Home Heating and Human Civilization

Last Thanksgiving I purchased and installed a super-whizzy Nest Learning Thermostat. I just knew my life was going to be better. It satisfies the geek in me because it can do things like monitor my heating system history and let me control it from a phone app. I was sure it was smarter than my old thermostat and me so it was going to save me gobs of money and enable me to retire earlier. It also looks pretty cool and makes a great conversation piece. I very carefully installed it, following all the instructions. I didn’t hire a professional. Thermostats aren’t that hard to install and Nest has very good instructions.

One of the first things I noticed was that my house always seemed kind of cold; more so than with my old thermostat. The Nest said that it was still learning so I assumed it would get around to making things better eventually. In the meantime I was a little more proactive about turning the heat up. That basically worked but the temperature swings were still pretty wide. One of the pieces of advice for using the Nest was that you didn’t need to follow the guidance of keeping your temperature range fairly narrow. The thermostat is smart enough to manage the heat so that the low temp could be very low and still be warmed up in time to be comfy when you’re home and awake. This should enable you to save even more money. That wasn’t what I was experiencing. Eventually I narrowed the range manually and the house became fairly comfortable.

As mentioned above, one of the features of the Nest is that it lets you see how your heating system has been behaving. It has a great report that shows you when I’ve been using the heat pump or Thermostatauxiliary heat (electric furnace). We had some pretty significant cold snaps in December and January so it was interesting to see the changes in behavior. It even gives you a green leaf on the days that something has gone right ecologically or economically. I have yet to figure out what causes me to get a green leaf but I was collecting a few so I was sure things were going well. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how my old thermostat was behaving so I had no idea if what I was seeing from the Nest was different or better. Life seemed on track until I looked at my electric bill in mid-February. My electric bill is paid automatically and I generally know what it’s going to be so I don’t look at it every month. When I looked at my bill I discovered that for December and January it was THREE TIMES what it normally is for that time of year. It was cold, but not that cold. WTF!?! Since the radical change in my bill started about the same time as I installed my Nest I assumed that was the culprit. Likely for some reason it was using auxiliary heat much too much. (I don’t really know why anyone thought an electric furnace is good for anything; even as a backup for a heat pump. They’re outrageously and ridiculously expensive.) I made several adjustments that should have minimized use of auxiliary heat but without success. Eventually, I turned auxiliary heating off completely and just relied on the heat pump. Now I was getting some data. With the heat pump alone, the house never heated up. That was beginning to explain things. About this time (in early March) I was about to go into a spurt of travel insanity so I just turned the whole system off. I’d get back to it when life settled down again.

A nice feature of the Nest is that, even when the heating system is turned off, you can still check the temperature of your house with the phone app. I checked periodically while I was away and noticed that it never dropped below 61 and spent a lot of time in the mid-60s. That’s nearly tolerable for everyday living. Not quite, but nearly. Life and work continued to be stupidly busy when I got back so I just dealt with the colder than average house for a couple of weeks. It turned out that with a space heater in my bedroom and the computers warming up my office I could get by fairly well. It was a little awkward to explain when I had company over though.

Today I finally found a few minutes to rub together to take a closer look at the system. I pulled the thermostat off the wall and double checked the wiring. It looks mostly right though there are a few peculiarities that I don’t fully understand. I talked to a couple of people about and did some web research and it ought to be OK. The likely explanation at this point is that my heat pump has died. That’s beyond my ability to debug so I have a professional on the way. I called Eco Home Comfort. They were recommended by my daughter who does rental property management for a local real estate company. She deals with service providers like Eco Home Comfort a lot. He’ll be here Monday afternoon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now for the human civilization part of the post. As mentioned above, even with the heating system turned off the house has been cold but tolerable, but it has been cold. I’ve noticed an increasing reluctance to spend time in my house. I rush to get to work in the morning. I go out every evening. Clutter is piling up. It may be shelter, but I don’t want to spend time here if I have other options. As a result my house is decaying subtly due to my reduced motivation to do anything here. This got me to wondering about how much things like heating have contributed to the development of human civilization. (Seems like a natural progression doesn’t it. 😉 ) If humans are generally under-motivated to accomplish even the most basic things when they’re uncomfortable then we have a lot to be thankful for from the mundane things that we take for granted. Yes, the great people and great inventions have helped us get to where we are today but they may have only been necessary but not sufficient. Basic things like keeping our houses warm may have also been necessary and vital. It’s a complex system that got us here and keeps us going.

I remain optimistic about the Nest thermostat and about human civilization but if my experience with my heating system is any guide progress includes a lot of side trips to destinations that don’t feel much like progress.

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