Installing Nest in a 100-Year-Old House with Radiator Heating: A Guide/Review

Nest Learning Thermostat on
Just thought I’d share my experience with a great product–the Nest Learning Thermostat. Given that I own an over 100-year-old house with radiator heating (and no central air), I was dubious about this working for me. After doing a fair amount of research, it came down to this one or the ecobee. The ecobee (main model) was more expensive and, frankly, just doesn’t look as good. Let’s face it; the Nest has been designed, by real designers, and it is obvious. Other thermostats on the market are clunky gear head boxes.

I have noticed that things that appear to be well designed often are. Not only that, if people go through the trouble to do great industrial design, they usually at least try to do great software design, and maybe even full on service design, and in this, the Nest does not disappoint. Everything from learning about the Nest ahead of time on their Web site to the out-of-the-box experience to the install to the setup to the ongoing usage (with apps for devices and a matching Web control site) has been designed, and designed well (and kudos to Amazon for 1-Click Prime ordering and one-day delivery–a day ahead of time).This is just one of those products where they have really pulled it off. And who’d have thunk it–for something as “simple” as a thermostat.

I used their online compatibility checker to verify that it’d work with my system. I have one of those old-fashioned Honeywell round thermostats.

Honeywell CT87K Front

But it turned out that after popping off the front, it was a relatively new model, the Honeywell CT87K, made for heat only systems.

Honeywell CT87K Inside

See the old wires?? Wrapped in like cloth or something. I told you it was an old house. 🙂  Anyways, zooming in I was able to see the R and W letters by the wires, so I could plug that into the compatibility checker, and voila, they said it was good, and they even give you a wiring diagram up front to show how you’ll hook it up. Pretty snazzy!

I thought I’d give it a whirl, and so I clicked the little 1-Click button, and a day later (two days, ahead of time, thanks to Thanksgiving), it shows up. (Even the box is kinda cute.)

Nest Box

You take off the plastic wrap, slit the tape holding it shut, slide off the cover, and open up.

Nest Unboxing 1

Lift out the Nest (has a little plastic circle on it), lift off the first layer, you see the booklet, lift that out, and you have the next layer of goodies.

Nest Unboxing 2

You see their chubby little screwdriver, the Nest back, and two mounting screws.  Slide out the booklets; there are three.

Nest Unboxing 3

You have the install guide, the setup guide, and a “concierge” card (if you need to bail on a self install, a nice security blanket). What you see above is the first page, that tells you high level steps for uninstalling your old thermostat. What’s cool about it is the built-in stickers to label your current wires as you take them out. Given the variety of systems out there, and no standardization on colors, this is the only way to do it. So be careful! For me, of course, it was simple–two wires. But I labeled them anyway!

BEFORE MOVING ON, CUT THE POWER TO YOUR THERMOSTAT. For me, the thermostat wires come from the boiler, so the circuit to break was the boiler’s circuit. I verified this using my handy dandy Greenlee GT-16 Adjustable Non-Contact Voltage Detector, which I bought some time ago for other amateur electrician work on this old house. I can detect voltage in the air on the max sensitivity, so what I usually do is check it before trying to disconnect. Dial it back until it detects only when you’re near the hot wire. BTW, don’t take my word for it–I am not an electrician; YMMV.

Nest Install Voltage Detector

Now that you’ve cut power, you can label the wires safely.

Nest Install Label Wires

Even though the old plugs only say R and W, Rh and W1 were the only/closest option, and it matched the wiring diagram from the compat checker.

Now, niftily enough, the screwdriver they include has a small enough head on it to reach in those holes on the right and unscrew (loosen) the wire clamps. Simply pull them out at that point. I cheated and used my drill to quickly remove the two screws holding it onto the wall. I carefully pulled it off the wall at that point, to avoid ripping any extra paint off (the painters got mighty close to it). It revealed the green wall beneath the new cream paint. Here’s the whole old thermostat.

Nest Install Remove Old Thermostat

It probably took you more time to read this than it did to get the old one off.  Now for the install. I walked the Nest’s back over and looked at where it would install. The hole is in the center on the Nest; on the old one you can see it was to the left. Bottom line, this meant I couldn’t cover up the old green with just the nest, and since I didn’t have any putty or paint handy, it was back to the Nest box for the decorative backing plate. Lift up the last layer in the box to reveal the backing choices; they have an option to mount on electrical boxes as well. I just needed the pretty plate to cover the ugly wall stuff.

Nest Install Backing Plate

Again, I cheated with my cordless drill (Makita 18V Lithium Ion, BTW, if you need a recommendation).  Would be more annoying (not impossible) to use their included screwdriver.

