- Written by Kirk Sexton
If you are a typical homeowner, you spend the greater part of your home energy budget on heating, cooling, or both. Regardless of whether your primary source of that energy is gas or electric from your local utility, fuel oil, propane, or other form of purchased energy, wouldn't it be great to pare down that cost a bit? Your thermostat might be an easy way to start saving. Up until the last few years, most thermostats fell into two categories; there was the old fashioned manual, or the programmable thermostat. The old fashioned manual thermostats could be as basic as a mechanical coil and mercury model or a digital thermometer model, but the functionality was the same, which was one temperature setting for cooling or heating. If you want a different comfort setting, you get up and change the it by hand. Programmable thermostats are a step up from that. Most allow for weekly schedules, with different day and night settings, and even different weekend and holiday settings. This allows for more economical settings while the house is unoccupied, with cool-down or warm-up when the home is re-occupied. Some even have WiFi capability for remote setting and monitoring. So called 'smart' thermostats are relatively new, and have only been out for the last several years. They are quite pricey when compared to even the programmable thermostats. Are they worth the extra money? Read on for one answer to that question.
How Ecobee3 Was Selected
Before purchasing a smart thermostat, I took a long look at all the models I could find. Before shelling out more than $200 on a thermostat, I wanted to make sure I selected the one that best fit my needs and one that I was confident would be worth the money. Criteria that were important to me were true energy savings, flexibility, ease of use, and compatibility with my smart-home ecosystem of choice.
- Energy Savings: Will the new thermostat pay for itself? Will it save enough money to justify the time and effort I put into installing, configuring, and maintaining it? A total value proposition is more important than a lower cost model.
- Flexibility: I have a relatively unusual heating system in my HVAC setup. My home is about 20 years old, which pre-dates smart thermostat installations. My current HVAC components are likely near end of useful life, so will a new smart thermostat work for new equipment, or will I have to start over?
- Ease of Use: I'm an engineer at heart, and enjoy fiddling with things to optimize their usefulness. My family does not. They want to be able to easily adjust the temperature if they are not comfortable, without the need for an instruction manual. Does it 'learn' from my usage, or does it requre extensive programming?
- Smart Home Compatability: My ecosystem of choice is currently Wink. I also have an Amazon Echo, an IFTTT account, and various other smart-home gadgetry. Does it fit in easily, or does it require a lot of kludgey work-around?
The models I researched were the Nest, Ecobee 3, Honeywell WiFi, and Emerson Sensi. At the time I made my purchase, there appeared to be the best available models out there. At first glance, all of these models seemed to do about the same thing. with the main differences being style and manner of user interface. Upon closer inspection the differences became more noticeable. A quick overview of these thermostats, with their pros and cons, will illustrate why I chose the Ecobee 3 over the competition.
Nest (3rd generation): I was immediately attracted to the Nest first, not only because of it's iconic shape and user interface, but also because it was touted as a 'learning' thermostat. These features are indeed impressive, and helps to set it apart. It was the first one on the scene as far as truly 'smart' thermostats are concerned, and it shows in product maturity. At the time of this writing, the Nest is in it's third generation being shipped, and it appears customer feedback was strongly considered in the improvements to the later generations. Nest is a Google owned company, and produced it's first Nest model back in 2011. The current model (gen. 3) lists for $249, but has been seen as low as $199. Nest claims to pay for itself within two years use. Pluses for this thermostat include easy installation and setup. To program the Nest, simply follow your daily routine, setting the temperature manually as you go. After a week or so of this, the nest learns your daily habits and comfort settings and builds a schedule to follow. This works pretty well for most households, but has drawn occasional complaints among those that don't have a 'daily routine'. Display can be set to different colors or default information settings. Negatives include perceived internet security issues, which Nest claims to have resolved, and has had some outages related to software updates, which were quickly resolved. Probably the biggest issue that many users have complained about is the 3 degree temperature delta that triggers the heating or cooling equipment to come on. It is not user changeable, and for many, this is a deal breaker. some say the user interface is a little too simplistic, offering less tinkering with the detailed settings that many like to do.
