I really love smart home stuff. When we built our house two years ago here in Austin, Texas I had the builder install a Nest Thermostat. The best thing about it is the motion sensor which can tell when the house is empty and set the AC to come on at a higher temperature which saves money. This past weekend I installed 8 Nest Protect smoke/carbon monoxide alarms, replacing the dumb First Alert alarms that came with the house.

Had I known I was going to write this blog post, I would have taken more pictures during the setup and installation process but I have described it very well below.

Benefits

There are many great reasons to buy the Nest Protect. The most important of all reasons is that if you are away from home when a fire starts, your phone will alert you of this fact which could mean the difference between a small fire and your house burning to the ground. It’s unfortunate that insurance companies haven’t yet caught up to this new technology and offer a discount for homeowners that install them. Apparently the Protect can also tell the difference between burnt toast and a real fire though I haven’t had a real world test of that yet. When we occasionally do burn things on the stove, our old smoke alarms would go off filling the house with that ear-shattering sound that can only be silenced by furiously waving a magazine at the smoke alarm until it no longer senses smoke. With the Protect, you just take your phone out of your pocket and tap a button to silence it. I’m actually looking forward to our first toast burn.

The Nest Protect has other helpful features as well. It checks itself many times a day and the app will tell you the results. If the backup battery needs to be replaced, the app will tell you rather than waiting for the battery to die and waking you up at 2AM wondering why your house is making a loud chirping sound. Each Protect has a light on it which can be set to come on when you walk underneath them. This makes for a handy night light especially in living rooms and kitchens. Don’t try to test this feature with the lights on. I almost called Nest to complain it wasn’t working when I realized that the Protect must have a light sensor so that the pathway feature doesn’t come on unnecessarily. If you have a Nest thermostat, when the Protect detects smoke, it will tell the Nest Thermostat to shut off your AC so that it doesn’t blow smoke and potentially hot embers through your house.

One a month, the Nest Protect will automatically test the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. You can’t tell it what day to do this but you can tell it a range of hours. It defaults to between 11AM and 4PM.

The Nest Protect’s motion sensor can work with your Nest Thermostat as well such that if it doesn’t detect anyone walking under or near any one of them for an hour, it can set your Thermostat to “away” saving you money on your AC. Nest has recently added a geo-fencing feature to their app as well so it can tell when any of your phones (and thus you) are home or not and immediately switch the AC to away when no one is home. At this point, my AC really has no excuse to be on when we are away from home.

If there’s a downside to the Nest Protect, it’s the price. The alarms I was replacing cost between $15 and $30 new on Amazon. The Nest Protect is $99: each. When you need 8 of them, that’s a lot of dough. What I have told myself is that if it saved our lives or just kept a small fire from becoming a huge one, it would be worth it. There’s value in the secure feeling you get from knowing you are doing your best to protect your family.

Buying

Before you buy them, determine if your smoke alarms are wired into your house or run on a battery. This is different from them having a backup battery. They will have one of those but they may also be wired into your house, receiving their power from the house itself. This is important to know up front because Nest sells two different models, one that runs on a battery and one that is wired meaning that it uses the wires in your house for power.

I wanted to buy them locally so that in case there was a problem, I could just return them. This turned out to be more difficult than I had ever thought. I needed 8 alarms and most places I called only had a couple of them in stock. I ended up buy 3 of them at my local Best Buy (which had plenty of battery models but only 3 wired ones) and then driving 25 miles to a Home Depot in Dripping Springs to get the other 5 I needed.

If you’re not in a hurry, it might be worth just ordering them from Amazon. They sell both the wired and battery-powered versions.

Installing

I’m no electrician though I have installed some timer switches and 3 ceiling fans in our house. Having said that, I’m confident that anyone could install a Nest Protect alarm. It’s easy. Take them out of their boxes then install the Nest app on your phone and it will walk you through the setup process. It’s easier to set up them all up at once so if you’re planning to replace a bunch of them, do yourself a favor and do it all in one go. Nest provides an installation video on their site. I highly recommend watching this before you even purchase the Nest Protect. If the installation looks like something you don’t want to do, you can hire someone to do it for you. Nest can even refer you to a local installer.

The app has you identify each unit via a QR code on the back which you scan with your phone’s camera. It asks you to identify your WIFI network and enter the password. You only have to do this last part once. After that, the setup process copies this information from a Protect you have already set up to the next one. That was pretty smart. As you go along, you choose a location name from a pre-defined list for each Protect. You then write that location name on the back of the unit to help you install the right one in the right place. By choosing a location name, the Nest Protects can alert you by voice of any problems with a particular Protect unit. In my case, I had two in the living room and two in kid’s rooms. Fortunately, you can add a custom label. For example, for the kid’s rooms I added their names as the custom labels.

