Ecobee3 Thermostat with Remote Sensors

We’ve had a particularly warm summer, for our very moderate area, and between my wife and my parent’s in-law, they were constantly changing the thermostat temperature, leaving nobody particularly happy, and our electricity consumption skyhigh. I needed a better solution, I found one, but it has some quirks.

I was an early adopter of the Nest Generation 1 thermostat, and when we moved to our new house, Nest was still the best available, and I installed two Nest Generation 2 thermostats, one upstairs, and one downstairs.

Nest used to be an innovator and leader in the home thermostat space, and then two things happened; they were acquired by Google, and competitors like Ecobee and Honeywell released very competitive products. The just released Nest Generation 3 thermostat has no new notable features, it is simply thinner, not unlike its competitors.

The one feature I, and many other users, asked for was remote temperature sensors. In many homes, like ours, where there are two HVAC units, one for upstairs and one for downstairs, with no room specific dampers or temperature control, the upstairs and downstairs air mixes and causes large temperature differentials between closed rooms and open spaces. Adding to that warm air rises and cold air falls, so in the summer the upstairs pumps cold air downstairs, and in the winter the downstairs pumps warm air upstairs, this again leaves bedrooms too hot or too cold.

Ecobee solved this problem, to a large degree, with the Ecobee3 thermostat, that comes with one remote sensing unit, and extra sensors can be purchased at $35 per sensor. The latest version of their thermostat is also Apple HomeKit compatible, allowing Siri to control the thermostat.

There are 3rd party integrations that can control the Nest temperature, like Wally at an additional $299, or SmartThings at an additional $139, but these are integration solutions, not integrated solutions, and makes the Nest solution much more expensive, especially considering the Ecobee3 (with one extra sensor included) and the Nest Gen3 are both $249.

There are alternate solutions like EcoVent that controls the individual vents per room, but that adds an additional $499 minimum for two rooms.

The Ecobee3 solution cannot control the temperature in each room, for that you really need a split AC unit per room, but it does allow the temperature sensing logic to take input from any number of rooms. And in my case, I am specifically interested in the temperatures in the bedrooms, not the general open areas.

Replacing the Nest with an Ecobee3 was easy, the Ecobee3 is slightly thinner than the Nest Gen2, and slightly larger, with that extra size used for a multi-color touch display.

Size Comparison

The remote sensors come with stands, wall screw mounts, and wall sticky tape mounts, they are pretty small and unobtrusive.

Sensor Size

The WiFi setup was really easy, and the first time I’ve seen this particular scheme in action, I believe it is called Wireless Accessory Configuration (WAC), not sure, Apple documentation is as always in short supply. Basically it worked like this; install the EB3 app on my iPhone, EB3 told me to connect my phone to the EB3 SSID, my phone asked me if I want to connect the device to WiFi, select yes, and the EB3 was automatically connected to my home WiFi, no passwords, no hassles, easy.

For each thermostat install the EB3 app asked me details about my house, address, size, construction, etc. This was annoying, one house, one set of details, multiple thermostats, why do I need to configure this for every thermostat. The Nest config was always very easy, one set of options per house, multiple thermostats. A call to EB support told me I need to create a group, then add the thermostats to the same group, then select what options I want to share between thermostats in the same group, and this can only be done from the web portal. This was a setup and first experience usability fail.

The second problem I ran into was the time configuration, the EB3 correctly selected Los Angeles as the time zone, and synced the time, but the displayed time was 3 hours ahead, East Coast time instead of Pacific Time. I fixed this by manually changing the timezone to something other than LA, saving, then changing it back to LA, and the time was correct. I did send EB support an email about this, and they replied that I need to make sure I have the correct time zone selected, right.

Time Zone

Pairing the remote sensors was really easy, stand in front of the EB3 and pull the plastic tab to let the sensor battery make contact, the EB3 detects the sensor, and lets you pair it, and enter a sensor name. The EB3 thermostat UI allowed me to use non-alpha characters, e.g. “Childs Room”, note the apostrophe, but when I later renamed the sensors, the mobile app and the web app restricted names to numbers and letters only, a slight inconsistency fail.

Sensor Naming

Configuring the schedule and comfort zones was easy and intuitive. I particularly like the concept of the comfort zones, and reusing them in the schedule, vs. the Nest’s more primitive setting of desired temperatures at times of days. This is where I configured the night comfort zones to use only the sensors in the bedrooms, and ignore the temperature at the main thermostat. Made a huge difference in comfort and AC runtime.

After a couple days of use I noticed something weird, the AC would turn on, but the thermostats would show the current temperature is still below the set temperature. This happened with both thermostats, and only in the afternoon. The schedule only called for 74F after 8pm during the night time comfort zone, this was around 7pm, when the set temperature was 78F.

Something is clearly wrong with the scheduler and the schedule. My bet was the scheduler is still using East Coast time (turned out I was wrong), Ecobee phone support was already closed, so I had to wait for the following day.

While I was looking at the System Monitor feature, very neat, I noticed gaps in the data. After a bit of research I found that Ecobee is having scaling problems, and their backend cannot handle the load, may be exacerbated by the Apple store kicking out Nest and now selling Ecobee3, or HomeKit integration, or poor planning. It was also weird that Ecobee does not run their own support forums, the Ecobee community supports themselves at the SmartHomeHub forums. One intrepid forum user created an availability graph based on his data gaps, clearly shows the recent problems.

