Affordable home automation has been a long time coming. Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed that it’s the 21st Century and homes still don’t have Star Trek style swishy doors as standard.
But smartphone-controlled heating and lighting is here today. Nest hasn’t yet made it to the UK, so I decided to try out competitor system Tado, which is available in Europe now and expected to launch in the US at CES in Las Vegas in January. I tested it with both an iPhone and Nexus 4.
In the UK, it costs £249 ($400) outright, or you can rent it for £7 ($11.35) a month. Tado claims you will save more on your heating costs than it costs to rent.
The idea behind Tado is three-fold. First, automation. As well as the programmable timer you have in any heating system, it also monitors the locations of everyone in the household via their smartphones. If everyone is out, it turns down the heating even if the timer says it should be on.
How much it turns it down depends on how far away you are, because it aims to have it back up to temperature by the time you return. Nip out to the local grocery store, and it won’t adjust it much, drive an hour to work and it’ll turn it down a lot …
Second, intelligence. The system learns how long it takes your home to heat up and cool down, so rather than do the dumb thermostat thing and keep the heating on until it hits the target temperature, it learns, for example, that it can switch off 1.2 degrees sooner because the latent heat in the radiators continues to heat rooms even after the boiler goes off.
It also monitors the weather via the Internet, so if it knows it has to get the home up to 21C in two hours but can see that the sun will help, it will wait longer before it turns up the heating.
Third, remote control. If you want to take manual control, you don’t need to wander over to the wall thermostat (which Tado replaces with a featureless white box), you simply adjust things on your phone.
The app works via mobile data as well as wifi, so you can control your heating system from anywhere in the world. Granted, with presence detection you shouldn’t need to, so that may fall into the ‘cool trick to demonstrate to your mates in the bar’ category.
In the box
Tado arrived in an impressively small cardboard box. Inside were three small white plastic boxes: an electronic thermostat, a solar-powered temperature sensor and a wifi gateway to connect to your router. All three devices talk to each other via wifi. There was also a short Ethernet cable to connect the gateway, a USB power lead for it and a few other bits & pieces for the installation.
As my existing heating system has a wall thermostat, I didn’t need the separate temperature sensor, as there’s one built into the thermostat.
Tado offers two options for installation. You can either pay for a Tado engineer to install it, or do it yourself. Installation isn’t very complicated – essentially you’re just removing your old thermostat and replacing it with the Tado box – but the company reports that some self-installers did hit some issues, so professional installation is recommended. I have the DIY skills of a left-handed cat, so I let Tado do it, which took around 40 minutes.
Tado asked me to plug in the wireless gateway box before the installer arrived, and check I got two solid lights – for router and Internet. Once the engineer arrived, he switched off my boiler and heating system power supply, removed the old thermostat from the wall and wired-up the Tado box. The video above shows you what’s involved, and the setup stage (below) walks you through it. Finally, I set my existing programmable timer to ‘always on’ as Tado would be taking over its duties.
There’s a slightly different setup if you don’t have an existing wall thermostat.
Initial setup is done on the web. The box contained a card with a username and password (both of which can be changed once you’re logged-in), and you connect to www.tado.com/login. Once there, I was guided through the steps needed to install and configure the system. As the engineer had done the installation, mostly I was just hitting the Next button.
I also clicked the Account tab and changed both username and password, as the Tado-supplied ones were far from memorable. The system is reasonably secure in that additional users can only be added whilst in your home (more on this in a moment), but given that I have the sort of friends who would find it amusing to add themselves when visiting and turn the heating down or up remotely later, I set a strong password …
Once you’ve done the web bit, you can download the app and go into the settings. There are three things you need to set to get started.
First, normal and night-time temperatures. Europe measures temperatures in celcius, so the temperatures might look unfamiliar to Americans. What I have set here is the equivalent of 70F as the normal temperature and 60F overnight.
Second, what Tado calls Comfort Setting. If you want your home fully up to temperature by the time you arrive home in the evening, you set the slider all the way to Comfort. If you are happy for it to ramp up after you arrive, set it to Savings. There’s also a compromise setting in the middle.
Finally, you set the programmable timer in much the same way you would with your physical one: telling the system what time to switch on and off. You have the choice of the same schedule every day, separate weekday and weekend schedules, or individual schedules for every single day. I work from home so set a single schedule.
Using the app
This is the home screen. Here, I’m within normal hours, so the screen is orange. It displays the current temperature, the target temperature and an up arrow to indicate that is heating up the home. Finally, it shows that two of us are home.
