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Nest ‘Protect’ Raises the Bar on Smoke Alarms

RP Siegel | Thursday March 27th, 2014 | 0 Comments

NestLast month, Google paid $3.2 billion to acquire Nest Labs, Inc., the maker of upscale home gadgets with high-tech interfaces, most notably the Nest Learning Thermostat (NLT). Most observers feel the acquisition was to help Google participate in the home energy management market, which is becoming increasingly connected to the “Internet of things, which Cisco estimates to be worth some $14.4 trillion over the next decade.”

Nest had only recently announced it’s take on the smoke alarm, the Nest Protect, which is a combination smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detector, done-up with the same kind of panache that made their thermostat stand out from the crowd.

The Nest Protect has a variety of features, providing the kind of performance that you might expect from a “smarter” smoke alarm.

Starting with the same kind of elegant styling as its thermostatic cousin, as well a similarly premium price ($129), it’s clearly aimed at a discriminating market. Here’s what your investment will get you.

The smoke alarms are all connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, which not only allows you to check them with a smartphone app, as you could with the NLT (using the same app), but it also allows them to talk with each other. That means that when there is smoke or carbon monoxide being detected, the alarm will sound not only in the room where the smoke is, but in all the other rooms, too. That improves the chance that you will hear it, which is, after all, the point.

Human factors were clearly given a good deal of consideration. There are two levels of hazard detection with corresponding levels of response. The first is called a “heads up,” which means a small amount of smoke or CO has been noticed. This results in a yellow light and a mild chirp, notifying you not to get too excited, but perhaps you might want to take a look. If the smoke or CO continues, you get the full-blown loud alarm and a red light. The talking detectors will tell you which room the smoke is coming from.

Another great feature is the Nest Wave. Once the alarm comes on, and you’ve gotten the message, whether it’s a false alarm or not, you can easily silence it with a wave of your hand. It might take a couple of waves (the algorithm needs to be sure you really mean it), but as long as you are within 2 to 8 feet of the device, it will shut off. This is important, because annoying false alarms that are difficult to shut off often lead to people disabling their smoke alarms — which, in turn, sometimes leads to very unfortunate outcomes.

The device comes in either a hard-wired or battery-operated version. The battery version requires six lithium-ion batteries, which Nest claims will last several years. Speaking of batteries, another nice feature is the Nightly Promise. What is being promised here is that the device will not awaken you in the middle of the night asking for new batteries. Once the lights go out, the device gives you a reassuring green wink if everything is a-okay, or a yellow frown if it’s not. So you might need to change the battery at that point, but it’s better than waking up several hours later to do it.

The Protect contains an impressive variety of sensors including:

  • Photoelectric smoke sensor
  • Carbon monoxide sensor
  • Heat sensor
  • Three activity sensors
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Humidity sensor

All of this means that the device really wants you to calibrate it once a week, though I doubt that’s going to happen in most homes.

Reviews for the most part have been favorable. Some have balked at the price and wondered if it was really worth the money. Consumer Reports said it performed well, though it was not the safest product of its kind on the market. It gave that honor to a $30 Kidde device. Why? The Kidde uses both photo-electric and ionizing smoke sensors. This allows it to sense a wider range of fire types. The photo-electric sensor used by Nest does respond to smoky-type fires, meaning that it is what it says it is: a smoke detector.

Still, CR felt that for that price, and its claim to be the Cadillac of smoke alarms, the company should have included both types of smoke sensors. The CR reviewer also complained loudly about the difficulty of setting up the Wi-Fi, suggesting that it was not for the uninitiated.

I reviewed the Nest Learning Thermostat back in 2011. At the time I connected with Ted Kidd, a home energy expert, who felt that the premise on which programmable thermostats like the Nest were based on — that setting back the temperature for a few hours each day would save energy — was not necessarily true. “Big savings are not achieved by temporary temperature reductions of the home,” he said. “In fact, reducing air temperature in the home means high mass items like couches and beds get cold and stay cold.”

That means more energy will be required at the other end, to heat all that mass up again. So the question of savings is a little more complicated than one might expect.

In the case of the smoke alarm, Nest engineers have certainly pushed the envelope and advanced the state-of-the-art with a very thoughtful design. A number of these features are truly valuable.

As to whether they have truly designed the ultimate smoke alarm, I think maybe not.

As we look into the future, home automation will continue to progress, and I think we will begin to see smoke detectors coupled with ventilation systems — combined under the heading of indoor air quality and smart ventilation. That way the smoke is not only detected, but it can be actively removed as well. Given that most fire-related deaths are due to smoke inhalation, this could be a very important development.

Still, in the near-term, the Nest Protect is an option well worth checking out, especially for gadget lovers.

Image courtesy of Nest

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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