I called Ecobee support, and they explained what was going on with the schedule; the thermostat has a feature called Smart Recovery Mode, in this mode the AC starts running before a schedule change in an attempt to reach the desired temperature when the schedule starts. And that this prediction takes a week or so to become more accurate, and that it can be impacted by fluctuations in the weather. Ok, makes sense, but usability fail by not making this behavior clear in the status UI.

Smart Recovery

As for the gaps in data, Ecobee support said they are busy migrating data, that this impacts backend performance, and that all systems should be operational in a week, and no data should be lost, slight contradiction to the post on the SmartHomeHub forum, but at least acknowledged.

I am pretty happy with the E3, the remote sensors really do make a big difference in efficiency.

 

[Update: WiFi troubles with the E3]

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Nest Protect False Alarms

2AM, beep, smoke alarm low battery warning, and when one beeps, all the interconnected ones beep, now it is impossible to find which one has a low battery. As for how smoke alarms look, I’ve always wondered who made those terrible aesthetic design choices, maybe it is some kind of industry insider competition to see who can design the ugliest unit with the most obnoxious markings, and still get them sold.

I was thrilled when Nest announced the Nest Protect combination smoke and CO alarm, finally usability and technology catching up with smoke alarms, and an attractive looking unit. I’ve been a long time fan and user of the Nest thermostats, first one v1 unit, and later two v2 units, and I hoped the Nest Protect would do for smoke alarms what Nest did for thermostats.

I pre-ordered ten alarms from Amazon in October 2013, delivered in December 2013. Installation was easy, but I do wish there was a way to get more spoken locations, e.g. “smoke in kids bedroom”, which kid’s bedroom, wait, let me get my phone to see, not.

A week or two after installation we are having friends over for a barbecue, I show the alarm units, I show the mobile app, I explain how great the wave to silence alarm feature is, and how it will warn you before the alarm sounds, everybody is very impressed. Until a few hours later when one of the units go off, “smoke in the guest bedroom”, what smoke. I wave at it, nothing, I press the button, “this alarm cannot be silenced”. Keep in mind they are all interconnected with a mesh wireless network, so all ten units are screaming. After the kids stopped crying and we moved the party outside, I get a ladder and remove the unit, still screaming, I take it to fresh air, still screaming, I get a screwdriver open it up and remove the batteries, silence, but the rest of the units are still screaming, and pressing the button on those units still say “this alarm cannot be silenced”. About 5 minutes after removing the battery from the failed alarm the the other alarms stop. Egg on my face.

Nest support exchanged the unit and sent out a replacement.

As I was browsing the Nest support forums I noticed many other users reporting false alarms, some reporting that replacement units resolved the problem, some reporting repeat problems. Things got worse for Nest when they issued a recall, offering refunds, disabling the wave feature with a firmware update, and stopped selling units until they swapped stock for units with the newer firmware before re-releasing at a reduced price.

October 2014 early AM the alarm goes off, false alarm again, at least this time the alarm silenced itself after a minute. After some back and forth, and an escalation, Nest support agreed to replace all units. The new units have September 2014 manufacturing dates, so I hope these new units are less buggy.

January 2015 early AM the alarm goes off, false alarm again, this time the alarm stopped after only a few seconds. I’ve had enough, my kids are scared, my wife is mad, Nest, you’re out.

Nest support agreed to issue a refund for all ten units, we’ll see how long it takes to receive the refund. And now I’m in the market for combination smoke and CO alarms again, and there are not many choices, if you want something that is functional and good looking.

I was tempted to wait for the First Alert Wi-Fi enabled combination smoke and CO alarm, available for pre-order on Amazon, and although this unit is from a well established manufacturer, hopefully no false alarms, I’m not making the same mistake I made with Nest. Regardless of the pre-order option, it still leaves me unprotected, and I need something now. I could simply not find a decent looking, combination smoke and CO, interconnectable, and hardwired unit, big problem being decent looking.

In the end I opted for the First Alert PC910V units, they are low profile voice enabled combination smoke and CO units with a built-in 10 year battery, sold at Lowes or Amazon. Not interconnected, not hardwired, but at least they look half decent.

Installing these units turned out to be a bit more tricky than I anticipated. The install base is so small that the round ceiling junction boxes are barely hidden, and the instructions specifically call out that they are not to be installed on junction boxes due to air flow concerns.

Smoke

Below are some pictures showing the size differences between the Nest base (left, bottom), First Alert base (center, middle), and a round cover plate (right, top):

Base Size Comparison

Base Size Comparison

To account for the junction box ventilation warning I sealed between the junction boxes and the ceiling drywall, and between the cover plate and the ceiling. The alarm bases were mounted on the cover plates, see pics below.

Junction box

Sealed around junction box

Sealed around cover

Base on cover

Installed

Due to the small footprint of the alarm, the cover plate and imperfections around the hole in the ceiling can be seen when looking up at an angle. (Sorry for the crappy pictures, iPhone in low night not so great)

Drywall marks

Let’s hope I never hear them peep, at least not for ten years if we can trust the battery life, and at least not without a real emergency.