Ecobee3: Ecobee is a relatively newer player, and is engineered and manufactured by a Canadian company. They have done well establishing themselves, fighting an uphill battle against the huge thermostat maker Honeywell, and the marketing might one would expect from the Google owned Nest. Despite being lesser known, they have grown quickly, and have an enthusiastic fan base (as if one could have fans for thermostats - pun fully intended). Among thermostats, the Ecobee 3 also has an iconic look; it is kind of like a squared off hockey puck, in size and color. It is kind of like Henry Ford's famous saying about the Model T, "You can have it painted in any color you want, as long as it is black." One odd thing though; the base is white, which you usually don't see once it is installed, but the trim ring is white (only used if the previous thermostat left a larger hole in the wall). For most, they will just see the black hockey puck. This thermostat had some predecessors manufactured by Ecobee, but this is the first with this level of sophistication. The programming is not as simple as the Nest, but it does immediately settle your activity into home or away, and daytime and nighttime temperature zones. This is where this model really shines; not only does it have remote wireless sensors you can place anywhere in the house, it takes them into account as it sets the temperature for the entire house. If you have one room that is always a little warmer or cooler than the rest, place a sensor in there and take it into account. The sensors also perform an additional feature that cannot be under-valued; they detect occupancy. Why is this valuable? Let's say that you work at home during the day, mostly in a home office. The thermostat detects this and sets the temperature to the 'occupied' setting even though the time of day would ordinarily dictate that the home should be 'unoccupied'. Even better, if you are spending your time mostly in your home office, the sensor there tells the Ecobee 3 that the rest of the house is unoccupied, and only occupied in the one room, so it heats and cools to the 'occupied' temperature using just that rooms sensor. This is called the 'follow me' setting. Pluses for this model are the multiple sensors, granularity of nearly any setting, ease of use, and style. Negatives are lack of flexibility in the 'home' screen, and inability to connect to the thermostat directly with the mobile apps - this must be accomplished through both the mobile and thermostat connecting back to Ecobee's servers.
Honeywell WiFi (Model RTH9580): This is a solid learning thermostat with many great features and huge compatibility when it comes to home automation ecosystems. Honeywell has been around a long time, much like Emerson, and they know their temperature controls. This is a larger thermostat when compared to the others, but it does have a large, bright, configurable display that will appeal to many. The frame is silver and kind of wide. The list price is $225, but has been seen as low as $180. This thermostat, like the others inthis group is meant to replace your aging or defective thermostat, while updating the features and capabilities. This thermostat is completely configurable either from the large display or via the mobile app. This model also has published a set of API's that make it super compatible with more than any other thermostat in this group. If you like to tinker with settings and connectivity, this might be the thermostat for you. Pluses are the more granular configurability, the wealth of inter-operability options, and the moderate cost. Negatives for this model include lack of support for installations with no 'C' wire, and overly bright display.
