Tony Fadell! You’ve just spent 18 years at Apple, designed the iPod, and changed the world! What are you going to do now?
The answer, evidently, was “reinvent the thermostat.” Fadell founded Nest, created the Nest Internet-connected thermostat—the one that sets itself by observing the patterns of human activity in the house—and found himself with another hit on his hands.
Tony Fadell! You’ve just made lightning strike twice! You’ve sold hundreds of thousands of your crazy, smart thermostat! What are you going to do now?
We’ve just found out the answer. Improbably, Nest has found another unloved, forgotten household appliance whose design and features haven’t changed for decades: the household smoke detector.
At the moment, what you feel about your smoke detector is probably apathy or hatred. Your one experience with it probably involves a brutal, terrifying beeping at 3:30 am that turns out to be nothing more than a low-battery signal. Or maybe the damn thing goes off every time you take a shower or heat up some soup.
No wonder, Nest says, that most deaths by fire can be attributed to smoke detectors that have been disconnected or had their batteries taken out.
The Nest Protect is a much, much smarter smoke and carbon monoxide detector.
It costs $130, which is maybe three times as much as a traditional dumb detector. And remember that you’ll probably need several of them. So, as with the Nest thermostat, we’re talking a healthy chunk of change for some really delicious features.
It talks. When the Protect gets a first whiff of smoke or carbon monoxide, it doesn’t go all shrieky right off the bat. From all of the detectors in your house, you hear a chime and then a crystal-clear female voice: “Heads up! There’s smoke in the kitchen.” If it turns out to be no big deal—you’re cooking a grilled cheese—you can shut it up just by waving your arm at it four times. (It has a motion sensor in it.)
That feature alone might be worth $130 to some people.
Now then. If the Protect is convinced it’s something more serious, it gives you a more traditional blasting horn sound, alternating with the voice (this time saying “Emergency” instead of “Heads up”). This kind of alarm, you can’t shut off by waving your arm. (I tested a pair of Protects in my house. To simulate a minor smoke condition, I blew out a candle under the detector. To simulate a more serious one, I used a can of aerosol smoke-detector-testing smoke.)
It’s online. The Protect smoke alarms are all connected wirelessly. They talk to each other (even if you don’t have a home WiFi network, thanks to a proprietary Nest-to-Nest network called Nest Weave). So if you’re in the bedroom, you’ll be alerted to smoke in the basement, or whatever.
Now, you can’t shut up an alert from a different room. You have to wave at the one that’s actually sensing the smoke, which is very smart. You’re forced to go see what the problem is.
There is also, of course, an app for that. When there’s a heads-up or an emergency at home, your iPhone or Android phone gets alerted. Wherever you happen to be, you get notified immediately that something Bad might be happening at home.
That’s a trick the $40 smoke detectors would have a hard time pulling off.
You will never, ever be awakened by a dead-battery alarm. There are two models of Protect: one that’s wired to electricity, and never gives a battery alarm; and one that takes six AA-size lithium batteries, which last about five years.
I tested the battery ones; here’s me, installing the Protect’s base plate at the top of our basement stairs:
When the batteries get weaker, your phone gets a calm notification when there’s still plenty of time to do something about it. At home, a calm voice lets you know it’s time to start thinking about replacing the batteries. No shrieking (not even you).
It has a cool ring light. The central round button is used to test the detector—press it once to make sure the detector is alive and working, twice to trigger an “emergency”-style warning.
Around it, though, is a beautiful LED ring light. It glows red for danger, yellow if something’s mechanically wrong. Each night when you turn off the lights, it glows green to indicate that all systems are fine.
And when you pass under it in a dark room, it glows gentle white as a night light so you can find your way to the bathroom. You can turn off this feature, but it’s my favorite.
The Protect communicates with your Nest thermostat, if you have one; for example, if it detects carbon monoxide, it shuts off your gas furnace. And if the Protect’s motion sensor sees that you’re in, say, the dining room, it tells your thermostat in another room that you’re still home, so don’t turn down the heat automatically.
But there’s also a heat sensor in the Protect. Someday, if regulators allow it, the Protect could figure out when you’re just taking a shower, and learn not to freak out.
Obviously, I’m as enthusiastic as it’s possible to get about a smoke detector. The Protect is just so smart, so solid, so calm, so communicative.
But it’s not as much of a slam-dunk value proposition as the Nest thermostat. For one thing, a smoke detector doesn’t save you money, month in, month out, like a smart thermostat does. (Nest says that all of the thermostats it’s sold, together, have saved Americans 1 billion kilowatt-hours of power.) Sure, the Protect might save your entire house, but that’s only a “maybe”; not everyone will ever experience a house fire.
Still, if I were building a new house or a new addition, you can bet your bippy that I’d spring for the Protect.
Besides, even if you don’t wind up buying a Protect, its larger lesson is invaluable to us all: The world is full of bad, dumb, ugly, ancient designs. We should be grateful that at least one company is remaking them into beautiful, smart, online machines, one unloved appliance at a time.