Nest Install Back

Now, I used my old, somewhat crappy level to install this. It didn’t quite come out straight, as you can see.  Then I noticed the built-in level, and also, the screw holes have a little play, so I loosened the bottom one and realigned using their level. Hey, look, it also aligned with the nearby wall edge at that point, too!

Nest Install Back Leveled

Oh yeah, I plugged in the two wires into the matching slots. One of the cooler but maybe non-obvious features of Nest is that it runs fine on your 24VAC line. Many new/digital thermostats require a “common” lead that provides dedicated power. Not so with Nest–no extra wiring needed. Even my ancient two-wire system works fine with it!  Just use their compat checker to verify yours.

My wires are tough (they were made back when men were men, wires were wires, and little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri); they are not huge but not thin either, so I used needle nose pliers to straighten them. A more obsessive person may have grabbed some electrical tape to cover up more of the exposed wire. Me? I don’t sweat the small stuff. It will soon be covered up.  We’re almost there! Next step, grab the pretty Nest and plug it on.

Nest Install Done

NOW, you can go flip the switch back on. My breaker box is in the basement, but no worries, when I came back up, it was waiting for me.  Time to setup. You say “Hi” to it, and confirm your language, then on to the coolest part of the gadget–it is Wifi connected. Seems to have a decent antenna, too.

Nest Setup SSID

I also thought the interface for entering the password is cool. The Nest slides so smoothly. Feels solid, and dialing it to enter the password was strangely reminiscent of using a rotary phone. (Yes, I remember using them, although they were definitely on their way out by that time.) Hello, nostalgia. And it wasn’t that hard either. They seem to have put thought into how fast you turn, inertia, and that sort of thing. Nice.

Nest Setup Wifi Password

After a short connecting message, it confirms, we have lift off!

Nest Setup Wifi Connected

Just a few more steps.

Nest Setup Steps

BTW, I glanced through the setup manual. It is super thin and easy to follow. You don’t really need it though at this point–just follow the prompts. After confirming I only have heating installed, it just needs to ask a few questions about it.

Nest Setup Heating Source

(For the record, I have oil. sigh. Maybe someday it’ll be different.)

Nest Setup Heating Type

Radiators, yup. That’s us. I had NEVER seen them in person before I moved up here to NJ. But I like them a lot better than forced air, I have to say. I like the feeling of the warm, radiant heat. When you keep the house cool-ish like we do, forced air sometimes feels more like air conditioning than heating–blowing around 66 degree air. Radiators always feel warm, reminding one of a fire. (And I love fires!)

A few more questions–zip code and number of thermostats. Now I get to my favorite question. When was this house built?

Nest Setup House Age

What? No 1910s?  Come on!

Next up, naming this Nest; wish I could do a custom name, but they just have some preset to pick from. Ah well. Can’t have everything!

Last, it asks a couple simple questions about temps and lets you know it’ll try to learn/calibrate for some time.  And.. we’re done!

Nest Setup Done

As before, it likely took you longer to read my account than it will to set your Nest up in real time. In fact, I bet Nest is annoyed with me because this may make it seem more complicated than it is. 🙂  Really, we’re talking <30 min end to end, and it felt great and easy!

At this point, I was pretty pumped, because I wanted to go control it from my phone.  But first, to the Web site.  I quickly signed up, and it detected the nest on the network. Too cool!  I walked over to it again, and it said this.

Nest Setup Added Account

Too cool!  In no time, I was managing my thermostat remotely.  THE POWER!!!

And the app is nifty. It seems to gradually reveal complexity (another great UX principle). Just tonight I discovered some new things that weren’t there before. Still, it is quite simple and pleasing. I like how it incorporates local conditions in the background.  For instance, now it’s like so.

Nest Control Home

I won’t bore you (more) with all the settings and stuff. The interface is quite nice and, in my estimation, easy to learn and use. And hey! Will you look at that!? I guess you can have everything–it let me rename my thermostat here.

Nest Thermostat Control

Note that when you hover over it, you can simply click the up arrow or down arrow to increase/decrease your thermostat setting.  You get the same basic interface on the phone and tablet (I use iPhone and iPad, FTR). There of course they smartly don’t rely on hover to see the up/down arrows. 😉

I am a little obsessive. Sometimes. About some things. I try to fight it, but it gets me sometimes.  I quickly set up a schedule (even though it wants to learn it by you turning it up and down). I mean, I don’t want to run downstairs in the morning to turn the heat up–I want it done for me! This is a minor criticism, but I guess it works for “most” people who wouldn’t otherwise set up the schedule.

