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Thermostat reinvented, and it's finally good

Nest Labs

At my family's home in New York's Hudson Valley, I am a thermostatic basket case. I walk around to each of the three zones, tweaking the heat in the winter and the A/C in the summer. I never program the thermostats, because I don't have patience for their antique interfaces. And when I'm not there, who knows what happens? The easiest way to check is to stare in hazy recognition at the power and gas bills at the end of the month.

If I'm sharing a confessional of inefficiency that would make a mid-1980s General Motors exec laugh out loud, I do it knowing I'm not alone. The energy bills on the other end of those inscrutable little boxes represent half the power consumption of a home, and their mismanagement is pretty much ubiquitous.

That's some heavy guilt to weigh down homeowners, but a team of engineers, many who came from Apple and Google, are arriving on the scene with absolution. It's not your fault, they say. Thermostats really are awful, and it's time for a totally new one. Enter the Nest learning thermostat

A statement of bold industrial design and elegant user interface, the Nest is a smart, widely compatible replacement for your old-school thermostat. Think of it as efficiency through smarter design. Every time you adjust a heat or cooling setting, it learns. After about a week, it starts making the changes for you, and over time, smooths out the transitions in temperature for better efficiency, without you having to pound your head trying to figure out how to program it.

Nest Labs

Do-it-yourself assembly kit includes a screwdriver; but if you're scared to mess with it, Nest can connect you to an installer.

The circular screen tells you how long it will take for the zone to reach the desired temperature, so you don't overcompensate in order to get warm or cool quicker. And the Nest thermostat rewards you for thinking green — shaving a few degrees off a temperature setting — by displaying a glowing leaf. (Hey, it's the thought that counts.)

Besides a dial-based screen interface, Nest has two kinds of proximity sensors. One activates the screen as you approach, so it won't run down the internal battery when you're not in front of it. But a second proximity sensor detects your occasional passes through the room, in order to determine whether you're home or away. If you're away, it will automatically adjust settings to save energy. You can also tell it you're headed out the door — something that it will factor into its learning, assuming you leave the house with a fairly predictable pattern. 

It also has built-in Wi-Fi, so it can link in to your home network, giving you the power to log into it from an iPhone, iPad or Android phone (coming soon), and do it from anywhere in the world. The learning happens the whole time, so if you're regularly adjusting the temperature on your way home from work, it will figure that out and start doing it for you.

Nest Labs

The smartphone app lets you connect to your home and adjust temperatures from anywhere in the world.

All that tech costs money, so it's no surprise that the Nest's initial price is $250. Of course, in a three-zone house, you'd need three of them, but they talk to each other, sharing auto-away readings and other data, so that they can act more efficiently than dumber, older thermostats. Will it pay for itself in money saved on the energy bill? The folks at Nest think so, though we should probably wait for some independent tests before that kind of declaration. 

Here's the thing: I get depressed thinking how much of the world's energy problem can't be solved at home. Solutions require billions of dollars in government incentives, hard-to-swallow policy shifts and substantial risks taken by corporate fat cats who'd rather be making money in other ways.

So when I have an opportunity to do something, anything, that is actually measurable — swapping out the light bulbs, buying a more efficient car, etc. — and scalable across millions of homes, I'm in. 

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Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or on Google+. And join our conversation on Facebook.