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shirley leung

A cautionary tale on high-tech houses

My husband was so proud of himself, the way only husbands can get when they think they’ve done something brilliant on the home front.

Unbeknownst to me — well, it would soon be hard to ignore — he had hired someone to replace all nine of our low-tech smoke detectors with the Nest Protect monitors. He had been so happy with the Nest Learning Thermostat, which he installed in our Milton Colonial in 2012, that he had to try the next product from the company.

Ours is a cautionary tale about creating a high-tech home. What we discovered the hard way is that when something breaks, it’s not like someone from the IT department can make a house call. Instead, you’re on the phone with customer service or sending angry e-mails to someone out there.


Nest Labs, founded by a former Apple executive who designed the iPod and iPhone, brought the same high style and function to heating and cooling homes. Our Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat was so smart that it knew, through sensors, when we weren’t home and adjusted accordingly. We could easily program the temperature using our computers — no more fiddling with incomprehensible controls. We could even do this from our iPhones — while at work, on vacation, or if we were just too lazy to get up from the couch. The ultimate benefit: More control translates into efficiency and savings.

Not only did we love Nest Labs, but so did Google, which bought the 4-year-old company for an eye-popping $3.2 billion last year.

At $99 each, the Nest Protect, like the thermostat, is a premium buy — expect to pay more than twice as much as for a comparable product. The Nest Protect not only detects smoke, but also monitors carbon monoxide levels. But that’s not what makes it expensive.


Like the thermostat, it has a mind of its own. The product’s motto: “Know more, worry less.”

The Nest Protect connects to the Internet, and it doesn’t just beep when there’s smoke; it talks and sends alerts to your cellphone. That way, in theory, you’ll know why your device is going off. Your detector can even talk to your Nest thermostat. If carbon monoxide is in the air, the Nest can shut off your heating system, a possible source of the poisonous gas leak.

My husband, clamoring for that same transformational experience we had with the thermostat, had our smoke detectors replaced with the Nest version more than a year ago.

Turns out, Nest Protect was full of bugs — and not the evolutionary kind. If you look at the reviews online, we were hardly alone. We replaced four detectors. The problem? False alarms: We’ve had eight of them.

It wouldn’t be so bad if you could just switch the damn things off. But if the Nest thinks there is smoke in your home — as opposed to the possibility of smoke from burnt toast — you can’t turn the devices off easily. Customer service told us it was a safety feature that could not be overridden.

So the only way we could stop the alarm is if we disconnected the detector completely from its hard wiring and found the right tiny Phillips screwdriver to take the back plate off to remove the batteries. We knew this wasn’t the safest idea, but we had to do something.


What also started to get on our nerves was the sound of Nest Protect’s computerized voice, which could be heard throughout the house: “Emergency, there’s smoke in the nursery.” “Emergency, there’s smoke in the master bedroom.” “Emergency, there’s smoke downstairs.”

We heard those messages so often that I worried they would become my 18-month-old’s first words.

Then there were the phone alerts. Once, while on vacation on the Cape, we kept getting urgent messages about smoke in our Milton home. By now, we were used to the false alarms, so we didn’t panic. But after a week of this, you start to wonder about the logic of it all. Maybe we don’t need to know whether our house is on fire when we’re not there. We can’t do anything about it anyway.

We found that our Nest alarms liked to go berserk on hot and humid days. So to reduce false alarms, we kept the air conditioning at an absurdly frigid level. Yes, our smoke detector basically controlled the thermostat — and in the process probably wiped out the savings from having a high-tech heating/cooling system.

Last April, Nest suspended sales of its smoke detectors for a different reason altogether. The original version had a “wave” feature; you could silence the alarm with a swipe of your hand, say if exuberant cooking set off the alarm. The problem was that the detector began picking up movements on its own and inadvertently would silence itself. If there was a real fire, that could delay the alarm turning on because it thinks someone had waved it off. Nest has since removed the “wave” feature.


In September, Nest rolled out a new line with a humidity sensor to detect steam. For existing detectors like ours, Nest did a software update. We’ve had another false alarm since then, and this is what Nest spokeswoman Zoz Cuccias had to say about it:

“All smoke alarms are susceptible to false alarms due to a number of reasons, including dust and placement of the alarm,” she wrote in a statement. “Protect is connected to Wi-Fi, which allows us to develop features that help resolve potential false alarms and push them to customers, including steam and humidity detection. We take customer support very seriously and provide 24/7 phone and e-mail support to ensure any issues are handled on a case-by-case basis.”

But enough was enough for my husband. The thermostat could stay, but not the detectors. Nest has agreed to refund our money, but we’re still in the hole after spending $600 to hire an electrician to install the contraptions. Don’t even get me started on how much it will cost to put back the old ones.

New gadgets notoriously come with glitches. But the difference here is that you have to live with your choices. We couldn’t anymore.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.