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Monday, November 30, 2015

First Impressions: Sensi UP500W WiFi Programmable Thermostat

I had a Hunter 44860 Thermostat that had been going strong for ages. While my wife repeatedly complained about the programming UI, the cheap skate solution was to just disable the programming and have my wife set the thermostat manually to a temperature that was acceptable to her. It didn't particularly waste much power, and I had to change the battery every year or so, but it was trouble-free.

Then I found a deal for the Sensi WiFi Thermostat on Amazon. While my ultra-geek friends went for the Nest, if you're even a little bit skeptical, you'll find on-line horror stories about the Nest failing in all sorts of potentially dangerous ways. In particular, the requirement for a C wire is such that if you live in an older house or have a system that doesn't provide the C wire, you could potentially burn down your house, because the system then draws power from the HVAC control wire. Yes, one of my geek friends rents, so he doesn't care if the house burns down, but at least another few do own their homes. Assuming you survive such an event, of course, Google (which now owns Nest) has such deep pockets that you could probably recover the cost of replacing the house, plus make a tidy profit.

Why does Nest do this? Rather than require the owner/user to occasionally replace AA batteries in the thermostat, Nest includes a rechargeable battery in the device. That device, however, charges itself by drawing upon a C wire (or in the absence of such, the HVAC control wires). You would think that the product managers would specify, for instance, that the device in such a case should shut down rather than potentially burn down a house, but remember, this is the same company that decided that it would rather prevent you from being able to receive e-mail than to separate your photo quota from your e-mail storage quota.

Anyway, after determining that the Sensi wouldn't potentially burn down my house (it includes AA batteries, and you do have to replace those batteries occasionally), I embarked on the installation project. To do this, you download the Sensi app from the app store, which then walks you through the procedure: remove the old face plate, label the wires, unscrew the old wires, uninstall the old backplates, install new backplates, wire the labelled wires into the appropriate screw slots, install the new face plate, and then visit the WiFi settings on your phone. All through the procedure, the app holds your hands, even offering you videos if you should be unsure. This is more reassuring than most manuals.

The device then sets up a WiFi network which you connect to from your cell phone. Once that happens, your smartphone app then programs the device's WiFi settings, gives your device a name, and then pairs your device so you can now can control the thermostat remotely. I checked the heating and the cooling, and then proceeded to list my Hunter for sale on Amazon. (If you live locally and want my old thermostat, just drop me a note) I could install the same app on multiple devices, and any one of them could control the thermostat.

The device isn't fancy. It has no proximity sensor and doesn't learn when you're in the house or your habits. But as my wife points out, the reason for the thermostat isn't to replace human control, but to let us turn off the device while we're away and forgot to do so. That, and not burn down the house without our help or the help of our 2 sons.

All in all, I'm pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to install, and that it was possible for a complete newb like me to do so. Even if you bought this at the regular Amazon price instead of the deal I got, it's still half the price of the Nest. It's not fancy, but that means that those AA batteries will last a good long time. And if those AAs run down when you're on vacation, rather than running up the power, the device will just shut down WiFi and run on your existing schedule, which is what you want.


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