Monthly Archives: December 2013

Nest Protect – Smart Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Alarm


Following their success with the Nest thermostat, the Nest team have turned their hand to the humble smoke alarm for their next product – Nest Protect. Doesn’t sound very exciting does it? But then neither did the thought of replacing your thermostat and that seems to have worked out well for them. As with their thermostat, Nest have addressed a number of fundamental design issues endemic with all smoke alarms and produced a product that just makes so much sense.

Nest Protect is available in two colours; white, or black. It’s also available in either mains powered, or battery powered versions.

So what is it? Well, it’s a smoke alarm, to start with. It’s actually a combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarm, which is a good start, as it’s already combined two devices into one. It connects to the internet via your wifi network, which allows it to communicate with your smart phone via the Nest app. This allows it to send you notifications if it detects sufficient smoke or CO to trigger an alarm condition. It also means you can fire up the app at any time and check its status. So that’s the “internet of things” box checked then. Actually, in my opinion, that’s not the best bit about it. My favourite features of the Nest Protect are the way it addresses two key problems with traditional smoke alarms:

  1. Dying batteries keeping you awake with an incessant beeping
  2. Having to wave a tea-towel in front of it like a lunatic when you burn some toast

The first one is actually quite a serious issue. When a smoke alarm’s batteries are dying, most smoke alarms will beep periodically. Inevitably, this will start in the middle of the night and will drive you ’round the bend sufficiently to remove the battery to stop it from beeping. Not only does this mean navigating a ladder (or more likely a makeshift ladder, such as a rickety chair) to get to the alarm to take the battery out, but it means that you have no smoke alarm until you replace the battery. Chances are you haven’t got a spare in the house, so you’ll be without a smoke alarm until you remember to get a new battery. The safety implications of this are pretty evident.

Nest Protect addresses this issue in a couple of ways. Firstly, it will give you a visual indication of its status when you turn the lights off at night. Nest Protect has a light sensor and when the room goes dark, for instance when you turn the lights of at night, it will glow green to let you know all’s well. If the batteries are low, or there is some other issue, it will instead glow yellow, letting you know there’s something that needs checking. You can then fire up the app and check its status. Secondly, you can see the status of the battery at any time from the app, meaning you can arrange to change the battery in plenty of time.

The way Nest Protect addresses the second issue is quite ingenious. In addition to its sensitive smoke detector, it also has a heat sensor. Rather than just sounding an alarm when any smoke is detected, it can judge how serious the alarm is. If you burn some toast or something minor and Nest Protect detects it, it will trigger a minor alarm. Instead of sounding a shrill alarm, it will simply give you what it calls a Heads-Up. The light on the alarm will go yellow and it will speak to you, telling you that an alarm has been triggered, saying something like “smoke detected in the Living Room”. Nest Protect also has motion sensors and you can silence an alarm simply by waving your hand in front of it (as long as the alarm isn’t what it determines to be serious, i.e. high smoke/heat/CO levels).

I was sufficiently impressed by the device to place a pre-order for one, which arrived the other day. I ordered a black, battery operated one and here’s my view on it so far…

Ordering & delivery:
Firstly, I had to choose which one to go for. I intended to replace a traditional smoke alarm in my living room. It’s not mains wired, so I went for the battery powered version. The existing alarm was mounted on a wood beam on my living room ceiling, so I ordered the black version, to blend in with the dark coloured beams better.

Nest didn’t charge my card (£109 by the way) until the device was shipped and an email confirmation was sent informing me of the expected shipping date. The device shipped as promised on that date and another email confirmation was sent to inform me, including a tracking number. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at home when the delivery was attempted, but ParcelForce left the parcel at my local Post Office, rather than taking it back to the depot (which is miles away) so it was reasonably convenient for me to collect it.

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Included in the box were the mounting plate, including screws, the Nest Protect itself and some instructions.

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The first thing to do is get the device connected to your network. To do this, you need to download the Nest app on your smartphone and fire it up. You’ll need to create an account first, following which you’ll be sent an email containing a link that you’ll need to click in order to activate your account. For me, this email took about 20 minutes to arrive, so it would be a good idea to download the app and create an account before the device arrives if you’re planning on ordering one.

