homeowners up to 20 per cent off their hydro bill, if they previously weren't programming their thermostat. And he says the payback period in the U.S. has averaged about 12 months for the Nest.

It's difficult to validate those claims. After a month testing the Nest, it appeared my energy consumption did go down slightly compared to the same time period last year, during which the average outside temperature was nearly identical. My household consumption was about four per cent higher last July, when I was using a typical programmable thermostat, but it's impossible to say whether the savings can be directly linked to using the Nest.

I was also not overly impressed by the Nest's design. Sure, the round thermostat with its colourful screen is more attractive than anything else on the market but it's no objet d'art.

But the Nest's high-tech features definitely did prove to be useful. Being able to tweak the temperature from bed is amazing. And while programmable thermostats are a dime a dozen, the web interface makes the Nest far easier to tinker with — no instructions are required. The Nest also encourages conservation by awarding users with a green leaf icon when they adjust the thermostat to an energy-saving temperature. You can review your energy usage online to see how many hours your air conditioner or furnace had to run each day and how often you achieved a good energy rating.

It's also worth noting that the Nest is very easy to install, even for those who don't consider themselves particularly handy. A video and easy to understand print instructions can likely guide just about anyone through the process of removing an old thermostat and installing the Nest.

Whether the Nest is worth $250 depends, of course, on a consumer's budget and tendencies to go for the latest and greatest in expensive gadgetry. For those who already have a programmable thermostat and diligently set it to reduce their energy consumption whenever possible, upgrading to the Nest may not provide any long-term savings. Homeowners who could still save some money by better controlling their energy usage may find that the Nest is a luxury that will eventually pay for itself, whether it's a year or more down the road. And some, particularly those who love their iPhones and iPads, will find the premium to be paid for the Nest's Apple-like design and web connectivity is more than worth it — unless they foresee a future in which they're upgrading their thermostat every few years like their smartphone.

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