Of all the services offering to take control of your heating, Hive is probably the system that has the highest profile. That's in no small part due to plenty of marketing and a brand name that's instantly recognisable: British Gas.
Hive by British Gas promises to cut your energy usage by dragging your heating system into the twenty-first century. It will give you controls that aren't lurking in a musty cupboard, instead making your smartphone a device that controls all.
We had Hive installed in November 2013 and have been living with the new heating system for three months to see how it performs and whether it’s made our lives more comfortable.
What is Hive?
Hive is a system that's made up of several components, all interconnected, which is where we imagine British Gas found inspiration for the name. There's a controller that replaces your existing central heating and hot water controls, most likely next to your boiler or hot water tank, there's a wall controller and thermostat, and finally the link to attach it to the internet via your router.
That last part of the puzzle is needed because to fully control Hive you'll need to use either the website dashboard or the app on your smartphone. Currently it's available on iOS and Android only, so no Windows Phone just yet. It's this app-based connection to the outside world that makes Hive tick and brings the sophistication to the system, but each of the individual elements is essential.
The idea is to move away from manual switches and sliders, or controls that aren't intuitive because they're governed by a small display with a couple of buttons. In its place, comes control at any time, from any place, in a form that's simple and easy to use.
The actual functionality of your heating and hot water system will remain the same - more or less - but the control and programming of it will likely be very different.
One of the important considerations of Hive is the "by British Gas" part. It makes Hive approachable, because the installation is carried out by British Gas, so you're not faced with buying components and then wondering who you'll get to install it. It will cost you £199, but that includes the installation cost.
It doesn't mean your gas supply needs to come from British Gas, however, as you're paying the company for the components and the install.
Installation is swift, but will ultimately depend on your system. As we installed it on a fairly new central heating system - coincidentally installed by British Gas too - the actual process took less than an hour. It really was as simple as swapping one box for the other, hooking up to the router and getting all the parts talking to each other. An older system won’t necessarily provide that ease but British Gas can advise on a case by case basis.
The new thermostat
The Hive thermostat does the job you expect it to, monitoring the temperature of your house and detailing the temperature you're trying to get it to. You can turn the temperature up and down using the controls and Hive will respond accordingly.
You can also cycle through programmes. For heating this offers manual, programme and off; for hot water you have boost, programme and off. A simple press of the button will change the status and do as you wish.
In that way, the wall thermostat is very much as conventional thermostats are, however you don't really need to use it that regularly if you have your smartphone to hand.
Heating and hot water control
As we've mentioned, Hive does away with fiddly programmers. You can open up the Hive website and login and you'll be able to set the heating and hot water programme you want, using easy sliders.
It's easy to set the programme you want for each day, so you can select when you want heating or hot water on, for how long, and decide what you want the house temperature to be for different periods and so on.
You can also change the schedules from your smartphone app. In fact, the app gives complete control, so apart from checking the connection status of the various components of your Hive system, there's no real need to use the website dashboard after the initial setup.
From within the app you can change the programmes, turn the heating on and off, as well as check the current temperature. The app’s user interface is nice and simple, with a big round temperature gauge in the middle which can slide up and down to adjust. You can also flip to various shortcuts - frost protection, 10 degrees or 20 degrees - and you always see the status of the heating and water at the bottom of the app display.
What it doesn't do is provide temperature control over individual rooms. After all, this is a single thermostat control rather than a setup which can interact with separate radiators and obtain feedback from multiple areas within your home. But the scope for future expansion potential is there, not that it's yet officially on the roadmap.
The advantage of having app control is that you can leave the house and still have control. If you are away and forget to turn the heating off, you can go in and change the programme to frost protection, for example.
You can put the hot water on boost if you're on your way home and suspect that you won't have the hot water you want for a bath. You can be lying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning, well after the heating schedule has stopped, and opt to warm the house up again.
Hive is a really convenient system and the apps are intuitive and easy to use. The iPhone app has been the more stable in the time we've been using it, but recent updates to the Android app have improved it's reliability - early versions tended to crash regularly.
Making sure all the parts are interconnected is the single most important part of what Hive is trying to achieve. Once it's all setup, you can log on to your Hive account on the website and see what you have connected. This is a really important element if you have any problems, because you can see what isn't working.
For us, we found that the thermostat connectivity would sometimes drop out, meaning that Hive didn't know what the temperature was, or what it was supposed to be. Often than meant it would do nothing.
Although installed in an average-sized 1930s three-bedroom semi-detached house - still under redecoration as our photos attest - it seemed that the thermostat couldn't always stay in contact with everything else.
After struggling for some weeks with this, British Gas sent out a SmartPlug to strengthen the connection. Installing the booster - which is simply plugged into a convenient socket between the airing cupboard controller and the thermostat - resolved this problem. Importantly, it was British Gas that detected the problem and sent the plug out, rather than us having to phone and complain about it.
There has been another oddity with Hive too and that's a failure to switch off. This has, on occasion, lead to us having to switch off all the different Hive components to get it to stop heating. We suspect this is again a communication problem.
On the whole, however, we've found Hive to be a most welcomed upgrade to our previous controls, which mostly consisted of on or off. Having been one of the first to have Hive installed, we can live with some hiccups along the way.
British Gas estimates that you'll save £150 a year due to more efficient control of your heating and hot water, but we'd imagine you'd have to be fairly wasteful currently for that to be the case.
Hive isn't the most advanced system out there, as it's very much about connecting what you already have. For many, that will be perfect, but for those looking for complete individual room-by-room control, something like the Honeywell Evohome might offer more appeal. There's also the recent Google acquisition of Nest and products such as Tado to consider too. It's early days in the world of this kind of home-based technology, but exciting days.
Hive by British Gas is a great upgrade for a central heating system. It is a straightforward and easy way to bring smartphone control to your home, with minimal changes to your system and at a cost that won't break the bank.