With energy bills a political hot potato right now, it’s surprising to find out that 40 per cent of British homes don’t even use a thermostat to control their central heating.
Apparently, we like to just turn the heating on or off, open a window, or put on a jumper to find our happy heat zone, which is not the most efficient way to make use of your energy.
Smart heating control went from hobby tech to high street tech when British Gas began advertising its Hive system around Christmas 2013, although it turned out that staying dry was a bigger problem than keeping warm for many Brits this winter.
Now Google has weighed in with the arrival of Nest, a heating control system that claims to learn your habits so you don’t need to programme it. In the next few weeks, energy provider Npower will launch a Nest offer for its customers, although right now its just a retail product.
Both claim to help you save on your bills as well as making you more comfortable, but which is the hottest heating controller?
Hive from British Gas
- Cost: £199 with installation, £149 without
- OS support: iOS, Android, browser
- Multizone: no
- Heat settings: 4/day
- Hot water control: yes
- Weather response: no
- Humidity sensor: no
- Activity sensor: no
If you haven’t seen British Gas’s ads for Hive this winter, you can’t have watched much TV. It’s the first smart heating control system to go beyond the UK’s self-install market, costing £199 with installation.
This gets you the Hive hub, a wireless thermostat, and a boiler control unit, with two types of Hive: one for heating alone and another for heating and hot water.
Hive uses a low-power wireless connection instead of WiFi, so the hub connects it to your home network and the wider internet.
There’s also the essential app for iOS and Android, which lets you control your heating and monitor your home’s temperature from anywhere with an internet connection.
Our installation took about 30 minutes, with the engineer showing us how to set it up on the thermostat, web browser and smartphone.
Hive lets you have four temperature settings per day, plus four on/off moments for your hot water if you have a tank to fill up. There’s also a frost-protection minimum of 5°C to stop pipes bursting in the winter.
We found the browser interface best for the initial set-up when you can drag and drop the timers, but the app is great for fine-tuning your schedule, and does let you copy one day’s settings to the next to speed things up. You’ll also need the web interface to see temperature stats for your home.
The app lets you instantly change the temperature to either frost protection, 10°C, 20°C, or forward it to the next event in your schedule, as well as manually controlling it, or just turning Hive off. You can also set notifications for maximum and minimum temperatures (25°C and 5°C by default).
The wireless thermostat lets you control live temperatures and schedules, but it’s a little more fiddly – ours is just propped up in whatever room we’re using.
British Gas claims Hive can save you £150 a year, and after four months of Hive my heating bill looks a little lower, but it’s been a mild winter in London and the saving could take a while to emerge.
Hive has made it possible to set up more dynamic heating schedules, and to remotely turn the heating on and off when the house is being heated while empty, and it’s easier to adjust the temperature when it’s unexpectedly cool while the heating’s off.
But Hive does have some drawbacks, especially if you’re in a large property that would benefit from multi-zone heating via radiator thermostats. There’s no suggestion that British Gas is planning to introduce such elements.
The Hive hub also needs a spare Ethernet port on your router, which isn’t always easy to find: maybe in future a WiFi bridge could be integrated into the boiler control unit.
Nest from Google Nest Labs
- Cost: £249 with installation, £179 without
- OS support: iOS, Android, browser
- Multizone: yes
- Heat settings: unlimited
- Hot water control: no
- Weather response: yes
- Humidity sensor: yes
- Activity sensor: yes
Nest Labs, which Google bought last year for a cool £1.9 billion, has adapted its US heating control designed around hot air for British homes, which rely on the old-fashioned boiler and radiators.
The system, at £249 with installation, contains a Heat Link boiler control and a Nest Link wireless thermostat, with smartphone app remote control, but crucially it claims to learn your lifestyle and create a heating schedule personalised to your family and your home.
Instead of setting up a heating schedule, you tell it what temperature you’d like to be at, by either interacting with the thermostat or using the Nest app on your phone. There’s also a motion sensor which can tell when people are in the house, switching off automatically when it thinks you’re away, and ignoring pets (there’s a manual override if it’s wrong).
The thermostat is wireless but it’s not portable: you set it up in your living room or hallway, either mounting it on the wall or with the £29 desk stand. It also requires a continuous power source via the micro USB DC adapter.
Nest claims that after a week it will generate a heating schedule to suit your lifestyle, and keep learning, but you can still add temperature points to your day if you disagree with its choices.
The True Radiant algorithm behind Nest will start heating early to anticipate cold mornings and your family’s return home after work or school, and monitors the weather to reduce temperature swings through the day. There’s also a 9°C frost threshold.
You can have up to 10 thermostats per Nest account, and spread them across two homes if you’ve got a second residence. It’ll also support multi-zone systems, but you’ll need a £179 controller and thermostat set for each zone, with installation costs rising accordingly.
With its full colour LCD display, the attractive Nest Link is enough to control the whole system, but it’s easier to use the app, which also gives you reports on your energy usage and efficiency. You’ll even earn a little green Leaf mark every day you’re in the efficiency zone, and receive monthly energy usage reports by email.
Nest will also work with the £109 Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide sensor to both monitor who’s in your home and shut down your heating if CO levels are high.
The main downside of Nest is that it won’t control your hot water separately – the best you can do is to sync it with your heating and hope that supplies enough warm water when you need it.
Nest Link uses WiFi to connect to Heat Link and your router, so there are no extra cables or a separate hub taking up ports on your router.
Verdict: Smart Nest beats simple Hive
Comparing Nest and Hive makes smart into a very relative term: if Nest can really learn to suit your lifestyle, then it’s going to be more efficient than Hive’s simple scheduling.
That could make the £50 price difference worth paying, and we don’t yet know how Npower will discount Nest for its own customers.
We can also see why hot water control wasn’t essential: combi boilers providing on-demand hot water are increasingly popular, and simple timers are probably good enough for tanked hot water systems.
There are also some promising hints of Nest integration with other smart home technology that could enable it to control lights and home security.
Hopefully, Nest’s arrival will provoke British Gas to develop Hive, and encourage energy providers to team up with the likes of Tado, Climote and Evohome for more smart energy choices.