Control & Automation

The Day the Nest Thermostats Died: Response from Home Automation-Centric Manufacturers (Updated)

Smart home glitches happen, but it's particularly uncomfortable when a thermostat fails in the middle of winter. Manufacturers specializing in HVAC control and home automation respond to Nest's recent challenge.


They might not be as pretty as a Nest thermostat, but they sure do the trick when it comes to HVAC and home automation integration.
Julie Jacobson · January 26, 2016

Did you hear the one about Nest thermostats dying overnight because of a bug that caused the batteries to drain? It left a lot of customers in the cold. Like freezing cold.

The problem was related to the way Nest thermostats are powered -- by "power-stealing" from the HVAC control wires, rather than through a dedicated common wire, or C-wire. Power-stealing can work, and it's often the fastest track to DIY, but it is never the best option for charging a thermostat battery, especially when the thermostat employs a power-hungry Wi-Fi radio.

In the case of the most recent Nest glitch (and others), the thermostat batteries ran out of juice.

Nest co-founder and VP engineering Matt Rogers blamed the snafu on a software update from two weeks prior.

Nest worked overtime to fix the problem, but many customers had to follow a nine-step process -- including removing the thermostat from its base -- to get their comfy back.

People, especially those in the home technology integration trade, love to hate on Nest, despite Nest's extensive outreach to and support for custom installers. While most integrators do embrace it – because many consumers demand it – the fact is that the thermostat is less amenable to smart-home integration than products specifically built for the cause.

Companies like RCS Technology, Leviton Security (the old HAI group), Aprilaire, Honeywell and Radio Thermostat of America specialize in HVAC control in particular, and home-systems integration to boot. With their products – often sold under major security and home automation brands – integrators can tap into a wealth of features (like fan control) that Nest currently does not expose.

CE Pro reached out to some manufacturers when the Nest glitch occurred, wondering if their products faced the same exposure as in the Nest case.

Paul Williams, VP of solutions for Control4, says thermostats tailor-made for rich HVAC integration address some of the challenges of standalone cloud-based thermostats, especially Wi-Fi models.

The Control4 Thermostat, for example, has the option to be powered via standard 24V home HVAC wiring and/or 4 AA batteries “for the most installation flexibility and reliability,” he says.

But there’s another issue at play with systems from Control4 and other purveyors of custom-oriented control systems: There is (or should be) a professional integrator testing software updates before pushing them out to their clients.

“Control4 installers are responsible for completing any updates for our customers,” says Williams. “Dealers and their customers are not caught off guard by OTA [over-the-air] Wi-Fi updates.”

RCS Technology, a leading OEM for many home-control manufacturers, had this to say about thermostat selection: "C-wire, C-wire, C-wire," in the words of RCS founder Michael Kuhlmann. "Better to take the extra effort to get high-performance thermostats, especially power-hungry Wi-Fi ones, installed correctly with a common wire," he says.

Kuhlmann adds, "Power stealing was always a poor alternative to getting a professional installer to do it right. We have never used it for that reason."

6 Tips for Thermostat Selection

Aprilaire, a long-time leader in integration-friendly HVAC systems, went a little deeper on the issue of HVAC integration, outlining six features that dealers (and consumers) should consider when purchasing products for temperature control and indoor air quality (IAQ).

The company, by the way, has recently introduced its first Wi-Fi thermostats. These recommendations come from Jon Fischer, HVAC automation sales manager.

1. Designed/manufactured by an HVAC company

When choosing a thermostat, select one from a company that is known in the HVAC industry and has a long history of innovation and success. HVAC companies understand all the features needed to make sure HVAC equipment is protected from extreme weather and realize that the primary function of a thermostat should be reliable control of the heating, cooling and IAQ systems.

Specifically if you are in an area where heat pumps are prevalent with a gas fired furnace as a back-up heating source make sure that your thermostat supports Dual Fuel with Balance points.  This way the thermostat will lock out the compressor when the outdoor temperature drops below a selected set point which will 1) minimize the amount of compressor run time when it is not efficient 2) protecting your compressor from any type of damage that could be done by running the compressor when it is too cold outside and 3) saving money on unnecessarily running the compressor.

2. Has a common wire

A thermostat with a C-wire (or common wire) does not rely on batteries being charged, but is powered via 24 volts. This is especially important for Wi-Fi thermostats because they require more power to maintain network connectivity. A C-wire will help ensure a reliable connection and proper operation.

3. Stand-alone operation

First and foremost, a thermostat needs to control the HVAC system. When a firmware upgrade is pushed to update a thermostat, you should ensure no changes will be made to how the thermostat controls the heating and cooling system. Also when firmware is sent you should make sure that the settings (type of HVAC system, mode of operation, program) are not defaulted back to factory settings.

