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How It Works: The Nest Learning Thermostat

The Nest Learning Thermostat is probably the most common smart home device on the market. It works by learning your temperature settings and then adjusting those for you throughout the day. Here’s how it does that: When you first install the thermostat, you manually change the settings to your comfort level either on the device itself or through the app on your phone. It takes a few days for the smart device starts to learn your comings and goings.

Let’s say you want the temperature in the house to be 73 degrees when you wake up and get ready for work. But when you leave for the day, you don’t want the AC racking up the bills for your empty house so you turn the thermostat up to 80. When you get home around 5:30, you’d like the temperature set to 75 until bedtime when you like to dial it down to 72. When you first get the thermostat, you’ll have to make all these changes manually (you can do it through your phone). After a few days, the device learns your routine and starts anticipating those changes; now when you’re getting home the house is already cool because Nest knows you like it that way.

Another way the thermostat learns is by detecting activity in the house. Using built-in sensors, the Nest will establish what’s called an occupancy pattern. This basically tells the Nest when people are typically at home or away. If it’s confident no one’s around, it’ll set the system to an energy efficient “Away” temperature that you establish ahead of time.

One of the truly intelligent things about this device is that it goes beyond just shutting your system off and on to regulate temperatures. It actually learns how fast your furnace can heat the house, or how long the AC takes to cool from a certain point, and adjusts its schedules accordingly. It also knows the outside weather and will plan heating and cooling to meet the desired temp at the right time, rather than just always kicking on to a predetermined schedule. If you own a smart lock system, the thermostat can detect that you’ve locked the front door and left the house, and it will shift into Away mode.

Also, it wouldn’t be a smart home device without the ability to control and monitor it from anywhere with your smartphone, tablet, or computer.

“The majority of people who have a programmable thermostat don’t program it, or maybe they program it once and never update it when things change,” said Bronson Shavitz, a Chicago-area contractor who has installed and serviced hundreds of heating and cooling systems over the years.

The thermostat also syncs with multiple other smart home devices. In fact, it can act as something of an air traffic controller. Let’s say you’re out of the house for much longer than you first anticipated. If your house has connected locks, lighting, cameras, and thermostat, you can tell your Nest thermostat that you’re away, and all the other systems can respond accordingly. Your lights can go into their “Away” pattern of turning off and on, your cameras will arm for movement, and of course, you don’t have to worry about programing your thermostat. Everything works while you’re away, and you can monitor or adjust it all from the road.

The Wirecutter, one of the most enjoyable and helpful home and tech review sites, has consistently listed the Nest as the best smart thermostat. “In our opinion the Nest is the only truly smart thermostat—a device that proactively controls your home, with little to no input from you beyond the initial teaching stage.”

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