New, Lower Cost Nest Thermostat E: First Impressions

CC BY 2.0. Sami Grover

The smartest features of a smart thermostat may actually be the pretty simple.

When Nest launched its new, lower cost Nest Thermostat E ($169), I was intrigued. While I've enjoyed significant energy savings since we installed our original Nest downstairs, I've been very aware that the retail price is a bit of a sticker shock—especially for folks who are used to a simpler, cheaper minimally programmable thermostat.

So I was delighted when Nest offered to send me a review unit of the new Thermostat E, and we just got it installed to control the heating and cooling on the second floor of our 1936 home. Now, it's too early to talk about energy savings because it's only been a week, and we'll never get accurate numbers anyway as we just had our entire attic spray-foamed. (That's another story!)

But we've still had an opportunity to play with the thing, and I will be reporting back on my overall experiences. Here's the initial download:

It behaves much like its older sibling.
Whether it's the ability to learn your schedule, remote access via your smart phone, or advanced features like cool-to-dry (to control humidity), the Thermostat E does indeed behave much like the original Nest. The majority of the savings do appear to be in the form of materials (its casing is plastic rather than metal), and a lower resolution, less customizable display.

In many homes, it will actually be preferable.
While I rather like the shiny aesthetics of our original Nest, it does tend to be rather prominent—perhaps even showy—on the wall. And there are only so many times you want to talk to visitors about your thermostat. In the launch materials for the Thermostat E, Nest made a big deal of its subtler look, which is designed to blend in rather than stand out. Given that our upstairs is mostly decorated in painted white shiplap paneling, the Thermostat E seems right at home in a way that the modernist, iPhone like aesthetics of the Nest would not. It still feels every bit as good to use as the original, and there's nothing about the cheaper materials that feels cheap. So I'm gonna go ahead and say it's a worthy option for anyone who doesn't want their thermostat to be a flashy feature/status symbol on their wall.

Autolearning is less important than programability and remote access.
For all the talk of Nest's autolearning features—which allow the thermostat to learn your schedule as you adjust it over the weeks—I actually think that's less important than the fact it a) allows you to set as many temperature changes as you need to, and b) can access it from your smart phone. Given that many (most?) of us don't always have a regular schedule, it has always frustrated me that cheap thermostats would only let me set a weekend and weekday schedule, and have a set number of temperature changes each day.

As someone who works from home some days, and from clients' offices on others, I'm more interested in setting different temperatures on different days—and adjusting for when the more temperature-sensitive members of my family come home—than I am in having it auto-learn my schedule, (which is likely to change anyway). Additionally, the ability to access a thermostat via remote allows you to be a little "braver" about turning down/up (or even turning off) your heating and cooling when you are away for the day, and then adjusting it yourself before you head home. (No more asking neighbors/friends to swing by at the end of your vacation.) And for lazy folks like myself, the smart phone access also allows me to turn down the heat from the comfort of the couch/bed—meaning I regularly drop it a degree or two after the rest of the family is in bed and I'm curled up under a blanket.

Given that these two features are relatively simple, I wouldn't be surprised to see an even greater number of cheaper "semi-smart" thermostats coming on the market—featuring an unlimited number of set points, and wifi access, but leaving all the clever machine learning or other advanced features to their more expensive counterparts.

A few minor gripes:
I will say I have a few minor disappointments with the Thermostat E, some of which it shares with the original. It's always been frustrating to me, for example, that there's no option for a temporary or alternative schedule—meaning a different group of set points for the school holidays, for example, or the option of setting a temporary override with a specific end date/time. Yes, I can set my thermostat to "away" while on vacation, but I have to remember to manually adjust it from my phone. It's not exactly the greatest hardship in the world, but it would seem to be a logical improvement if it were available.

The other downside for the Thermostat E, specifically, is that the display does indeed take a little bit of getting used to. Not only is the fuzzier (sorry, 'frosted'!), lower resolution look a little different (not bad, just different), but there is less functionality in terms of what you choose to display on the screen. I can't, for example, see indoor humidity. The display icons are also arranged a little differently—with heat, cool, heat/cool and off immediately accessible on the home screen; meanwhile, schedule, history and other such features are one level deeper in the settings. That's not necessarily a bad thing given that once a schedule is up and running, the most likely thing you're going to need to do is to turn the thing off or on, or switch modes.

That's about it for now. Overall, I'd say the Thermostat E is a very worthwhile addition to the Nest canon. And while I understand the argument that insulation and weatherization should come before smart thermostats in the order of priorities, the fact is that most of us, for some time to come, will live in homes that are less than optimally sealed. (And that's even with my new spray foam insulation!) As I mentioned in my post about Nest providing products to low income households, smart(er) thermostats like the Thermostat E will allow us non-Passive House dwellers to manage our heating and cooling in leakier homes considerably more efficiently than their relatively inflexible predecessors. And that can only be a good thing.

Disclosure: Nest provided a review unit of the Thermostat E at no cost to me. Because we needed to run wire upstairs for it to work, I paid for installation myself. (Most homeowners could install it themselves at no cost.)