4. Works with all control companies

While control systems are a staple for most system integrators, if or when you do change manufacturers it can be easier and less expensive for the end user if you find a thermostat that works with all or most control systems.

5. Local internal network communication

Find a thermostat that communicates directly to your automation system. There are several thermostats out there that force you to communicate to their cloud. Often times this cloud has some restrictions on number of communications per hour. Also if the Internet goes down you lose control of your HVAC even though your internal network is fine.   

6. Automatic humidity control

Most automation thermostats have the ability to control humidity. However, not all control methods are the same. Automatic humidity control monitors the outside temperature and adjusts indoor humidity levels to prevent condensation on windows and other harmful effects of too much moisture. Automatic humidity control provides the balance needed to improve comfort and health while protecting artwork, wood floors, and musical instruments. 



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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at jjacobson@ehpub.com

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  Article Topics


Control & Automation · News · Products · Aprilaire · Control4 · Energy Management · Nest · All Topics
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Comments

Posted by jduran on January 28, 2016

With the Fibaro Home Intelligence system no thermostat is needed! Although, if you are a fan of Nest it can integrate with Fibaro right out of the box.

Posted by dbendell on January 22, 2016

Nest has no place it the home automation world of 3 rd party. Their 3rd party drivers are limited. They cannot allow the 3rd party(elan, C4, Crestron, etc) to set thermostat into home away vacation modes, one must go thru the Nest app to do so. Also, the history graph only keeps for like 10 days.  Other than looking pretty on the wall, Nest is useless as anything more than a device that allows up/down temps.

Aprilaire is going to kill it in this market place. Price, features, performance.  They have had their errors over the years. How many bad thermostats due to battery failure killing stat? Too many to count on my part.  But, they place nice with third party, and thier new standalone app on WiFi stats looks way better that Nest. In the end, Nest brought attention to WiFi thermostats, but they are passe’ now, Nest was a fad, now they will fade away in the world of 3rd party drivers.

Thank you Aprilaire, if the stat holds as I should receive my first order next week, Nest will be dead under current protocals!!!

Posted by jbrown on January 22, 2016

Mistakes will be made, but potentially not having heat in the winter could potentially be deadly should an infant/elderly/infirmed person happen to be the victim. Nest has been a disappointment in the HA industry to say the least. This is just more fuel for the fire.

Then again, life safety is apparently not very high on their list. Their first smoke detector was recalled and they still can’t even make a smoke detector that will connect to an actual alarm system. So calling the fire department when your house is on fire is up to you. Meaning 2 more minutes for your house to burn while you get your family to safety.

Posted by TheDriversLab on January 22, 2016

I feel that Ecobee, is a great thermostat for the HA crowded. And is a leader in UI and UX. If you look at most of the thermostats displayed at CES this year, you will see that they have all taken points from the Ecobee3.
I dislike nest because they limit integration functions.

Posted by TheDriversLab on January 22, 2016

I feel that Ecobee, is a great thermostat for the HA crowded. And is a leader in UI and UX. If you look at most of the thermostats displayed at CES this year, you will see that they have all taken points from the Ecobee3.
I dislike nest because they limit integration functions.

Posted by jbrown on January 22, 2016

Mistakes will be made, but potentially not having heat in the winter could potentially be deadly should an infant/elderly/infirmed person happen to be the victim. Nest has been a disappointment in the HA industry to say the least. This is just more fuel for the fire.

Then again, life safety is apparently not very high on their list. Their first smoke detector was recalled and they still can’t even make a smoke detector that will connect to an actual alarm system. So calling the fire department when your house is on fire is up to you. Meaning 2 more minutes for your house to burn while you get your family to safety.

Posted by dbendell on January 22, 2016

Nest has no place it the home automation world of 3 rd party. Their 3rd party drivers are limited. They cannot allow the 3rd party(elan, C4, Crestron, etc) to set thermostat into home away vacation modes, one must go thru the Nest app to do so. Also, the history graph only keeps for like 10 days.  Other than looking pretty on the wall, Nest is useless as anything more than a device that allows up/down temps.

Aprilaire is going to kill it in this market place. Price, features, performance.  They have had their errors over the years. How many bad thermostats due to battery failure killing stat? Too many to count on my part.  But, they place nice with third party, and thier new standalone app on WiFi stats looks way better that Nest. In the end, Nest brought attention to WiFi thermostats, but they are passe’ now, Nest was a fad, now they will fade away in the world of 3rd party drivers.

Thank you Aprilaire, if the stat holds as I should receive my first order next week, Nest will be dead under current protocals!!!

Posted by jduran on January 28, 2016

With the Fibaro Home Intelligence system no thermostat is needed! Although, if you are a fan of Nest it can integrate with Fibaro right out of the box.