The Case Against the Integrated Thermostat - ResidentialSystems.com

The Case Against the Integrated Thermostat

One of the big announcements at CEDIA EXPO this year was that Nest finally opening up its API for third-party integration, starting with Control4. Before the show, there was a lot of resentment and anger toward Nest for creating a product that was so cool, so cutting edge, so popular and Apple-like, and yet wouldn’t interface with all of the systems that we install. (I might have been guilty of piling some of this on as well..)
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One of the big announcements at CEDIA EXPO this year was that Nest finally opening up its API for third-party integration, starting with Control4. Before the show, there was a lot of resentment and anger toward Nest for creating a product that was so cool, so cutting edge, so popular and Apple-like, and yet wouldn’t interface with all of the systems that we install. (I might have been guilty of piling some of this on as well..)

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To Tony Fadell’s credit, he made a lot of great points during his keynote speech as to why Nest waited for some time before wanting to open up their product to third-party use, citing Apple as precedent and how long it waited before opening up its iron curtain and allowing others to start playing in its orchard. And when Fadell finally made the integration announcement, it was met with immediate approval and applause from the crowd. And I’ll admit, even I was swept up in it. I’ve had many clients that have Nest thermostats, and, boy, oh golly, wouldn’t it be great to integrate these thermostats with our systems?

Well, after leaving the Jonestown hysteria that Fadell had woven over the crowd and setting down my only partially finished Kool-Aid, I had a moment of reflection on integrating with thermostats and thought that I’d offer an opposing take.

Integration Upsides
So, what’s the upside to selling and integrating with an HVAC system?

You get to sell a thermostat or two. Depending on the model this might be a couple hundred bucks per unit.

There are a lot of cool things you can do with an integrated HVAC system, such as notifications if the house is too hot or cold, as well humidity monitoring, and tying in with programmed scenes, and the other things we like to do. This can allow a homeowner peace of mind, being able to check up on a home from anywhere in the world and is especially beneficial for people that own multiple homes. We’ve actually sold control systems solely for the purpose of remotely monitoring and controlling HVAC.

As integrators, we like the idea of creating Smart Homes that integrate all subsystems, and HVAC is certainly one of the systems that classically falls under our purview.

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Integration Downsides
And what are the downsides?

Nearly every thermostat manufacturer recommends having the thermostat installed by a professional HVAC contractor. Sure, with most thermostats only using around six color-coded wires, you can probably install it yourself, but if you mess something up, you could cause serious hardware damage to the compressor or air handler. I recently had to have two Lutron controls installed by an HVAC contractor—the controller wired directly into the air handler, which was located in the attic and the basement, and I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that myself. The guy was literally the slowest moving human I’ve seen, looked at my thermostat like it was a two-headed cobra, and he charged my company $220 to do the two units. But I got to sell two thermostats. So, yay.

Considering what is involved, the amount of money you stand to make from selling the thermostat is going to be burned up on a single return service call. Hours after those two thermostats I just told you about were installed, I started getting emails from the homeowner with control and programming issues.

If there is any issue with the heating or cooling system in the home, the blame is immediately going to go on you. Whenever there is some issue with the HVAC system, you will likely need to be there to confirm that your system is not to blame, and because you are likely unfamiliar with the mysterious inner-workings of HVAC systems, this will likely have you on shaky ground with no easy deniability.

A malfunctioning thermostat can quickly cause emergency temperature issues in the home. For example, a totally non-thermostat related software update of our store’s automation controller caused our “smart” thermostat to constantly call for heat. This was at the height of summer… in Myrtle Beach, SC. It quickly rose to 93 degrees in our store. At another job, a wrong setting in software kept the heat changeover from happening, dropping the house into the 50s at night. You think people freak out when they can’t get their TV to work because the cable box is down, wait until your thermostat turns their living room into the Tropic of Cancer and see how excitable they get. These temperatures extremes are emergency service issues that can’t wait to be scheduled in. These temp extremes also have the potential for causing other damages like, say, destroying a wine collection.

Even when it is not your system, your tech is likely going to be blamed for the issue, requiring you to go and interface with an HVAC installer that is likely leery of your tech and willing and eager to throw you under the bus. We have a job where Crestron is interfacing with the thermostat. The HVAC system continued to have issues that required repeated returns to the house to sit there and defend our tech. Even after removing Crestron from the system—where it now just reports the temp—the HVAC installer continued to blame us for the issues, continually putting us in the middle with a homeowner that just wants the stupid thing to work.

So, yes, that Nest is finally agreeing to begin working with third-party control companies is definitely cool. But before you go running out and integrating a bunch of Nest—or any other—thermostats, just make sure you know all the risks. Because, as a smart man once said, knowing is half the battle.

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John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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