Others in your household need to download the app to be recognised. You give them the login details, and they will then be logged as additional residents. You can allow guests to register, as you have the ability to remove registered users from the web app afterwards.
I set the system to go into night mode at 00:30. Sure enough, at that time the app screen turned blue and the temperature started dropping to my preset night temperature.
The first evening, I started seeing some very odd behaviour. Tado switched the heating off and on seemingly randomly. Once it switched off while it was a full two degrees below my target temperature, then switched it back on around 20 minutes later, then switched it off again when it was 1.8 degrees below.
After a while, though, it settled down, and I guessed it was learning how long my home takes to heat up and cool down, and the ‘lag factor’ – how long the air temperature continues to increase after the heating goes off. Tado confirmed this when I spoke with them.
This is part of how Tado saves you money: switching off the heating as soon as it knows the target temperature will be reached, without actually waiting for it to get there. Two or three days in, it was controlling things far more smoothly and accurately
The second really clever part, of course, is the presence detection. If all registered residents are out, then it will turn the heating down even if the timer says it should be on. This is the main way it saves money, by not heating an empty home.
There is a safety feature: a fallback temperature of 5C (41F). Even if nobody is home, and even if the timer says the heating should be off, Tado won’t let the temperature fall below 5C. This ensures that pipes won’t freeze, and nor will any pets.
There is also a manual Home button on the thermostat: if you have someone in your home who doesn’t have a smartphone, or who you don’t want to register on your system, they can press the thermostat button and then Tado will know someone is home and behave exactly as if a registered resident were detected.
Once Tado sees that someone is on the way home, it turns the heating up. If you’ve set it to Comfort, it tries to ensure it’s fully back up to temperature by the time you get home.
In general, this worked really well, Tado getting the place back up to the target temperature of 21C by the time I arrived home. When it could see I was arriving home late at night, it only brought the place up to the night time temperature.
Problems & weaknesses
I did discover two problems with the system, both with presence-detection.
First, the location-checking really hammers your phone battery. Despite being more than an hour away from home for an evening, the check frequency was such that it killed my battery even when it would normally have comfortably made it through the day. Tado says it is working on this issue.
Second, once my battery died, Tado of course no longer knew where I was, so couldn’t turn the heating back up. Worse, even when I charged the phone, it still didn’t recognise me as home. Tado says it is aware of this bug. I had to quit the app, reload it and then wait an hour or so before it realised I was home. (I could, of course, have pressed the Home button on the thermostat in the meantime, but we 9to5 writers are willing to endure hardship in the name of our reviews.)
I also found two weaknesses. First, the minimum night-time temperature you can set is 15C (59F). Personally I prefer a cooler air temperature and a warm duvet. Tado says it set this limit for energy efficiency: it uses less energy in total to keep the heating on at night at 15C than letting it cool further and then have to work harder to heat up to daytime temperature. However, Tado does plan to allow the option of lower temperatures.
The other weakness is that you can’t set different target temperatures for different times of the day. I work from a home office, which is upstairs and thus warmer than the living-room downstairs. Tado is always taking the temperature reading from the thermostat downstairs. It would be ideal if I could set one temperature for office hours and a different one for the evening. I do, though, recognise that home-workers are a bit of an edge case, so changing the target temperature half an hour before I finish work is something I can live with.
Let’s start with my only complaints …
The battery-killing issue is a big one, but that simply requires a tweak to the app, so will hopefully be sorted soon. The way the app fails after the battery has died is also a problem, but this shouldn’t be an issue once it stops killing the battery in the first place.
The wall unit isn’t as pretty and hi-tech looking as Nest. While it’s inoffensive enough – not quite the “white plastic crap” Nest says it wants to remove from our homes – it won’t make your visitors go ‘Oooh.’ But then the company is German, where understated is the name of the game.
That aside, Tado is brilliant. It’s easy to use, does what it claims, should save money – oh, and it’s a gadget. What’s not to like?
It’s too early to say whether it lives up to the claims of saving more than the equivalent rental cost – I’ll update when I next get a bill – but I can already tell that the boiler is on significantly less than it used to be for the same temperature.
For people whose schedule can be unpredictable, which is probably most of us these days, it’s great knowing that the house will be warm when you get home without wasting money heating it while empty.
You do need everyone in the home to have a smartphone, but that’s not really likely to be an issue for the typical 9to5 reader’s household. We hope to be able to review Nest too, to compare the two, but Tado is certainly a system I can recommend.
I still want my swishy doors, though.