Dialing the thermostat into the digital age

The Nest thermostat

(CBS News) Whatever the weather, keeping your home comfortable is a matter of degrees - and a job for your thermostat. Now, after many an unchanging year, some say the time is right for a thermostat makeover. Our Cover Story is reported by David Pogue of The New York Times.

Sooner or later, just about everything goes digital. The book. The TV. The phone.

But one of the world's most commonplace gadgets has been stuck in time for 40 years: the humble thermostat. There's probably one on your wall right now, beige and boring-and probably wasting money.

"Today, only 10 percent of thermostats, a quarter billion thermostats in the U.S., are actually programmed to saving energy," said Silicon Valley inventor Tony Fadell. "That's because they've been too confusing, too cumbersome to program."

Fadell is trying to change all that, but you're probably more familiar with his earlier pet project: designing the iPod.

"After doing, you know, 18 generations of the iPod, I was like, okay, maybe there's something else to go after and look at. So I took some time off," Fadell said.

He was designing a dream home in Lake Tahoe: Ultra-modern, ultra-green.

"Someone in the design team said, 'here are the thermostats you're going to use in this house.' I looked at them, and they all looked like '90s beige computers. So I just said, I'm gonna start designing one myself," Fadell said.

He came up with the Nest thermostat.

"I can just turn it on with just waving my hand. This is actually a simpler interface than the IPod. All we have is a ring, a dial and one button," he said.

Fadell demonstrated how to turn up the heat.

"Here we go. And there, the screen turns red orange to say it's starting to heat," he said.

In the summertime, when you turn it to cool, it turns blue.

But here's where things get interesting. You can also adjust the thermostat when you're not home using an app on your phone. For example, you might want your house to be comfortable by the time you get home from a trip.

But maybe the most interesting part of all is that this thermostat can program itself.

The thermostat has sensors that help it see if anybody's actually home.

"We're testing the far field activity sensor," Fadell explained. "It scans out into the room. This is actually simulating a person walking by it."

By observing the room and taking note of when you adjust the temperature manually, the Nest learns your schedule and programs itself. Now, all of this tech goodness will cost you $250. But Fadell says you'll still come out ahead.

"If you think about a thermostat and its life, you're spending between $12,000 and $15,000 worth of fuel on that - consumed by that thermostat and the heating and cooling system," Fadell said. "So what if you could actually just save five or 10 percent of that over the life of that thermostat? You can quickly pay back for the thermostat and reward yourself every year for making a good decision."

Tony Fadell isn't the only one bringing the thermostat into the digital age. Around the country, electric companies like Con Edison in New York City are putting the same idea to work-on a massive scale.

Summertime brings the highest spikes in energy use. In one of the company's local distribution system centers, Con Ed managers watch out for imminent blackouts, like the terrible one of 2003.

To avoid drastic events like that, Adrianne Ortizo manages a Con Ed program that uses new thermostats to help keep demand from red-lining.

"It's a two-way communicating thermostat," Ortizo said. "You can control it via a web portal as well as a smartphone."

Like the Nest, Con Ed's thermostats can be controlled remotely by phone or computer. You can even send commands to a window air conditioner, a room air conditioner, or a fan.

Unlike the Nest, Con Ed is giving these thermostats away free. But as you might guess, there's a catch: You're not the only one who gets remote control of your thermostat.

"When, you know, there are times of peak energy use on our system, Con Edison will call upon these participants to actually, you know, be part of a demand-reduction event," said Ortizo, who said the company would raise a customer's temperature by two to three degrees.

Apparently, New Yorkers don't mind that Big Brother is cooling them.

"As long as I don't sweat, I don't care," said one resident.

So why would an electric company try to get its customers to use less of its product?

"What's in it for the company is that, you know, we don't have to build more infrastructure or we can at least delay it for a couple more years," Ortizo said. "So, that's less lines in the ground, or overhead. You know, maybe not building a substation."

And is it possible that cumulatively, these efforts could prevent a brownout or a blackout?

"Yes, it definitely adds to the reliability of the system," Ortizo said.

If you find the notion of smart thermostats just a little bit creepy, well, don't look now. If Verizon has its way, thermostats will be only one part of your house that's online.

Ann Shaub isn't just an executive for Verizon's connected home services. She's also a guinea pig. Her home is a showcase for the company's new home automation services - including remote-controlled lights.

Shaub can turn on lights and lock doors with the click of a button.

Now, the goals of all of this are lofty: save energy, save money, save effort. But with great technology, comes great glitchiness.

Even Mr. iPod himself, Tony Fadell, says there's more work to be done.

"These are definitely complicated products and there may be bugs from time to time," Fadell said.

Fortunately, all of these remote-controlled, interconnected, artificially intelligent thermostats have one really great feature: When all else fails, you can still use them the old-fashioned way - turning them up or down with your hand.