PSA: Smart Thermostats don’t have to be complicated

The transition from traditional home controllers/appliances to smart home devices can be a bit daunting. Sure, plugging in a new Google Home or Amazon Echo is easy enough. But alone, these are merely entertainment devices; without other products to connect to as control units, a Home or Echo don’t really do much that can’t be done with a smartphone in nearly the same amount of time.

The introduction of Wi-Fi-connected  lights, thermostats, and appliances are really where things start to get “smart,” but it’s also when things start getting more difficult.Many of us are either techy or handy, but not both (some of us are neither!). Being a member of the techy-but-not-handy crowd, I was interested in smart thermostats, but figured it was probably a project above my pay grade, for which I was unwilling to get my contractor over to the house.

Last week, I decided to give a quick look at Nest’s website to see if my house was even compatible. I knew it was an old house with newer systems, but I wasn’t sure what the requirements were for smart thermostats. It was at this point I realized smart thermostats are simple — nearly plug-and-play simple. (My experiences are based on the Nest system, which I paid for myself. There are other available smart thermostats compatible with the Google ecosystem in which I live, but the Nest were the right choice for me.)

Not only was this project fast, but it was relatively inexpensive. Including research time, I was able to replace two thermostats, program each with the Nest app, and patch and paint the walls in about two and  half hours. In fact, it took me longer to write and edit this article! Because I bought both units in used-but-like-new condition, I was out only $218 for the whole project! That’s only $48 more than I would have paid for just one of my thermostats new.

The Research

The first step was to simply visit the Nest website’s compatibility checker. From there, I was walked through a quick guide on how to take the cover off of my current thermostat, which types of wire to look for, and if what I found meant my system was compatible with Nest. The new Nest 3rd Generation and Nest E lines are compatible with 95 percent of household systems (or so the company claims). Everything I saw indicated I should be okay, so I moved on to the part of the guide asking what types of wires I saw. All thermostats have common labels for wires, so while colors are not standardized, the name of the wire and the port it goes into will be the same across manufacturers.

As you can see from the picture of one of my old thermostats above, the potential for wiring combinations can be almost overwhelming. The list includes two banks with O, B, L, W2, G, Y1, C/W2, R, C, and Y2 wires, and it is important to note exactly which wires you have. This helps the Nest website determine what product is right for your system. Luckily for me, my system only had six wires, and was compatible with the new, cheaper Nest Thermostat E. After I checked the wiring on both of my units (they were the same), I had Nest email me a diagram of how my wires would connect to their system. As you can see, only one wire was not obviously named.

At this point, it was time to buy some hardware. I loved the look of the 3rd Generation Nest thermostats, but their price outweighed any increased functionality. If you don’t have a really complicated HVAC system, you probably won’t actually need one of the more expensive units. For my needs, I really would have been buying the fancier one just for its looks; the Nest E was the right choice for functionality, and it would still look better than the giant white box on the wall.

The new price for a Nest E is $169. Since I was doing this project on my own dime, I thought I’d look on Ebay or Swappa for some high quality used hardware. I was outbid on a couple of the first items I saw, but managed to snag two like-new units from one person. In two days, I had my hardware and was ready to get started.

The Project

The best part about this section is how straightforward it is. It was all very easy.

The Nest thermostats come with a short, clear, and easy-to-use instruction booklet. The best part of the booklet is a small set of labels to make sure your wires are properly labeled before you unhook them from their current connection (needed both for connecting to the new thermostat, and for reinstalling the old one if necessary). This was very important in my case, because I had pink, mauve, and lavender wires in my unit, and mixing those up could wreak havoc on my system. I disconnected each wire one-by-one to label them, and then took the old thermostat off the wall with a screwdriver.

There had apparently once been a round thermostat in my house before the square one I was replacing, and the holes in the wall from that unit lined up exactly with the holes on the Nest’s base plate. I grabbed a couple of small plastic wall anchors to gently pound into these holes, fed the HVAC wires through the back of the wall plate, and screwed the plate onto the wall. The plate even had a built-in level!

Once the wires were connected correctly, I put the faceplate on, opened the app to pair with the system, and was all set. This all took me about 35-40 minutes. The second thermostat went even faster. I then sanded down some of the unevenness in the wall, filled the holes, and painted the places that needed it. I probably still need to do a bit more sanding and painting, but overall the whole installation process is very easy, even for a novice.

The Verdict

While smart home products still have a reputation for both expensive and finicky (either in installation or use), my experience with the Nest Thermostat E has been neither. With a little work to find used items, my cost was quite low (a newer version of my old thermostat is around $55, and lacks the flexibility, ease of programming options, and the ability to automatically lower the temp when I leave — so long as I’m holding my cell phone). Even for a non-handy guy, I completed two installations in just over an hour.

If you have been waiting to get a smart thermostat because you were unsure if you could even put one in your home or concerned about doing it yourself, don’t worry. Nest makes it very easy to check compatibility and does a great job of walking you through the installation process. If you are still unsure about doing the job yourself, they also have links to Nest-certified installers on their website, but it feels good to do a project like this on your own. I’m pretty sure you’ll have no major issues.

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