Whilst I was waiting for the email to arrive, I set about fitting the mounting plate. The mounting plate has quite a lot of options for screw placement, so you may find that if you’re replacing an existing smoke detector, you can re-use the screws, or at least the screw holes. In my case, I decided to relocate the smoke detector from the side of the beam, to the bottom of it. I did this for a couple of reasons:

  1. I can wave my hand underneath it quite easily with it facing down, however in its original position, facing sideways, I’d have to stand on something in order to raise my hand high enough for the Nest Protect to detect it.
  2. I wanted to try the Pathlight feature, where if it’s dark and Nest Protect detects motion, it will glow white, as a sort of night light, to light your way. This wouldn’t have worked very well if it was mounted sideways.

The physical installation of the baseplate was very simple and gave me a chance to try out a gift that I’d recently received – a magnetic wrist band, for holding screws etc:

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Once my email confirmation had come through, I activated my account and followed the instructions to set up the device itself. It’s a simple process, which consists of the following steps:

– Open the app and follow the on-screen instructions to scan the QR code on the back of the Nest Protect
– The Nest Protect will then create its own wifi hotspot that you then connect your phone to
– Nest Protect will detect available wifi networks

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– Choose your home wifi connection and give it the password

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– Nest Protect will now take a minute to get connected and configure itself

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Once it’s set up, you mount the Nest Protect to its mounting plate by lining up the holes on the back of the device with the pegs on the baseplate and twisting it clockwise slightly to secure it in place.

Once installed, I gave it a bit of a test. I rolled up some paper into a tube and lit the end, then blew it out. I held it under the Nest Protect, with plenty of smoke flowing into the Nest. At first, it didn’t react, but after about 10 seconds, it glowed red and sounded the alarm. At the same time, my phone made an alarm sound and an alert notification came through. I silenced the alarm and about five to ten minutes later, the Nest glowed green and announced that the smoke had cleared. Seems to work just as expected then.

An excellent product that comes up with some really innovative ways of addressing age-old problems with traditional smoke alarms, albeit at a price. £109 is pretty steep for a smoke alarm, especially as most homes have more than one. To me though, the pricing doesn’t seem unreasonable, given the functionality.

It should be noted that Nest aren’t the only ones in the “smart smoke alarm” market. Birdi (formerly Canary) are an Indiegogo project (at $18,000 of a $50,000 target at time of writing) that is destined to do much the same thing as Nest Protect at a slightly cheaper price point. Having been beaten to market by a company with the clout of Nest probably isn’t the best start to their project, but it does look interesting and has a slightly different feature set.


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tado Smart Thermostat


I’ve been on the lookout for a smart thermostat for literally years now. Smart thermostats aren’t a particularly new thing, with devices available from manufacturers like Heatmiser and Honeywell for several years, however Nest really shook up the market a couple of years ago, when they launched the first version of the Nest thermostat. Designed by Tony Fadell, the man responsible for Apple’s iPod family, the Nest is a beautiful bit of kit and I immediately decided I must have one. My hopes were quickly dashed when I realised that Nest was designed for the US market, who’s heating systems work in a different way to European systems, meaning Nest cannot be used in Europe without some serious modifications. Nest said they were planning on launching in the UK, but wouldn’t give a date. Over two years later and well into the second generation of Nest thermostat and there’s still no UK launch date.

It was about a year ago that I first heard of tado, who appeared to be offering a Nest-like thermostat for Europe. This seemed to be just what I wanted, so I began looking into it. I was initially disappointed with the tado, upon discovering it was just a plain white box, which seemed a bit of an anticlimax when compared with the Nest. Having looked a bit further into tado, it became clear why the device itself is so plain. This is the single biggest difference between tado and Nest – Nest is all about the thermostat, whereas tado is all about the system and the thermostat is just another component of that system that the user shouldn’t have to worry about. Thinking about it further, this approach makes so much more sense. Although Nest has smart phone control, the thermostat itself is stil the main focal point. Yes, the thermostat is a lovely bit of hardware, but why does it need to be? If it’s such a smart heating system, why do you still need to touch the thermostat? tado take a different approach – All of the bling is in the app rather than the thermostat, as that’s where you control it from. It’s a beautiful and easy to use interface and you find yourself simply forgetting about the hardware.

My old thermostat & heating timer were pretty crude and, I suspect, a common setup in the UK. I could program two or three heating periods so the heating comes on for a bit in the morning while I wake up and get ready for work, then on again in the evening and off when I go to bed. I could have different programs for weekdays and weekends, but that’s about the extent of it. Unfortunately, my life doesn’t conform to such rigorous schedules and my house would often be heated whilst I wasn’t in, or not heated enough if for example I got up earlier than usual.

