Nesting Instincts

What’s cooler than central air? Installing a sentient thermostat yourself. Kinda.


Last winter I rented a house that had a Nest thermostat. The Nest, if you’re not a thermostat enthusiast, is a sleek glass orb that promises to lower your energy bills while looking sexy, impressing guests and generally making life worth living. When you walk past the Nest, a motion sensor awakens the oracle, which glows orange or blue. You can control it via your phone. It knows the weather outside and can adjust itself appropriately. My beige Honeywell at home suddenly seemed so lame. What does that thing do, besides reliably keep the house at a comfortable temperature year after year? Nothing, that’s what. I demand that my thermostat have WiFi and an aesthetic. I went to Lowe’s and bought a Nest.

Did I then schedule a professional to come out and wire that sucker up? Of course not, because Nest says that any jamoke with half a pulse can install a thermostat. The box even contains a screwdriver, in case you don’t have one. This is the Nest premise: People who don’t even own screwdrivers should attempt to rewire their HVAC systems. Welcome to the Internet of Things. Or, as I now think of it, the Internet of Things You Want to Smash with a Hammer.

When I pop the cover off the Honeywell, I expect the box to contain two, maybe three wires. Instead, there’s a festive spaghetti tangle of yellow, green, brown and orange, a harvest cornucopia. The wires lead to connections emblazoned with mysterious glyphs like OB, Y1 and W2. Nowhere is there a wire that says, “Makes it warmer,” or “72 degrees.” It’s almost as if the good people at Honeywell never expected amateur homeowners to moonlight as skilled service technicians.

But never fear, because Nest has a plan. Besides the helpful screwdriver, the packaging also contains an array of stickers that correspond to the positions of the wires in your old dumb thermostat. You label the wires before disconnecting and then simply reconnect them to the same terminals inside the Nest. There’s no way you can screw this up. I mean, unless you somehow label the wires wrong. But that would require a level of incompetence that Nest doesn’t even address in its troubleshooting guide. And I’m certain of that, because I’ve read the whole thing a bunch of times now.

Eventually I get everything hooked up, and the Nest glows to life. Damn, it looks cool. It’s like the Eye of Sauron in my hallway. The Nest spins and clicks and quietly exudes all the awesomeness I’d expected. All my other household infrastructure seems boring and outdated—you’d better step up your game, garbage disposal. I turn on the heat and a curtain flutters above a floor vent. It’s alive!

It’s alive and blowing air cold enough to freeze off warts. I put Nest in cooling mode, and the vents start blowing heat. I’m tempted to just leave it this way, but I turn to the troubleshooting guide, which advises me to switch two wires. I do, and the problem is fixed. Hot is hot, cool is cool and I’m an absurdly talented handyman. I might start walking around with a pencil behind my ear, saying things like “Yeah, you’ve got a reversed polarity on that impedance.” I should have a shirt with my name on it.

The next two months are spent in Nest bliss—more or less. I sometimes find myself arguing with the Nest when it changes the temperature on its own whim, as it is prone to do. And the motion sensor isn’t infallible. Sometimes you walk past the Nest and it doesn’t light up, and you think, “Do I really exist?” Then you get closer and it glows to life, affirming that you’re not really an apparition walking amongst the living. But mostly, the Nest is the best.

That is, until the first day when we want some air conditioning, which blows as cool as the tepid exhalations of an elderly bloodhound. Since I’ve obviously hooked everything up properly, I conclude that our whole system must be shot. I call a repair guy, and when he shows up, I say, “Our AC is totally broken and I’m sure we need a whole new system. Either that, or it has something to do with the Nest.” He grimaces and rolls his eyes. “Let’s look at the Nest first,” he says.

He pops off the dial and asks if I kept the original thermostat. I did, because I have latent hoarding tendencies, which are really paying off right now. He consults the old Honeywell’s two tables of runes and quickly concludes that I picked the wrong set for the wire labels. It’s kind of a lucky miracle that the heat even worked. He switches some wires around and has the Nest up and running within five minutes. “At least you turned off the power so you didn’t shock yourself,” he says. Compliment accepted, sir.

So, OK, the Nest wasn’t as simple or affordable as I’d expected. But it’s still been a worthwhile purchase. I use that screwdriver all the time.


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