Even though the weather is pushing toward a balmy 40℉ in much of the U.S., it’s been a long, cold winter for much of the country. If you’re one of the tens of millions of people who live in an apartment with steam radiators, however, you may have had your window cracked open in sub-freezing temperatures because your radiator made your apartment feel like a sweltering jungle.
Whether you’re an uncomfortable tenant or a building owner of one of these aging edifices, you may not know that there is an emerging solution to the problem. Not only can it make apartments much more comfortable, but new data suggests the technology can cut boiler runtime by up to 20 percent, according to a recent pilot by Radiator Labs.
Radiator Labs is a new startup out of New York City, which has the highest concentration of buildings that use steam heat. The solution is a giant cozy with a fan that goes over the radiator in the room.
The enclosure, which is essentially a radiator-size oven mitt, blocks hot air from rising off of the radiator and into the room and also blocks infrared light. The built-in fan moves air into the room when a temperature sensor in the room reaches a certain threshold. It controls the transfer of the heat from the radiator into the room and therefore allows for temperature control. The radiator can also then be controlled using a smartphone.
Radiator Labs has conducted two pilots at Columbia University, where the technology was born, and has recently moved downtown to New York University. Just one year ago, founder Marshall Cox told Greentech Media that he hoped to have a commercial product ready for this winter season. That has not happened, but instead Radiator Labs has a Kickstarter campaign underway to test the consumer market, with hopes to scale up for next winter.
The prototype tested in a dorm building at Columbia University saw some promising results. The rooms that fell into a comfortable range (defined as 69℉ to 75℉) went from 39 percent before the retrofit to nearly 70 percent after the Cozies were installed. The system reduced the amount of time the boiler was running in the building by nearly 20 percent.
“We don’t save energy based on occupancy,” said Cox. “It’s just eliminating waste.”
Eliminating waste steam heat could be big business if Radiator Labs can scale its technology. In the past year, the company fine-tuned its boiler connection and control algorithms. Not only does it eliminate waste, but it can also give building operators more insight into a building’s energy performance. In New York City alone, there’s about $2 billion annually in wasted steam heat.
The solution for inefficient radiator steam heat has been a long time coming, but there are various challenges. Radiator Labs has chosen to focus its effort on developing a consumer product that looks great, has a slick smartphone app and is easy to install. On the other hand, it also has sought to develop a technology that can be sold to building owners or condo and cooperative associations as an energy efficiency play with a reasonable payback.
Radiator Labs hopes to address the first problem with its Kickstarter campaign. If it can hit its goal, it will be able to release more Cozies into the marketplace, and users will hopefully provide testimonies about the device's ease of installation and use. The app is nice, but since many tenants in the Northeast don’t pay their own heating bills, turning down the heat when tenants leave for the day is not as compelling a driver as it is many markets.
On Kickstarter, a pledge of $299 gets you a Radiator Labs Cozy, but that price would drop if the device goes into commercial production. Standard radiator covers, which simply hide old, ugly radiators, range from about $50 to $200. Cox ideally would like to sell the product in big-box stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Best Buy in large Northeastern cities in the coming years. He said there are at least 50 million steam radiators in the U.S.
There could also be an opportunity to engage building owners if a few tenants choose to buy Cozies on their own. In that case, Radiator Labs could show the building owner a projected savings estimate if they offered a rebate for more customers to buy them.
Another potentially large market is public housing authorities, which tend to be strapped for cash and could benefit from energy savings, and which often have dissatisfied tenants. In the multi-family efficiency market, Radiator Labs will be competing with software solutions, such as WegoWise, which identify wasted energy and retrofit opportunities. Ultimately, Radiator Labs could potentially be part of a retrofit solution, and one that offers far more comfort value to tenants than LED lights in the hallway.