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Winner Spotlight: Radiator Labs Sees Energy Savings in a Lot of Hot Air

According to the Department of Energy, about 30 percent of all heat is wasted in apartment buildings that use steam boilers. Because a significant amount of residential and commercial buildings in America use these systems, that inefficiency costs billions of dollars every year.

Radiator Labs developed a solution that regulates temperatures and reduces the amount of energy wasted. Their product, called The Cozy, focuses not only on saving money and energy, but also on the comfort and control of inhabitants.

After winning the energy category at Challenge Cup San Francisco, Radiator Labs CEO and founder, Marshall Cox, talked to us about his concept.

What does Radiator Labs do, and what problems is your product solving?

The problem we’re addressing is overheating in old, mostly multi-family apartment buildings. In any building built before World War II, the only technology available to heat larger spaces was steam heat, so everyone in the building would have a steam boiler in their basement. Some apartments are too cold, and some get way more heat than they need. To keep minimum temperatures for these buildings habitable, they heat the cold apartments until they’re warm; everyone else gets overheated and opens their windows. The result is preposterously wasteful buildings.

We have created a simple, patented technology: an insulating enclosure that we put over radiators to block hot air from rising. Just by manipulating the air around your radiator, you can control the temperatures in the apartment and thermodynamically affect the amount of steam that’s condensing with the radiator.

Let’s say you have a hot room, and you put an enclosure over the radiator that can control airflow. Our system senses the room temperature, and when the temperature hits a specific point—which the user can set through a smartphone app—the fans turn off and hot air cannot escape the enclosure.

In layman’s terms, we push heat from hot rooms to cold rooms, and that results in colder rooms heating up faster—so we can actually balance the building far sooner. We take all this data about the dynamics of the building, record that in real-time to the cloud and actually control the boiler based on that.

What makes Radiator Labs different from its competitors?

The way we save energy is we by pushing heat from hot rooms to cold rooms. We heat the colder rooms up faster, and then we turn the boiler off sooner.

Competitive technologies are mostly plumbing solutions. It turns out that it’s a very hard problem to fix through a valve. The competitors try to close the valve when the temperature gets hot. Since saving heat is a two-phase problem—it has both liquid water and gas—it’s very hard to transfer via a volumetric flow control such as a valve. They just don’t work for what we’re trying to do.

Tell me about the beginnings of Radiator Labs and the traction you’ve gained so far.

We got money from Columbia University in 2011 to do a very small test. That test told us what we shouldn’t be doing, and we learned a lot. So we went and competed in the MIT Clean Energy Prize in 2012 based on those results, and we won based on that first research. That was a quarter-million dollars, and we used that to develop our first full-building system in 2013. We installed it, and it actually worked great.

We saw some significant savings in a short period of time, and based on those better results we partnered with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Anybody in New York State who consumes natural gas or electricity pays a service benefits charge; that money goes to NYSERDA, and they spend it on energy efficiency research. They have a budget of about $1 billion a year, so when you’re doing energy stuff in New York, you want NYSERDA paying attention to you.

We entered into a program with NYSERDA called Emerging Technologies Accelerated Commercialization. We were doing pilot installations and NYSERDA pays for third party verifications. We installed in two full buildings in the winter of 2013/2014, and NYSERDA paid someone to monitor what happened. We actually showed a savings of around 30 percent in those two buildings—that’s a massive amount of savings. They were very excited, and this year they helped fund a development in about 800 more apartments.

What is your staff like, and what roles are played on the Radiator Labs team?

I have four full-time employees. One is a data scientist, collecting an enormous amount of data, being able to parse that and figure out what’s going on—not only in real-time to adapt to any arising issues, but to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. Then I have a hardware engineer, a software engineer and a buildings engineer. They program the hardware, make sure the networks are working and make sure we’re installing in buildings the right way, making sure they’re still working properly.

What’s the next step for your company? What’s the ultimate dream?

The next step is to show that we can do this at a larger scale and to build a network of partners that will enable us to do this in a lot of buildings. We need people who want to help us build the enclosures, and we need to partner with people who can start getting these out to more buildings. And then to just build the team—business, sales, operations—there are a lot of supportive positions we need to fill.

In a few years, I see Radiator Labs taking care of peoples’ buildings, making sure they’re working as they’re supposed to be working and clearing up the biggest inefficiency in the U.S., which is seeing heat wasted in our buildings.

Danica Smithwick

As a member of 1776’s editorial team, Danica Smithwick spends her time telling stories and communicating with others. She is a Union University and Washington Journalism Center student who loves…