Nest smart thermostat outages highlight issues with smart home technology

Some owners of the Nest smart thermostat recently found themselves very chilly after the gadgets failed and shut off their home heating in the middle of winter. CBC's Dan Misener explains what happens when the connected home disconnects.

Internet connected home gadgets don't always fail gracefully, Dan Misener reports

Some users of the internet-connected Nest thermostat recently complained the devices had stopped working. (Image Source: YouTube)

Early adopters of smart-home technology may find themselves out in the cold when something goes wrong.

That happened to owners of the internet-connected Nest thermostat recently when the gadgets failed and their home temperatures plunged in the middle of winter.

The smart thermostat is designed to automatically adjust the temperature of your home based on your preferences and whether you're home or not. It also allows you to control the temperature remotely over the internet. Of course, all that is when it's working properly.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains what happens when the connected home disconnects.

What happened with Nest's thermostats?

We don't have a full explanation of what happened, but earlier this month, a number of Nest users complained of issues on the company's online support forum.

Some said their thermostat was unresponsive. Others said they woke up to a completely drained battery. Other thermostats apparently lost connectivity altogether and went offline.

The smart-home technology company Nest responded on its forum to customer complaints about failing devices. (
Nest responded on the forum by writing "We're aware that some of our customers have been reporting issues with their Nest's battery getting low. We're currently looking into the issue, and we'll let you know when we have more information."

One Nest owner, Colin Dean, told me he was at work when his Nest failed. But his girlfriend was at home at the time, and she sent him a text, wondering why their home was so cold.

"So I popped on my phone and looked at the Nest, and it said 'offline,'" Dean said. "I got on my computer and looked at it, and it said 'offline for 11 hours.'"

Of course, a home with no heat during a January winter in Canada can present a problem.

And it points to the bigger picture too — more and more products need to be constantly connected, and they do not always fail gracefully.

How has Nest responded?

On their website, they suggested affected customers manually recharge and restart their devices — not a simple process, as I found out myself a few months ago.

There are nine different steps, which include removing the Nest from the wall, recharging it with a USB cable for 10 minutes, unplugging it, pressing down on the middle of the thermostat, plugging it back in for an hour to let it charge up, and so on.

As for why this happened, Nest blames a software update. In an interview with the New York Times, Nest's co-founder said that a software update back in December contained a bug, but that the bug didn't show up until January.

Have other smart home technologies had issues?

A company called Wink had a major issue in May of 2015.

A software update last spring to the the Wink HUB's iPhone app caused many users to experience issues with their devices. (
The company makes smart-home hubs that can control light bulbs, security cameras, door locks, thermostats, and other items in the home.

They pushed out a software update last spring that turned many of their customer's hubs into bricks. The hubs lost their connection to the internet for an extended period of time and basically just stopped working. 

Nest itself has had issues going back as far as 2014, when it had to put a stop to the sale of smoke alarms due to a defect that could allow users to turn them off unintentionally.

There have also been high-profile Nest outages in the past few months — one back in September, another in October, then more connectivity issues this month, in addition to the battery issues.

Some of these outages were widespread, affecting all customers. Others were smaller, and impacted a small percentage.

But given that Nest sells items like internet-connected smoke detectors, thermostats, and security cameras, any downtime can be a significant issue for users.

How can smart home companies do a better job of dealing with outages?

Outages will happen — no consumer-grade smart home device is going to work perfectly 100 per cent of the time, nor is any internet connection 100 per cent reliable. And software updates sometimes come with bugs.

That all means smart-home devices need to have counter-measures for when they do, inevitably, fail.

Internet-connected items like locks need fail-safes built in, says CBC technology columnist Dan Misener. (Maurizio Pesce/Flickr)
For example, if your smart-door lock runs out of power, you should still be able to open it with a regular metal key. If your smart thermostat loses its connection to the internet, it should still keep the temperature above freezing in the wintertime.

Customer communication is another essential piece. Back in September, Nest's vice-president of engineering promised to do a better job of letting customers know about outages.

Nest customer Colin Dean agrees that's needed.

"Oh yeah, Nest should practically be grovelling in front of customers because of this," he said.

"Software's hard, it's hard to flush out all the bugs, but when bad stuff happens, you've got to grovel, and you've got to make it right."

Will we see more smart home failures in the future?

It seems very likely. Judging by the number of internet-of-things products on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, we're going to see a lot more of this kind of thing.

But we may also see the rise of a counter-trend, which is a move back to old-fashioned, non-connected, non-smart devices — what some people are referring to as "strategic downgrading."

That sort of thing happens when early adopters decide that a new technology is too fussy, or not worth the trouble. They switch back to a previous generation of a product that might not have all latest features, but is better suited to their needs, or more reliable — or fails more gracefully.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.