The tado is much more flexible. You can still program periods when you want your house to be heated, but if you need to make a change to that schedule, it’s far easier to do so. If I’m leaving home early tomorrow and I want the house to heat up earlier, I can now simply make the one-off change in less than a minute from my phone. Previously, I’d have had to have scrabbled about re-programming some indecipherable device in a cupboard in my hallway, which I simply wouldn’t have bothered with. Even smarter still, tado will use geo-location services on your phone to work out how far away from home you are. If I’m away from home for a few days, tado knows and won’t bother heating the house as much. When I come home, tado knows I’m on my way and heats up the house so it’s nice & warm when I get home. This is the feature that I bought tado for and its distinguishing feature from other products on the market.

You can link several smart phones (iOS or Android) to tado, so if there are several people in your house, it won’t turn off the heating until the last person leaves the house and it will warm up again as the first person is on their way back. You can also set what temperature you want tado to maintain when you’re at home and when you’re away, as well as while you’re asleep at night.

Tado learns the thermal properties of your home and will adjust itself to it. What this means is that instead of programming your heating to come on at 6:30am in the hope that it’ll be warm when you wake up at 7am, you can tell tado that you want your house to be 21 degrees at 7am and it will work out what time it needs to turn on the heating in order for your house to have warmed up to 21 degrees by that time. Because tado is internet connected, it can look up the weather for your home and judge whether it will need to turn on the heating early because it’s a bit frosty outside, or whether it’s unusually sunny and it can rely on sunlight beaming through your windows to help warm up the house. Clever stuff.

The main reason I became more interested in tado was their use of geo-location on your smart phone to work out whether you’re home or not. The Nest utilises motion sensors in the thermostat unit to work out if anyone is home. It takes Nest a few hours to work out that you’ve left the house, as it has to allow a reasonable amount of time without anyone moving near the thermostat before it decides the house is empty. Conversly, tado knows immediately that you’ve left the house, because your phone tells it so. All sounds good doesn’t it? I thought so, so I bought one. Here’s a summary of my experiences after running it for a few weeks:

Ordering & delivery:
My first impressions of customer service weren’t great. Having been told that my tado would ship on launch day (the 1st of November), I was disappointed that mine still hadn’t shipped a full ten days later. It took them several days to respond to my service request enquiring about the delivery too (although they responded to Twitter more quickly). Not brilliant, but I’ll put it down to a launch-date rush and hopefully this will become slicker with time. The website and the ordering process is nice and straightforward and the delivery tracking via DHL is great.

Again, not a great first impression. After my device had arrived so late, I was really keen to get it installed ASAP, so I logged in to the web interface to get the installation instructions for my setup, only to find… no instructions. A call to support revealed they hadn’t got all of the installation routines live on the web yet and mine would be up in a couple of days. The next day, although instructions specific to my setup weren’t available, some generic instructions had been put online, so I took the plunge and went for it. Installation was pretty simple, though actually completely different to what I’d expected.

Tado bits:

Top left: The tado controller, top right: The tado “connector”, bottom: wireless thermostat
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The other bits that come in the box. Everything you need is here, including all screws, rawl-plugs and even stickers to label the cables as you remove them from your old control unit & thermostat.
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I had thought of tado as a thermostat replacement and I expected to replace my existing thermostat with the tado box. I assumed that I would set my heating controller to permanent on and let Tado control the heating via the thermostat connections. The way it actually works is the complete opposite of that. The tado box replaces the heating controller and the thermostat is replaced by a blanking plate containing a circuit that basically bypasses the thermostat connections entirely, instead relying on a new, wireless thermostat device that came with the tado. This makes sense, but was a lot different to what I was expecting. The wiring for the heating controller was more complicated than the thermostat, but still pretty simple and not too much for anyone competent with DIY and home electrics to do themselves. Many people of course aren’t comfortable working with 240v electrics, which is fair enough and you have the option for tado to arrange an engineer to install it for you at an additional cost.

Tado installation:

The blanking plate that replaces your thermostat
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The wiring of my old heating controller
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The main tado box, installed where the heating controller used to be
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My old heating controller and thermostat
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It’s worth noting that while my experience with the installation instructions wasn’t great, it was again down to Tado being ill-prepared at launch and by now, the installation would be much slicker. The online installation guide is actually one of the best I’ve seen and I particularly liked the visual indicators showing the success of various steps as you perform them. For example when you plug the gateway device into your router, a box on the web interface turns green to show that it can be seen by the tado servers. The same happens when you turn on the power after installing the tado box itself. This in particular gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, as there’s always a bit of nervousness after installing something like that – “have I wired it up right? Will it work?”. Well, it tells you straight away, so you don’t have to sweat for long!

