The newest energy-efficient buildings are filled with sensors and network and control technology. But the human beings who benefit from those technologies are often left out.
That’s too bad, because humans can be important judges of temperature, lighting quality and other key building operating metrics, and could feed back their data to make these processes even more accurate and efficient.
This is the loop that Boston-based startup Crowd Comfort wants to close with its crowdsourcing platform that gets building occupants involved in the energy efficiency equation. Since its founding last year, it’s raised $273,000 in seed funding and built a beta version of its platform, which combines geolocation stickers pasted around buildings with iOS, Android and web apps that ask people to tell the system about the light, heat, airflow and occupancy where they’re standing.
So far, Crowd Comfort has piloted the platform in General Electric’s 300,000-square-foot office and manufacturing building in Billerica, Massachusetts, where it’s also allowing employees to report and photograph broken or improperly functioning lights, thermostats and other building systems, said Eric Graham, CEO and co-founder, in a recent interview.
The startup, based at the Greentown Labs incubator, is also working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on installing the QR code stickers on fuel tanks, backup generators and other gear that’s inspected regularly, in order to feed data into its maintenance work management system, he said. It is also exploring possibilities with Boston-based demand response and energy efficiency company EnerNOC, where Graham used to work, and current CEO David Brewster is an investor in the startup, he said.
On the public front, Graham pitched the startup at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Innovation Summit’s Future Energy event in February, and at last month’s Datapalooza event at the White House. The company officially unveiled itself in March, and is now seeking $2.5 million to $3 million in new investment to expand, he said.
“I’ve been kind of surprised by the level of interest across the spectrum,” Graham said. “I attribute it to the fact that there’s an expectation that people are going to be able to be engaged with apps and data in all aspects of their lives.”
Certainly the idea of a smartphone app to monitor and control building energy use isn’t new -- it’s a feature of multiple home automation systems, for example. But commercial buildings tend to have several degrees of separation between occupants and the facility manager, who’s responsible for keeping them comfortable while also keeping utility bills low.
That’s how Crowd Comfort came up with its geolocation sticker concept, he said. In conversations with facility managers following last summer’s Hackathon event in Boston, “Their feedback was, it would be great to get the thermal comfort data, but it would be even better to get geolocated, time-stamp occupancy information,” he said.
Smartphone GPS technology isn’t accurate enough to tell one room or floor from another, and in-building wireless networks are still too rare and expensive to rely on for the purpose. Crowd Comfort’s approach does require a building walk-through to carefully match each vinyl sticker to the system’s GPS coordinates. But “it didn’t require any kind of special integration, any kind of hardware, besides the vinyl marker,” he said.
From there, “Once it’s installed, everyone can download the application for free -- it’s platform-agnostic,” said Graham. Now, instead of filling out a form or sending an email to the facility staff, employees can quickly scan the sticker, tap in their comfort (or discomfort) report, and upload it to the platform, where the facility manager and others can get the alert.
And while today’s building automation systems do have some ability to track energy consumption on a room-to-room basis, “There are all these sensors and all these systems in buildings across the country, and people are still uncomfortable,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the systems that are the problem; sometimes it’s the settings that are the problem.”
Crowd Comfort’s data is “providing a level of visualization and analytics that helps better understand what’s going on.”
“It also better engages the employees,” he added. “Right now, thermal comfort is dealt with as a complaint. It should be a feedback loop. We’re making hot and cold complaints go away, and making them part of a feedback process.” Employees are anonymous in the process, giving them freedom to say how they really feel.
“We hear that this is the missing piece of the whole equation. That human feedback loop is not easily attained,” said Graham. But with it, a facility manager can go beyond reacting to complaints, and can actively identify energy-wasting situations.
“If we adjust the temperature in this space by 1 degree, does anyone react?” If not, “you know you now have room in your set point for a permanent adjustment. There’s no other way today to get that feedback.”
Buildings consume about three-quarters of all the electricity used in the United States. Making them even moderately more efficient could cut the need for new power plants drastically over the coming decades. Some studies show that best-available efficiency improvements could even allow some fossil-fuel-fired power plants to be retired.
But getting there will take a lot of investment, making it critical that new approaches prove themselves repeatedly with faster, deeper and more accountable real-world deployments. We’ve seen an explosion of data analytics and “internet of things”-based approaches to making buildings more efficient. Stay tuned for more approaches to getting the humans involved as well.
"We haven’t seen this evolve into a full set of data yet, but this is where we’re starting to go with it," Graham said. "There are bits and pieces of the puzzle being done -- this mobile world has really evolved in the last couple of years." However, almost all in-building mobile systems of this kind are aimed at retail stores and mass-marketing type efforts, rather than at improving office worker comfort and energy savings.
But if Crowd Comfort can get enough people interested in using smartphones to stay comfortable and save energy at work, it could make for a big market.
"We are still developing the ROI equation and trying to validate it. It’s interesting, because when you start to think about steps in a daily process and employee engagement, the numbers get really big, really quickly."