Tech & Science

That Nesting Instinct

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nest Nest

The call came as my husband and I sat down to enjoy a much-anticipated dinner out. It was our babysitter, trying to sound calm. Never a good sign.

The carbon monoxide alarm was beeping, she told us. My son's response had been to grab his more important stuffed animals and iPad and go sit on the front lawn. My daughter was panicking near the open front door. What should the sitter do? The carbon monoxide detector had done this before, so I told Terrified Babysitter to stand precariously on a stepladder, grab the detector and head outside for fresh air. I knew that located (inconveniently) inside the cover was a guide for deciphering the detector's different chirps.

She did that, but unfortunately, none of us could tell the difference between beep patterns. Was it a low-battery warning or a for-God's-sake-stop-breathing!!! alarm? With just enough knowledge of carbon monoxide ("the silent killer") to fill CNN programming for a month, I wasn't going to mess around. I threw money at our waiter for the fritto misto we'd never eat, and while Husband started searching online for greater clarification, I quickly drove us home.  

Had I had a Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector ($129), I would've received an alert on my iPhone as I dipped a crispy bit of calamari in garlic aioli, and it would've told me exactly why the alarm was sounding and what, if anything, I could do about it. Remotely.

That, dear readers, is why I wanted to take the Nest Protect out for a test drive.

Nest made a splash in the Internet of Things world with the Nest Thermostat, which learns your home heating patterns so it can program itself. Founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers are Apple alums, with Fadell famous as one of the "fathers of the iPod." The Nest Protect is the next step in their plan to make home devices and technologies smarter and more enjoyable.

With Protect, Fadell and Rogers knew they had to fix a (literally) fatal flaw in regular detectors: the middle-of-the-night battery chirp. If you're like my family, the battery chirps its personal death knell only in the darkest hours, or right after you've fallen asleep. Then it's up to the tallest person in the house to rip the batteries out of the alarm to shut it up. Problem is, most of us forget to install new batteries the next morning. The statistics prove it: The National Fire Protection Association says that almost two thirds of home fire deaths are related to nonfunctioning smoke alarms.

With the Nest, a green light on the detector glows when you turn off the lights at night, to reassure you the batteries are working. When the lithium batteries begin to fade, which Nest claims won't happen for seven years after installation, you'll be alerted by text. I'm hoping in seven years a hologram of Smokey Bear shows up at the foot of my bed to inform me.

The Nest Protect was easy enough to install. The online registration process was simple, and a few minutes later I was testing the alarm through the Nest app on my iPhone. It's a well-designed process that leaves no room for error, as a firm but kind-sounding female voice calmly tells you what to do. "Press to test," said Nest Lady, who then counted down from 10 to prepare me for the harsh whistle of the trial siren. Afterward, I spent a few minutes reviewing the tutorials within the app and learned how to hush the alarm with the "Nest Hush Wave," a simple motion that is similar to hailing a taxi (though far more likely to have the desired effect).

I was willing to burn the toast or my bra or whatever it would take to test this thing properly for my readers, but Nest provided me with a can of fake smoke, which allowed me to test the Nest Hush Wave without risk. The detector's light ring glowed red, and the pathologically calm voice intoned, "Emergency. Smoke. Upstairs." It was effectively scary. Most surprising was my cat's reaction, which was to stay by my side and yowl throughout the alarm. I don't know how Nest Protect wired up my cat, but I'm glad we have the feline backup.

Nest is a lot more expressive than other alarms. Along with the green A-OK light and the red emergency light, there's a yellow warning light. It's the distracted cook's best friend, as it glows and warns, "Heads up. There's smoke in the kitchen" when you carbonize your toast. (Nest knows the difference between a nuisance and an emergency.)

In each case, if Nest alarms are installed throughout your house, you will be given a spoken warning as to where the emergency is, and a message will be sent to your phone. Whether I will pay attention to my phone when I'm home is questionable. But the usefulness of hearing where the situation exists is important in planning a safe escape.


The real need for voiced warnings became apparent when our regular detector's batteries gave out late one night, a few months before we got the Nest Protect. In this instance, we actually replaced the batteries. When we tested the alarm, the piercing sound failed to rouse my young son, who sleeps a mere 15 feet from the detector. My son is not alone. Studies show children often sleep through alarms, which is why Nest has added a voice component that clearly tells you what the problem is and what you need to do. This is especially important in the case of carbon monoxide, as high levels of the gas can lead to mental fuzziness.

You can buy a highly rated Kidde product from for around 40 bucks that provides protection similar to the Nest's, including voice alerts, so why am I willing to spend $129 per Nest device? I like the connectivity. I like that the alarms deliver a clear message—no more counting beeps to find out if I've got a carbon monoxide leak—and tell me where the emergency is, no matter where I am. I like its clear, directive safety warnings. Most of all, I like how it removes a lot of my anxiety. It may be expensive, but it's cheaper than therapy.  

It's worth noting that Google bought Nest in January for $3.2 billion, which gives me (and probably Edward Snowden) pause, thanks to Google's predilection for gathering information from everything I do online and finding a way to monetize it. Nest has tried to reassure its customers and makes it sound as if its relationship with Google is your typical Hollywood romance: Nest loves Google for its money, and Google appreciates Nest for its good looks and networking opportunities. If I start receiving ads for fire insurance, however, I'm going to get worried.

(Caveat emptor: While I was testing the product, Nest halted sales. During routine laboratory testing, it realized the Nest Hush Wave feature wasn't working properly. Apparently the algorithm is not smart enough to know the difference between someone calmly Nest Hush Waving to silence it and someone flailing about because his or her hair is on fire. Unfortunately, this glitch could cause a delay in the alarm going off. Nest alerted device owners to the problem via email and has made a software update available via the app that will disable the Nest Hush Wave feature. The Nest still fully functions as a safety device, the only difference being you have to press the big round button to turn it off. Fadell, Nest's CEO, says new, improved Nests will be for sale again in "two to three months.")

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