Emerson Sensi: While this model was the lowest cost of any in this group, it performed the majority of the functions most would purchase a next generation thermostat for. This model lists for $129. It has very simple programming, albeit no true 'learning' features, and is a super compatible replacement to most heating and cooling systems default thermostat. This model is not a learning thermostat per se, however, with home automation tools, it can be made to detect whether your home is occupied or not, and change the program accordingly. Technically, this does not meet the requirements that distinguish a 'smart' thermostat from one that is simply programmable, but it still made the list due to price, features, simplicity of use, and the large lit display. Additionally, the ability to adapt to the outside weather, and the integration with a mobile app, one could see that this thermostat is an update away from what other thermostats would call 'learning' ability. Like the Nest and Ecobee 3, this model works with a pretty wide list of equipment, but doe not have the ability to control extra humidifiers, dehumidifiers, or ventilators. The display is somewhat larger than others in this list, but the display is neat and uncluttered. It has a back-lit LCD display that stays lit. Like the Ecobee 3, it does require access to the internet for both the mobile and the thermostat to change the temperature remotely. Pluses are the low price (seen as low as $92), easy installation (does not require a 'C' wire), and fast setup. Negatives include a kind of a plain display, and lack of advanced 'smart' features.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
When it comes to voting in Florida, it seems nothing is ever easy. I've written about the ballot initiative "Floridian's for Solar Choice" here before (Freedom of Choice), and believe it to be a pretty solid idea. Now it appears Florida voters have another amendment to consider, titled "Consumers for Smart Solar". So, why two amendments? With a nod to Isaac Newton's Third Law, in Florida politics there is nearly always an "equal and opposite reaction" to anything that anyone might propose. Just for fun, I'm going to call it "Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics". If someone were to come out with an amendment stating that all kittens are adorable, it would not take long for an opposing group to be formed saying they are the spawn of the devil. Think I'm wrong? Just Google "Cat's are Jerks" and see how many references you come up with. Just sayin'.
There has been a lot written about this in the past year, promoting or chipping away at both amendment proposals. Floridians would do well to educate themselves on what is contained in both proposals, but in the age of the sound-bite and ever shorter attention spans, it seems that it is easier for proponents of both to tear down the other proposal than to support their own. Both proposals could pass, one might pass without the other, or neither may pass. All that is assuming that either one or both gather enough signatures to make it to the ballot. In this case, that is 683,000 signatures for ballot initiatives that most Floridians have never even heard of. I'm hoping that more editorial boards and local new outlets make this into more of a story. Some are trying:
Miami Herald - July 15, 2015 - Group attempts to undercut solar initiative with rival amendment
Sun Sentinel - July 16, 2015 - Second group launches solar energy ballot initiative
Orlando Weekly - September 15, 2015 - Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?
Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2015 - Deception Cast Shadow Over Solar Amendments
Overview of Floridians for Solar Choice:
While Floridians for Solar Choice was first, and identifies itself as a grassroots organization, it does have some backing from corporate interests hoping to have greater flexibility in selling solar systems to Florida consumers. For Florida homeowners, the cost of solar is prohibitive and the return on investment fairly long term. One has to live in the home for a long while, or risk not getting the return on their investment if they have to sell their home before the system is paid off. In other states, leasing companies install the solar systems, then "sell" the electricity back to the homeowner, offsetting the leasing expenses. In Florida, only the big power companies that are highly regulated are allowed to sell power. This keeps the leasing option off the table for the homeowner. The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment language allows anyone to sell up to 2 megawatts.of energy to "the grid". The intent is to cover the low capacity producers, such as homeowners, co-ops, and small businesses by allowing them to resell their unused capacity for use across the grid. Some argue that this may cause increased maintenance costs on the grid that will be borne by the other consumers not on solar power.
Overview of Consumers for Smart Solar:
The second group appears to have made the scene primarily to contest the first group. Consumers for Smart Solar may be a bit of a misnomer, as a large part of it's funding thus far appears to be coming from big energy companies, not consumers. This group states that their goal is consumer protection, and that using non regulated utilities (the small home owners using leasing companies) sets up potential for overcharging customers, and straining the grid without paying for maintenance. They believe this could lead to higher costs for non solar customers. The creators of the web site are so adamantly opposed to the first proposed amendment that they do not even mention it by name, instead just referring to it only as the "Shady Solar Amendment". They are concerned that the alternative amendment is "designed to benefit out of state solar companies". Critics say that this new amendment has been created just to confuse the public, and take away from the 60% voter approval needed to pass.
A Few Thoughts to Ponder
Consumer protection can be a good thing, to a point. However, the free market does have a way of sorting things out. Consider the inroads made by the likes of Uber and Lyft. Both of these companies were, and often still are, working outside of consumer protections of the market segment they are competing in, within their local municipalities. The consumers are still embracing both Uber and Lyft, and pressure is being applied on both the legacy players and the new ones to find middle ground. Why can't that happen with solar? If the maintenance of the grid is increasing because of more producers, and no one knows if that will really be true, then cover the cost through a service fee on purchased energy.