In the Web interface, this is easy enough. Add a setting, then copy and paste it to the other days. OMG. Like, I programmed the three thermostats at my last place, and what a friggin pain!  No wonder they say 90% of people don’t do it.  I dreaded changing the temps, too, cuz it meant clicking and switching through about 100 fiddly switches.  This took me 30 sec.  Wow.

Nest Schedule

And yesterday, I discovered my new favorite feature–the energy records. I can see my obsession will not soon end.

Nest Energy

You can selectively drill into daily details to see just when Nest was powering on that monster of a furnace against your schedule for the day.  I think I’m in geek-homeowner love!

Now, time will tell if this does help me save money. I can’t see how it won’t. I mean, last winter (our first in this old house), I just left it on a constant 66-7ish setting on the dial, more or less. If nothing else, being able to have it turn down during the evenings should save a good chunk of change.  And considering how much this old house costs me per month to heat, trust me, in like two months it will probably pay for itself.

So that brings us to the final consideration. Is the Nest worth $250? Well, from the research I did, learning thermostats can save 10-15% on average. You can do the math based on your usage. But that’s just part of the story. This is one grand toy, after all, no? 🙂  So a great toy that can save you money?  Is it worth it?  I think so.

If you’re on the fence, I strongly suggest going for it. It’s awesome. Go order the thing, yo! (Don’t forget to check your compatibility first.)

P.S. Nest didn’t pay me for this review. I’m just totally psyched about it. It took probably 6x the time to put together than installing it took. (Don’t worry–I was watching Burn Notice in the background with the wifey for most of it.) But if you use my links to buy, I might get some small Amazon affiliate commission.  So that’d be a nice thing if you found this helpful.

Showing Passwords by Default on Mobile Apps

Unlocked DoorI just ran across LukeW’s post on showing passwords by default on mobile apps. It’s an interesting idea, at least something to consider.  However, it seems like it is a bit self-contradictory.  On the one hand, he says that showing the password is important because people can’t see it when entering it, that is, because they are looking at the keyboard, they can’t easily see the typical delayed-show characters.  Then he goes on to say that the * approach doesn’t really hide the characters being typed because the touch keyboards show what is being typed really largely.

To me, this begs the question, if it is so easy for others who might be looking over the shoulder to see the keys being typed, how is it so hard for the person looking straight at the keyboard to see them?  A bit contradictory to say the least.

Now I’m all for improving usability, especially for notoriously problematic things like this. But it seems to me that this is, at least, a questionable practice to be encouraging. It’s akin to saying that because there are lock picks, you shouldn’t bother locking your doors. In security, nothing is guaranteed 100%. It is all on a spectrum, and many things are simply deterrents.  Masking the password is one such deterrent.

On the other hand, it is in the context of mobile, and one could argue that yes, it is easier to shield the screen in most cases than it would be with laptop or desktops, as Luke does argue. There’s something to be said for that. The flip side to that is that mobile contexts are more variable and often have more potential security threats than even you know about.  Sitting at your desk in your room at home or in the office, it is not very likely someone will be looking over your shoulder (that you’d be worried about).  Standing on a subway?  Who knows?

As a software architect and interaction designer, I just can’t endorse this practice as a good default. Even if your app doesn’t have sensitive information, it’s highly likely that users will use the same password they use for other things with more sensitive information, and the same email/login.  So while you may think you’re only chancing your app’s data, you are not.  If you want to let people confirm their password is right, go with the optional show password toggle. Don’t show it by default. Security practices are always inconvenient; that doesn’t mean we can just do away with them.

UPDATE (7 Nov 2012 13:57): Luke responded to me on Twitter that the larger concern is security cameras capturing passwords. Good point. Both cameras and people you may not notice are the problem. All the more reason to not leave it showing by default.

He later mentioned someone at Sprint saying they did this who claims “No security issues.” The problem is: 1) just how do you measure that this caused no security issues? Even just for Sprint itself, that seems a tall order to verify.  But it can’t address the other problem I mentioned, which is that 2) people often use the same logins across apps/sites. So if someone captured the login/password combo thanks to Sprint’s unmasked form and they later used it across other popular sites, they could gain access to the individual’s information and Sprint would never be able to track it was their form’s fault. To claim “no security issues” is, it would seem, completely impossible to verify and so shouldn’t be claimed.

Again, the better option is to provide a way to show the password, but don’t show it by default. This makes the user think about what they are doing, and they’ll be more likely to ensure nobody is peeking if they explicitly show their password.  On the other hand, they could very well be looking at the keyboard and type their whole password before noticing it is being broadcast to the world around them. Indeed, when people know that each character shows briefly, they could be more inclined to try to type their password quickly, increasing the likelihood of this problem.  I’m rapidly thinking this should be classified as an antipattern, hopefully before it becomes a pattern.