Why I No Longer Use Nest Auto-Away

What exactly is Auto-Away and Nest Sense?

For those unfamiliar, the Nest Learning Thermostat includes a feature called Auto-Away. Auto-away is a mode that the Nest thermostat enters when it detects that your home has become empty.

Auto-Away relies on another Nest feature called Nest Sense. Nest Sense relies on a motion sensor on the front of the thermostat. If the sensor doesn't detect motion after a period of time, Nest Sense considers the house to be empty and will enable Auto-Away. Conversely, if Auto-Away is engaged and the sensor picks up activity, Auto-Away will be turned off and the Nest will resume to usual operation.

Nest Sense has an interesting capability. It will calibrate itself over time. If it enables Auto-Away and then, later realizes through user intervention that it was wrong, it will wait for a longer period of inactivity next time before enabling Auto-Away. Similarly, if it feels that it's generally right, it will decrease the period of inactivity required before enabling Auto-Away. Nest has previously reported that this inactivity timer can range from as short as 15 minutes all the way to 2 hours.

Nest Sense and the Auto-Away feature was failing me at my home.

For one, I work from home some days. In the winter, I frequently would come to realize that the house was getting cold because Auto-Away had activated without me knowing. Second, I am in and out of the house quite a bit, without a set schedule. I didn't like that it would take up to 2 hours for Auto-Away to turn off my furnace each time I left my house. My furnace is underpowered for the size of my house. In the dead of winter, it often works pretty hard to keep the house cold. It's more likely than not, at any given point during the day, that the furnace is running. If I leave, that's potentially 2 extra hours of burning natural gas.

This was frustrating. I had ran out and purchased a $250 thermostat in hopes of reducing my utility bill and also automating the climate control of my home. It seemed like I was close with Nest, but this Nest Sense / motion sensor business just wasn't cutting it. I considered other sensor options:

  • Turn off the thermostat when I lock the front door: My housemate likes to keep the front door locked when she's home during the day for security, so this isn't an option.
  • Turn off the thermostat when the garage door opens/closes: It'd be difficult to know whether a car is leaving or arriving.
  • Tether off of the home/away status of some other smart device at home: Somewhat by choice, I've kept most of my house 'dumb'. No good options here either.
  • Rely on phone technology to determine if I'm home: Now we're talking!

I came across a discussion thread regarding this issue on the Nest Community site. I learned that many users were having the same problem as me. Nest even has an official page addressing the issue. It turns out I'm not so unique after all! Some solutions were proposed. One member had created a PHP or Python script to continually check for their mobile phone's MAC address on their wireless home router, but as mobile phones often 'sleep' when not in use, it was tough to verify if the phone was reachable or not. Other shoestring solutions were proposed, but generally also lacked reliability or only worked for tracking a single person in the house, not the whole family.

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Skylark Is Born. Farewell Auto-Away!

After some discussion with a friend and former business partner of mine, we decided to build what has become Skylark. We'd use geofencing technology which is battery efficient and we'd create triggers that changed the Nest when you came home or left. We built the solution, spent a fair (bordering on unfair) amount of time refining the behavior of the app and account for edge cases, and then shared it with the world.

The result is that Skylark adds a much more reliable sensor to the Nest thermostat. Instead of the Nest looking for motion and correlating that to whether someone is home or not, Skylark actually knows and adjusts the Nest accordingly. 

Every month or so, we receive a support request from a Skylark user along the lines of "Skylark is working great, but Nest Auto-Away is still getting confused. It's thinking the house is empty when it's not. How can I avoid Auto-Away from turning on when I'm still at home?". The answer is so obvious that it can be easy to gloss over. Just disable Auto-Away. With a better way of detecting your location, there's no need for the less accurate method to stay around and play the occasional tug-of-war.


Why isn't geolocation built into Nest?

This is a long standing question posed from the Nest Community. I'm also surprised that they haven't done this yet. If I had to make a guess, I would say that they believe a feature based on geolocation works against their philosophy of the "learning" thermostat. A great deal of marketing energy has been put into Nest as a learning thermostat. If you're using geolocation all of a sudden, your learning thermostat isn't learning. It's following commands instead. Again, this is just speculation and I'm not sure it has legs to stand on.

To somewhat contradict myself, I do see a happy marriage between geolocation technologies and the Nest. If the Nest could simply use geolocation as another sensor, another indicator of the house being empty or someone arriving home, it could use this data point to build its learned schedule. Perhaps we'd find that our schedules aren't so irregular after all. Perhaps the Nest could surprise us by turning the heat or cooling on a little in advance, even before we're on our approach home, and make us believe that the house never was hot or cold in the first place. Now that's appealing.

Until then, or if that day never comes, there's Skylark. And with the recent integration of Skylark with IFTTT, it's an added bonus that I can automatically turn off the lights when I leave the house. 

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