May 062014
 May 6, 2014  Dining Room  Add comments

This past winter was brutal here in Boston. From November through mid-March it was dark, and windy, and really, really cold. There was lots of talk of polar vortices. The entire city seemed to fall into a cold-induced malaise. People shuffled to and from work, but otherwise the streets were mostly empty. For months, my neighborhood looked like a windswept arctic wasteland. It was so cold for so long that one of the downspouts on my building got backed up with ice and burst under the pressure.

I spent most of the winter holed up inside, bundled in sweaters and sweatshirts, doing my best to stay warm. I kept the thermostat set between 60 and 65 ºF while I was home to try to save money on my heating bill. But despite my best efforts, each month the heating bill was nearly double what it had been the previous year. This increase was caused by some combination of higher gas prices and unrelentingly cold outside temperatures.

I tried to turn the thermostat down when I wasn’t home, but I was reluctant to set it too low because I didn’t want to come home to a frigid apartment. My thermostat at the time was actually programmable, but it was about 25 years old, and the user interface was so complicated that my only attempt to set a program was disastrous. The heat came on at odd hours, and it took me a few days of trial and error to return the thermostat to manual operation.

Old Chronotherm III Thermostat

So at some point last winter I decided to get a new thermostat. I wanted to save money on my heating bill, but I didn’t want to invest a lot of time or energy in the process. What I needed was a programmable thermostat that was really easy to use. The Nest Thermostat seemed to fit the bill. Not only is it programmable, but with regular use it programs itself. It also connects to wi-fi, so you can use your phone or computer to adjust the temperature from work, or from across the country, or from the couch in the living room. The one sticking point was the price – $250 seemed a little spendy for a thermostat. But then I found out that my gas utility company, National Grid, offers an instant $100 rebate for the Nest Thermostat. Sold.

Even though I got the thermostat a few months ago, I didn’t install it right away. I was afraid I would mess up the installation and end up without heat. But by last week the heat hadn’t come on in a few days, and I was pretty sure spring had finally arrived, so I swapped out the old thermostat. Installing the Nest was pretty straightforward – if you’ve ever changed a light fixture, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

The thermostat is in the dining room, which I painted pale gray (BM Moonshine) this past year. I didn’t bother to take the old thermostat down, I just painted around it. The dining room walls were light brown before I painted, so when I removed the old, bulky thermostat I expected to find the same light brown paint underneath it. Instead I found more gray paint. And it wasn’t just any gray, it was pretty much identical to the gray I used to paint the rest of the room a few months ago.

Old New Paint

Here you can see the rectangular outline of the old thermostat. (Ignore for a moment the fact that the wall is covered in a million layers of paint and wallpaper.) Outside of the rectangle is the new gray paint and inside is the old gray paint. In case you’re wondering, there’s no evidence of the old paint anywhere else in the room, so I chose the new paint without ever seeing the old paint color. The whole thing was a little freaky. There was even an outline of an old circular thermostat that was the same size as the new Nest. It felt like I’d been unconsciously recreating the room as it existed at some point in the past – sort of like I was mediating an architectural reincarnation.

After spending a few minutes thinking about what this discovery might mean for the existence of free will, I spackled over the old paint and the outline of the old thermostat. Once the spackle dried, I sanded, primed, and once again painted the wall pale gray.

Thermostat Spackle

The rest of the installation was easy. I screwed the Nest back panel into the wall – it even has a handy built-in level – popped the wires into place (no wire nuts required), and snapped the thermostat onto the back panel.

New Nest Thermostat

Since the weather has recently taken a turn for the better, I haven’t really had a chance to use the Nest since I installed it. And I don’t have central air conditioning, so I’ll have to wait until next winter to put it to the test. But in the meantime, it looks good on the dining room wall. It’s a definite aesthetic improvement over the old, beige box of a thermostat that it replaced, anyway. Actually, its circular, steel-rimmed display bears a striking resemblance to Hal 9000, the homicidal computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And like Hal, the Nest – which is equipped with motion sensors – always seems to be watching. One day about a week after I installed it, I came home from work and the thermostat informed me that it had collected enough information about my comings and goings to initiate an auto-away schedule: it will automatically lower the temperature to a predefined level when no one is home. The auto-away feature is a little creepy, but it’s what makes the thermostat so convenient. And Nest has a pretty solid privacy policy, which has remained unchanged even though they’re now owned by Google. The automated features of the thermostat are also just really cool. It makes me feel like I’m living in the future where artificially intelligent robots tend to my every need.

Anyway, now that outdoor temperatures are bearable and occasionally downright pleasant, I’ve stopped thinking about heating bills altogether. But hopefully when next winter rolls around, the new thermostat will save me some money, and make for a more comfortable indoor climate.

  6 Responses to “New Thermostat”

  1. I’ve seen these, and may look into them myself when the time comes. Right now I’m still renting and am in the house search phase so perhaps next year I may be in a position to do something like this.

  2. The fact that they are now owned by Google has stopped me from purchasing one. Google knows too much about everyone as it is, they can stay out of my heating bills. (That said, I’m secretly envious because it DOES look and sound really cool).

  3. So, this is late, but I was going through old emails. Your comment about “free will” (and the Hal 9000 reference) is the reason I follow your blog. Hilarious.

    And I followed the kitchen remodel, as well. Great work all around!

  4. Mediating an architectural reincarnation! I can’t tell you how much I love that.

    I read your entire AT series in the last day or two, really beautiful kitchen. My style does not tend to older homes but I love how you have maintained the character of the old in the new spaces. That new trim in the kitchen is genius.

    Thanks for sharing, I”m really enjoying your writing and your home.

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