I hadn’t had a great deal of luck with the delivery or installation steps, so I was really hoping that now it was installed, it would be plain sailing. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. I was really keen to test the location services aspect of it, so I installed the app on my phone and fired it up. What I was expecting was for tado to show me at home and be heating the house to my “home” temperature. What I actually saw was tado showing me as away from home and allowing the house to cool down to my away temperature.

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I started checking my settings – tado had my correct address, so it knew where home was and location services on my phone were configured correctly for tado. Firing up Google Maps showed me at exactly the right location, so why did tado think I was away? I logged a support call with tado via email and while I waited for a response I played with various settings and scoured the internet for info, all to no avail. A week later and having still had no response from tado to my support ticket, I was getting a bit annoyed. I now had a heating system that I had to remember to manually turn on and off when I went to and came back from work. I gave up on the email support and called tado instead. I wish I’d done this sooner, as the guy on the phone was actually really helpful and quickly found the problem.

The tado app uses location services to determine whether you’re at home, or if not, how far away from home you are. It doesn’t need to be super accurate, so it tries not to use GPS, as that would harm battery life. Instead, it uses other location sources like phone masts to determine your approximate location. I live in a rural area and there is only one phone mast that can be picked up from my house, which is approximately 4km away. When I’m at home, as the tado app can only see one mast, it determines that as my location, which is far enough away from my house for tado to think I’m away. In order to rectify this, the guy I spoke to from tado support had to extend the range that tado considers “home” from 500m to around 5km. That fixed the initial problem of tado thinking I was away, as that distance incorporated the phone mast. Unfortunately, I work around 10km away from home and now when I’m at work, tado still thinks I’m at home and doesn’t turn down the heating. I asked if there’s any way to refine how tado determines that I’m at home, for example if it could detect my home WiFi network and use that to determine if I’m at home, that would be a good start. Apparently this works on Android, but Apple won’t let apps see that data on the iOS platform and of course I’m using an iPhone. They did say they’re working on a workaround for this issue on iOS and also that there are some app enhancements being worked on which will allow you to change your home location (though I’m not sure how this will be implemented) and to change the radius around your house that tado considers “home” (you currently need to call support to get this changed).

At the moment, tado isn’t working very well for me and is a bit of a disappointment, but I’m hopeful that with their planned app enhancements it will soon work much more effectively. Also, I should point out that I’m an unusual case and it’s because I live in a rural area and work close to home that it’s not working for me. I’m sure if you lived in a more urban area, or somewhere with more mobile phone masts, Tado would work much more effectively. Overall, I think Tado shows a lot of promise, which makes it all the more frustrating that it’s just not working for me.

I’ll update this article as things develop.

Update – 12th March 2014:
Yesterday, an update for the tado iPhone app became available. The description in the app store was vague, just citing “bug fixes”, but I downloaded it. I noticed this morning that the tado web site had also recently been updated with a brand new (and in my opinion, much nicer) look & feel. The new web site also has some new functionality. I noticed that in the account settings, the pin in the map that shows the home location was in completely the wrong place, several miles away from my home (despite the written address & postcode above it being correct). With the new update, I discovered I can now drag and drop this pin, so I dragged it to where my house actually is and with eager anticipation opened the tado app on my iPhone to see if it had noticed I was away from home. It hadn’t. I opened Google maps to give location services a nudge and then went back into the tado app and, to my elation, it had noticed that I was away from home. Finally, tado seems to be doing what it says on the tin. It’s been next to useless for the last 5 months, but it now finally seems to do what I actually bought it for and I couldn’t be happier! Hopefully, it will continue to work as expected!

Update – 9th April 2014:
Last week, Nest finally launched a UK version of their thermostat. I don’t care. Since the tado app & website updates in the middle of March, my tado has been working like a dream and has made up for all the initial problems. Having used tado for a while now, I see it as far superior to the Nest thermostat, so I have no regrets buying a tado now that Nest is available in the UK.

I have a friend who has also recently purchased a tado and although he also had issues with his device being delayed and arriving a few weeks later than promised, he had non of the issues I had with the installation & use and he’s quite happy with it now it’s up & running. He’s also using tado to control hot water in his house and he’s reported limited functionality in the control of that aspect of it. He’s fed back to tado, who have said they intend to incorporate enhancements in hot water control in a future app update.

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