The argument that the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment is designed to benefit out of state solar companies really doesn't hold water. Since none of these solar companies can operate in Florida now, it stands to reason that they will all be out of state now. Why start a company in a state in which you prevented from conducting business in? Perhaps Florida should have in-state companies doing this business - wouldn't that be a good thing? Suppressing Floridians options on solar and/or selling energy back to those that can use it is a real innovation killer. For a state that is drenched in sunshine, Florida could be poised to be a front runner in renewable energy, lessening reliance on fossil fuels and the pollution that they create.
The Consumers for Smart Solar initiative appears to be proving Sexton's Third Law of Florida Politics. Passing that amendment really doesn't do much other than to simply preserve the status quo. If Floridians for Solar Choice is as horrible as critics say, why not just campaign against it, rather than run with another proposed amendment that pretty much does nothing? In Florida, nothing is quite that easy. If you are a Floridian voting in the 2016 elections, take the time to educate yourself on this - it may determine the "Sunshine State's" solar future.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
I must have one of these. "Kirk here!" indeed.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
I don't have a good feeling about this.
I've been monitoring the various Wink forums, contributing my experiences here and there, and have posted a few articles here on the Wink home automation experience. I really don't like posting negative items regarding commercial products, unless a product is just horrible or a sham. I usually look for the best, talk about it, and where I think it may help, offer constructive criticism when it falls short of ideal. I haven't seen much on this in the home automation forums (yet), so I may be among the first to point this out. I think Wink may be on the ropes.
Allow me to offer my recent experiences with Wink (the company not the product). As I've posted here previously, I've enjoyed experimenting with the Wink Hub, connected a variety of devices to it, and documented my experiences here, or within comments elsewhere. As I say, this has been positive for the most part, and I've even gone as far to say that Wink has been gaining maturity in it's offering. Here is the problem - once you get past the hub, and start with their other offerings, things start to get a little shaky. First, there was the well documented and unfortunately highly publicized gaffe back in mid-April of this year. If you missed it, Wink pushed out a firmware update to their Wink Hubs, but bobbled the security certificate. This had the net result of a whole lot of dead (or at least non-communicative) hubs, where the users only choice was to snail mail the hub back Wink for an update at the factory, or for those brave souls that have some basic skills configuring their home routers, a process that you could do at home in about ten or fifteen minutes, Until one of these two processes were completed, your home automation system was offline.
Wink, to their credit, offered a $50 voucher, for limited use on their site, to make up for the trouble. Ordinarily, I would commend them on the gesture, and tell others that this is the way you work customer service and build brand loyalty. It would be great reading in forums saying that Wink messed up, but they did the right thing, and now have a happy customer singing their praises. It didn't really work out that way. First, there was the second or third email from Wink saying that they were sorry, the first coupon code had been rescinded, because it was being abused. To think that a single coupon code for all users to share would not be ripe for attempted abuse, is a wee bit naive. The next "private single-use" code did not work, and finally, on the third try, a single-use personalized code was delivered to those affected. For me, life was good again; I tweaked my router, had my hub updated, and had a $50 voucher burning a hole in my digital wallet. Yes, life was good.
Not so fast. In fact, really not fast at all. I've been wanting to add some remote automation to my garage doors, so I thought I would purchase the Ascend garage door opener. I did a lot of research before picking the Ascend, which is one of the Quirky Wink partnership products, and only available from the Wink site. Even thought there are a lot of products available that can interface with my garage door openers, the only ones certified by Wink to work with their system were the Ascend and Chamberlain MyQ products. As an aside - Wink, please add the Linear controls to your z-wave connected and certified product list. Please? Sorry for the digression, back to the two choices.
