You may have heard of the Nest “learning” thermostat. Designed by the creators of the iPod, it’s an amazingly user friendly thermostat. In fact, it’s so simple it doesn’t require a user manual. With its uncomplicated, free smartphone app, you can adjust your AC temperature from bed. Forgot to put your AC on “away” mode during vacation? Two taps on your Nest smartphone app and you’re saving enough to get two desserts with each meal.

The Nest is all the way around an impressive example of well done consumer technology, and it’s an important part of Pecan Street’s energy research.

Nest thermostat participation 

Pecan Street is conducting research that measures the effectiveness of set-and-forget thermostats that are pre-configured with energy optimization settings. A lot of research in other fields indicates that pre-configuring the settings on consumer electronics is one of the most effective methods for ensuring that the devices work well and meet the needs of most consumers. (Good books to learn more about research in this field include Nudge, The Power of Habit and Switch.)

For this research trial, Pecan Street researchers will pre-configure the settings on the Nest thermostat(s) we provide you. Typically, this will happen once a month. It will all happen over the Internet — no one needs to come to your house. And if you don’t like the pre-configured setting, you are free to change it.

Also, we want you to be comfortable. Our hypothesis is that people are a whole lot more likely to stick with a pre-set if they are comfortable than if they are sweating at the breakfast table or shivering under three blankets while watching the evening news.

So, here are the pre-sets we will start with:

Summer: 72 degrees at night (10 pm to 6 am). 75 degrees during the morning and evening. 78 between 8 am and 6 pm on weekdays.

Winter: 69 degrees at night. 71 degrees during the morning and evening. 65 during weekdays.

Again, if these settings don’t work for you, just change them. (It’s really easy to do on a Nest.) Our consumer-focused research is made better by knowing what people don’t like, too.

Why are we doing this?

The electric grid in places like Texas faces shortages of available power during periods of high demand such as summer afternoons. That creates the threat of rolling blackouts. Also, power plants are generally less efficient on hot summer afternoons and the air quality impacts of their emissions are more negative. That means power plants typically will burn more fuel, release more carbon and other pollutants and create more ozone to generate electricity on a hot summer afternoon than to generate the same amount of electricity in the evening.

Air conditioning makes up the vast bulk of residential electricity use on hot summer afternoons. Reducing or even shifting this electricity use by just an hour can have big electric reliability and environmental benefits.

There are two ways the thermostat can play an important role.

First, by setting the temperature at a lower level during the night and early morning, the house can “pre-cool”. Particularly if the home has higher levels of attic insulation, this pre-cooling can result in the house never heating up enough for the air conditioner to come on during the workday. (There’s an added benefit of lower night temperature settings: while everyone has their own comfort preferences, generally people sleep better with cooler temperatures.)

Second, a higher afternoon setting can result in the air conditioner not coming on until a later point in the day.