Nest Labs unveiled its revamped product lineup at a Wednesday press event in San Francisco, complete with a new (and previously leaked) home security camera called the Nest Cam, a home insurance deal on offer for its improved Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector, and software upgrades for its flagship smart thermostat product.
But those looking for innovations in energy efficiency and management will have to wait for a few months. That’s when the Google-owned company plans to reveal new partners and features for its Works With Nest program, which now includes appliance makers like LG and Whirlpool, LED lighting giants such as Lutron and Philips, and a whole host of connected home players.
Greg Hu, Nest’s head of product marketing for the Nest Developer Program, said at the event that the company planned some third-quarter announcements on how partners are using its APIs to enable energy-related smart gear and services.
“We’re working on a whole lot of stuff on the energy front,” Hu said in an interview after Wednesday’s presentation. But he declined to provide any specifics on what might be coming later this year.
It’s not that surprising that Nest’s latest updates don't focus that heavily on energy, given that the connected home opportunities being pursued by Nest and a long list of competitors are largely centered on security, convenience and connectivity with the wider digital world. Energy just isn’t that high of a priority for most homeowners.
That’s not to say that Nest doesn't have energy efficiency as a goal. It’s long been touting the ability of its thermostat to learn homeowners’ comfort preferences, typical home-vs.-away occupancy patterns, and the relationships between HVAC operations and household temperatures, to automatically reduce energy use without making the house too hot or too cold.
In February, Nest announced the results of three studies that showed an average savings of about 15 percent on cooling and 10 percent to 12 percent on heating through these automatic adjustments, enough to pay off the cost of its $250 thermostat in about two years. That’s compared to the savings delivered by old-fashioned programmable thermostats, which most people never program, or quickly override or adjust, in ways that limit their usefulness.
Nest has also been working with a growing number of utilities on its Rush Hour Rewards program, a demand response offering launched in 2013 that adjusts customers’ thermostats to reduce air conditioner use over a 2- to 4-hour period to help utilities reduce peak electricity demand on hot summer afternoons.
Last summer it released results that showed it was able to cut AC load by an average of 55 percent, or about 1.18 kilowatts per home, through Rush Hour events in its first summer -- a good, if not groundbreaking, result compared to other programs of this type. Perhaps more importantly, it was able to use techniques like precooling homes to keep an average 84 percent of participating customers from getting too hot and opting out of events.
Nest is now partnered with 35 utilities in seven countries, which have provided “hundreds of thousands” of its thermostats at low or no cost, Hu said. That would make it among the more popular utility smart thermostat program vendors out there, though far from alone -- competitors range from giants like Honeywell to startups like Apple HomeKit partner ecobee, Comcast’s Xfinity Home partner EcoFactor and Alarm.com’s EnergyHub.
Most of the energy-related features Nest showcases on its Works With Nest web page are relatively simple additions to its core features. Whirlpool’s connected appliances can switch to “eco mode” during Rush Hour Rewards notifications, for example, and networked door locks from partner August can inform thermostats and connected LED light bulbs when occupants leave to reduce energy use via preset “away” modes.
These aren’t trivial technical problems to solve, by any means. Utilities can be tough customers to deal with in terms of gaining access to demand response programs or energy data. “Our developers love it, because they don’t all have relationships with utilities,” Hu said.
Nest is working with distributed energy companies like SolarCity and Enphase, which could open up more energy-related opportunities. But much work remains to be done before utility regulations and business models might allow Nest and its partners to bid more fine-tuned energy management into grid markets or aggregate them as alternatives to distribution grid upgrades, as Scott McGaraghan, Nest’s director of business development, suggested in an October panel discussion.
There’s also a lack of customer visibility into Nest energy data, compared to what it’s providing on the security and safety fronts. For example, Nest’s new video storage service, Nest Aware, allows customers to save up to 30 days of video, set up alerts for unexpected motion captured by the camera, and highlight those moments for easy retrieval.
But Nest’s extended energy history service only tracks the previous 10 days of energy usage by a home’s HVAC system, as well as providing monthly reports -- something that’s generated a long list of complaints from efficiency-minded Nest owners who want more data. Nest says it’s using these suggestions to inform its new feature development process.
The Works With Nest web page includes some more energy-related partnerships in the “coming soon” category. These include a turn-off-while-away LED lighting integration with Osram, a link-up of its Rush Hour Rewards alerts with EV chargers from startup ChargePoint, and an integration with Zuli, maker of Bluetooth-connected smart plugs that detect occupants' movements.
With 5,000 developers contributing to Works With Nest, there's still plenty of room for new ideas to emerge.