- Written by Kirk Sexton
I've posted my experiences with Wink here and elsewhere for a few months now. While I've enjoyed tinkering with it, in the back of my mind I had this nagging thought that it might not ever be a robust enough platform for serious dependable use. That thought diminished considerably with latest upgrade. To be fair, first let me spell out why I thought it might not be ready for prime time:
- The Wink Hub firmware upgrade process was really clunky - it worked mostly, but it was way harder than it should be
- There were really long delays at times between an icon press and the result - mostly due to the round trip to the cloud in order for the action to take place
- Even the simplest of actions took a minimum of one second
- When using the Wink app, it did not check the state of your devices first before painting the icons on the screen, which left the user unsure of the true state of the device (really bad if you are away from home)
- Sometimes, timed events (using the scheduler) worked, and sometimes they didn't
Most of these issues are well documented in the various forums that have popped up around this product. Even though their customer service is really good (I say this from personal experience), I just got the impression that they weren't taking the cues from the user experience and using them to improve the product. I think this last update may be a step in the right direction.
The first indication I had that a new product was available was a small message at the bottom of the screen on the Wink Hub page of the app. It stated that, 'A hub update is required'. Clicking on the 'Update Hub' button, I was warned that it could take 10 minutes to update, and that normal operations might be offline during that time. I went ahead with the update. I immediately got a message on the app that, 'Hub is updating', while a circle spun around the hub icon. At the same time, the indicator light on the Wink Hub went from solid blue to a flashing yellow-green color. This went on for about a minute, and then the light started flashing red. This went on for quite a while, much longer than the advertised 10 minutes. After a total of 17 minutes, the hub indicator returned to a steady blue, and a Wink notification appeared on the status bar of my android smartphone. However, the spinning circle around the hub icon and the message stating 'Hub is updating' remained. I gave it a few minutes before hitting the back button to close the page. That seemed to clear the 'updating' status. Checking the version of the hub firmware indicted that I am now on version 0.77.0. It seems to be an odd version number for a shipping product, but hey, let's see what changed.
What has Improved?
The first thing I noticed was that the indicator icons on the app were actually showing the state of the devices as they were at the moment. I had one light partially dimmed, and another set of lights turned on. The app indicated this correctly. Secondly, changing the settings on these devices was nearly immediate. The delay is now definitely sub-second. As far as the hub firmware update process went, it was much better than in the past, but still has a little ways to go before it is polished. For example, when it went from flashing yellow-green to flashing red, makes one think something has gone horribly wrong. Also the nearly double the predicted time created some unnecessary nervousness. Telling the user this would happen before hand is better, and telling the user what is happening as it is happening is even better. Still, this went way better than the first update I had to do when I first purchased it. A step in the right direction.
Next I tested a few schedules out by making up a few new ones, then closing the app and waiting to see if the events I set up worked. This worked reliably in my tests, but I did notice that the events kicked off almost a full minute behind the system time. My guess is that the cloud that Wink uses to manage events is probably a minute off from my local system time. The best part though, is that when I checked my apps icons, they accurately reflected the state of the events I had scheduled (including such details as the dimmer level). This is a huge improvement.
Lastly, group events such as turning all lights on with one push works great and the icons reflect the true status of the individual lights. However, I was able to cause the app to fail by turning on the lights as a group, and then turn them off individually, causing the app to lose track of the state of the light. Not polished, but better than before.
It appears the developers at Wink are listening, and while they may not be as speedy as most would like (that too is all over the forums), they are moving in the right direction. I'm no longer in the mindset of dropping it for something different, but I would definitely like to see a more robust product. One thing that I can't shake is the inability to get under the hood. Not everyone that will buy this product wants that kind of access, but many of us out here like to tinker, and at least have more indication of what is going on the hub and app. It is kind of like buying a car, and not being able to put custom wheels on it, much less custom engine performance products. The Wink team needs to put the more technical information out there for those of us that can use it. It just might boost sales among us DIY'ers.
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