Surveys say: It takes two years to recoup the cost of a Nest

If you’re thinking about paying $250 for the Nest thermostat, know that the resplendent regulator saves customers average of $131-$145 a year, according to a series of studies done by Nest and two other organizations. The studies were performed by Nest in 41 states with 1,500 users, by the Energy Trust of Oregon and by Vectren, a utility company based in Indiana covering 600 homes.

Each study was a bit different, but in general they found that customers saved 10 percent to 12 percent on their heating bills and 15 percent on their cooling bills. Previously Nest has gone with the standard guesstimate published by many thermostat providers and the EPA, which was that a properly programmed thermostat could save a consumer 20 percent on their energy bills.

As someone who works from home and thus doesn’t get to take advantage of the away setting, I can certainly say that installing a Nest (nor an Ecobee) has not let to huge savings, so I have long been suspicious of that 20 percent number. I also tend to keep my home “near boiling” in the summer according to the HVAC folks I speak to, which also means that my savings don’t come in anywhere near the higher range.

But it’s precisely those variables that make it hard to know how much you can expect to save from installing a pricey connected thermostat. In the case of Nest, the value comes from the learning algorithms and proximity sensors that figure out what temperature you like your home at and your schedule, which then start crafting the appropriate schedule that saves energy and keeps you comfortable.

So if you leave your home on a regular basis and your thermostat can take advantage of that to learn and adapt a schedule that cuts the heating or cooling during the day and at night, you may find yourself on the higher end of those savings — or even surpassing them. Or if you’re like me, you might find yourself not even hitting the low end of that average.

However, what’s nice is that as these connected thermostats become integrated with other devices in the home, it becomes about not just saving money on HVAC, but also about convenience from tying the messages from your thermostat to your other appliances. For example, because my Nest knows I’m away, it also can tell my lights. And if I’m away for multiple days, it tells my lights to randomly start going on and off to mimic me being home as a security feature.

If I had a connected appliance, it might also tell it when my utility was charging higher rates for energy, thus stopping me from doing laundry when it costs more. For many, those savings are a bit further in the future, but the nice thing about a connected device is that further savings may be just a software update away.

Nest thermostat reviewed: A smart device for all seasons

Nest introduced its smart thermostat in October of last year only to find that there was greater initial demand for its product than originally thought. After using a review unit for longer than I should have, I can see why: This good-looking device is super smart.

Touch typist’s dream keyboard comes to the Mac

Apple users who also type like the wind are in luck: Das Keyboard took the wrapper off a version of its impressive mechanical switch keyboard that’s designed for Macs. In addition to tactile feedback, the Das Keyboard for Mac offers special keys designed for Apple machines.

The next big thing for data centers: DC power

Although we live in an AC-dominated world, DC seems poised for a comeback, particularly in data centers. Facebook adopted a DC architecture in its Prineville, Ore., data center. SAP spent $128,000 retrofitting a datacenter at its offices in Palo Alto, Calif., to rely on DC power.

GigaOM’s top 10 green stories of 2011

Which stories dominated the green GigaOM clicks in 2011? This year was filled with smart thermostats, a dream of Apple getting into solar, the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the efficiency of cloud computing, Google’s green data centers and Tesla’s Model S.

Today in Cleantech

Next Tuesday’s Weekly Update will take a look at the drive for low power microchips and energy savings, and how it could impact the semiconductor and server industries.  That shift took one more step with Canonical announcing on its blog that the next version of its Ubuntu server software will carry support for ARM. ARM cut its teeth producing low power chips that run most mobile devices and it has set its sights on the server market. Microsoft will port Windows 8 to ARM architecture to allow PC makers to build ARM laptops and desktops, but thus far it has not agreed to port Windows Server. We’re still a long ways from an ARM based server world, but Intel/AMD should consider how important power consumption is becoming in the next generation of data centers. Important enough for Canonical to feel it needed to invest development capital to allow its users to experiment with non-x86 options for microservers.

Want a green cloud? Learn the metrics

Last week’s Verdantix and AT&T report on the energy and carbon emission savings to come from cloud computing is the latest in a long line of studies stating the obvious: Shifting computing from inefficient, dispersed data centers to highly efficient, centralized cloud data centers should save everyone energy. Indeed, the report’s claim of $12.3 billion in energy savings over the next decade fits in with other figures, such as Pike Research’s prediction of a 38 percent energy reduction from a wholesale move to the cloud or Microsoft’s claim of 90 to 32 percent energy reductions from its cloud-computing offerings, depending on how energy-efficient the customer’s deferred data-center investment would have been.

But when it comes to energy, what cloud providers and customers really care about is controlling data center costs and avoiding unneeded investment. To try to get at the cloud’s energy benefits, the industry will need transparency that can allow market forces to determine just how valuable those energy savings truly are — and that means data-center-efficiency metrics. There are several measurements you will need to know to figure out how to differentiate green-cloud-marketing hype from reality.

The data center writ large. So far, most green data center PR has been focused around power usage effectiveness (PUE) and data center infrastructure efficiency (DCIE). These measure a data center’s overall efficiency at using power to support its core IT assets, though from different angles. The Uptime Institute’s corporate average data center efficiency (CADE) measures utilization of both IT and data center facility assets across the enterprise. All of these stats get at how efficient a data center operator is at managing the non-IT energy costs — cooling, lighting, power delivery and backup — compared to the “working” IT power load.

No doubt, cloud-computing providers can offer far better PUE, DCIE and CADE measures than the data centers they’ll replace. Just compare the 2.0 PUE industry average to hyper-efficient cloud data centers from Facebook, Google, Cisco, Amazon and Microsoft with PUEs that approach the perfect figure of 1.0.

Power at the server level. But most cloud-services clients’ needs will be counted on a by-the-server basis. How to compare one server with another in terms of the efficiency of its operations? Getting at that figure is harder than just looking at a server’s specifications, since it also involves variables like how much the server is being used.

Still, a number of statistics are seeking to deliver some kind of computing-power-per-watt measurement. The nonprofit Standard Performance Evaluation Corp. has its SPECpower metric, which measures server performance in operations per watt. Data-center-efficiency-technology startup Power Assure has released its own version, called PAR4, which measures server power use at usages from idle to peak power, as well as on a transactions-per-watt basis. Deutsche Bank has developed a set of metrics that involves comparing a company’s existing servers to the best available to come up with a figure called hardware utilization efficiency (HUE).

With all of these measurements, some standardization is in order. The Green Grid — the industry group that came up with PUE, as well as measures on carbon emission and water-use efficiency of data centers — is working on a metric called data center compute efficiency (DCcE). It’s also working on a server compute efficiency (ScE) measure, which would go into calculating an entire data center’s DCcE.

That could give the industry some much-needed transparency into how to compare servers to one another in both dedicated and virtualized environments. Lost in much of the debate over the cloud’s energy savings is how the cloud will be priced into the equation. After all, every dollar of energy savings to come from switching to the cloud will be split between the cloud provider and the cloud customer. If the cloud host is saving a ton on energy, though, it’s not likely to let that margin go, unless it’s forced to in a pricing war. But we might have to wait for cloud services to get more popular before we see market data to prove that these metrics matter.

Question of the week

What are the key metrics needed to assess cloud computing’s energy efficiency and carbon claims?