Once they are all set up, it’s time to actually install them. If you have wired smoke alarms like I do, you’ll need to go to your fuse box and find the switch for your smoke alarms. Hopefully your house was built with a dedicated circuit for the smoke alarms. Mine was but not all are. Turn off that switch so you don’t electrocute yourself. For extra safety you can buy a circuit tester for a few dollars at your local hardware store. It’s got two prongs (black and red) which you just touch simultaneously to the back and red exposes wires. If the light on the tester comes on, you’ve got a hot wire so you didn’t flip the right fuse switch.

The first thing you need to do is remove the old smoke alarm. Most twist off. Then you’ll need to unplug them from the wires in the ceiling (if they are wired like mine). This is harder than it sounds. It requires a bit of force and you’re doing this while perched precariously on a ladder so be careful. Next you need to remove the mounting plate for your old alarm. There’s usually two screws holding it in. Here’s where I’m going to save you a lot of time unless you’re smarter than me. It took installing 4 of them before I realized that I didn’t need to completely remove these screws! Just loosen them a bit and you should be able to rotate the mounting plate enough to remove it. Nest provides their own so you can just slip the new one on and tighten the two screws. The Nest-provided mounting plate is smooth on one side and has ridges on the other. The plate needs to be installed with the ridged side facing the ceiling or wall.

The Protect comes with its own connector which needs to be wired into your existing wiring. Your old one has to be removed first but this is easy because there are just little wire connector caps that you unscrew to disconnect the old connector from your wiring. The new Protect connector connects the same way. Then you plug the new connector into your Protect, push your Protect up against the new mounting bracket you have installed and turn the Protect clockwise until its locked into the mounting bracket. The first one will take you 15 minutes. The rest will take 5 minutes each.

Testing 1, 2, 3…

The final step is to test them. You can do this by pressing the big button in the middle of the Protect. The Protect will then speak, telling you to press the button a second time to test. At this point the Protect will give you 10 seconds to move away as the test is understandably loud but also short in duration. It will test all of your Protects at once so there’s no need to repeat this for each one. That’s it. You’re done.

A Problem with an Inconvenient Solution

Because the location list Nest provides is pre-defined, you can end up with multiple Protects that have the same name. I have two in the living room and I have two kid’s rooms for example. As I mentioned, they provide a custom label so you can distinguish between two with the same pre-defined location name. The problem is, you don’t define these custom labels while setting up your Protect. I don’t remember that being an option. The result is that I got them all installed only to then discover that I couldn’t tell which Protect was the one on the left side of the living room versus the right. I couldn’t tell which Nest was in my son’s room versus my daughters. The Nest app simply listed the Protects by their pre-defined location names.

After searching in vane for a button in the app I could press that would test a specified alarm or just turn the light on for a moment, anything to identify a specific Protect, I called Nest to find out what the solution was. The only solution offered turned out to be wrong. They suggested I press the button on one of the living room and kid’s room alarms then look at the alarm history in the app to see if that one shows that it was tested. That seemed easy enough but they said I’d have to wait a day before the app would show that it had been tested. Unfortunately, there was nothing in this suggestion that turned out to be true. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, when you test one alarm, you test them all. Also, the test history in the Nest app updates immediately. So this was a useless suggestion. The only real way to determine which Protect is which is to compare the serial number on the back of the unit to the one listed for that Protect in the Nest app. The setup process really should have addressed this because it would have been easy to do before I got out the ladder and installed them all.

Attention Nesters!

To the fine folks at Nest who I’m hoping will read this post, you really need to have a room at your company offices that you use to educate your engineers and support staff. Every one of them should, at least once a year, be required to go into this room, remove 4 typical alarms (installed on the ceiling, not sitting on a desk) and then install Protects and go through the entire setup process. That will greatly help them understand the situations the customers face.  You should also sell at cost each of your employees as many Nest products as they need for their home. Every Nest employee should be intimately familiar with the installation and use of your products. I run a software development tools company, Xojo, Inc., and we use our software to write our software. We hire customers as engineers. This results in our staff knowing quite well what our customers go through and ultimately creates a better user experience.

An Excellent Home Upgrade

I’ve only had the Protects installed for two days but I already think they are an excellent home upgrade. I’m installing a Rachio smart sprinkler controller soon as well. It’s my understanding that it can be set up to work with Nest so that if there’s a fire, my sprinklers will automatically come on. That’s pretty cool. I’m also anxiously awaiting the release of the Yale Linus smart lock which is supposed to work with the Nest app as well. I’ll be installing those as soon as they are available.

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