Friday, September 27, 2013

A Better Thermostat (or is the Nest the best we can do)?

I've been reading about the Nest and I am convincing myself that it is too gadget-y.
I'm thinking about my household and the usual elder market that I am currently designing stuff for.

Do I really need my thermostat to be Internet enabled? Do I really need to become a honeypot for Black Hats?  Do I really want my thermostat to have software "updates"?  Also, it is yet another device to be managed whenever I swap out routers or change wi-fi passwords.

However, I do think that we can do a lot better than the HVAC's perception of what a digital thermostat is.   Honeywell Prestige 2.0 and Ecobee Smart are the current competitors for the Nest. But they seem to think that we all want bling in our thermostat interfaces. Lots of color, lots of funky icons -- yes! Just a slide of a finger.  Here is where I think the Nest got something right. Grandma can just turn a dial to get the desired temperature. No capacitive touch screen (what about those with crippling arthritis?) and no busy trompe l'oeil effects for those with bad eyes.

Nest, apparently, runs Linux on a Cortex A8. That is a power hungry beast. No wonder it has a rechargeable Li-po battery inside.   It uses the 24VAC to charge it. (If you don't have a Common wire, and I don't, it does this clever but dangerous trick of pulse the fan/AC/heat trigger line to complete the circuit and trickle charge the battery -- apparently that cause the start/stop ping of death on HVAC units that don't debounce away the false triggers).

Then there is the problem of what if you use the interface too much, run buggy software updates or spend too much time on wi-fi. You'll drain the battery, right?  (The trickle charge takes time and you are always running off the Li-po).

I don't think Linux is ready yet for 24x7 systems that run off of battery.  (A tickless kernel is a must for battery longevity, and that is just a start). But I could be wrong.

There are advantages to running an OS. It opens up development options: I'd love to try and get some Haskell code into an "embedded device".  Without thinking about embedded development issues, you can focus on the algorithms.

What about the power miserly Cortex M4s?  They are starting to come with a lot of RAM and massive flash spaces.  I've even seen Haskell (and Lua) running on STM32F4 Discovery boards. But we are still only talking about kilobytes of RAM. Until I see real applications run, just blinking LEDs and toggling a few GPIO pins doesn't convince me that you can write serious sized applications for it (where memory allocation can kill you).

For a smart thermostat, it is all about the algorithms. There are, at most, 3-5 interfaces to the HVAC systems. These are basically switches (relays or solid state relays).  It is all about when to turn these switches.

I've been toying with the idea building upon Forth to do smart thermostat stuff.  If I stick to an ANS flavored Forth, I can implement it on bare metal and eventually up port it to an OS when they become appropriate for battery based systems.

What about Wi-Fi and stuff?  I have more to say about that later (e.g. I'd be happy to just use my smart phone in local proximity with Bluetooth to control and data-mine the thermostat).


  1. Actually, I have recently started playing (& discovered) w/ the Parallax Propeller board, which is a surprising combination of all this (well ... to some extent): multi-"cores" (cogs), forth interpreter, decent power management etc. Not sure how useful it would be compared to e.g. an ARM Mx w/ e.g. a FPU chip for that kind of project (I guess it compares quite favorably),

  2. I'm familiar with the Propeller. It's a very interesting chip. I like the fact that it doesn't have interrupts -- I hate interrupts.

    I can see assigning each cog to a monitor/control for each HVAC function (heat, ac, fan, etc).

    The Propeller could be the brains for a thermostat and the Forth (PropForth?) is a capable Forth.

    I guess it comes down to whether you grow (in capability) a system using a big fat processor (M4 or A8 running Linux) or by 'networking' MCUs (like a Propeller).

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