Marshall Cox was studying for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Columbia University in New York City when his brother needed to share his studio apartment for a few months. To keep the apartment from overheating, Cox would often leave the window open to offset the heat coming off the old radiator.

His brother, who was sleeping close to the window, complained incessantly that he was freezing, but most of the time it was an “unmitigated hellhole,” Cox said of the sweltering apartment in a TEDx talk. “That’s when I tried to find a solution,” Cox told Greentech Media.

Two years later, Cox is the CEO of Radiator Labs, a startup that transforms dumb, old radiators into smart(er) energy units. The young company won the 2012 MIT Clean Energy Prize in 2012 and is having something of a coming-out party at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it is part of Columbia University’s booth.

If you’ve ever lived in a northern city with old housing stock, you know exactly the problem Cox seeks to solve. Steam heat in old buildings is all or nothing: the boiler is either on or off, “so they have to cater to the coldest apartments,” said Cox.

The result is that many apartments are usually overheated, but there is no way to adjust the radiator. Windows are invariably thrown open during the coldest months for relief. Tenants do not pay for their own heat, so while cost isn’t a concern for an apartment dweller, it is for the building owner; about 15 percent to 30 percent of the steam heat is lost in the system. In Manhattan alone, it is estimated steam heat loss costs about $700 million per year. Nationally, steam heat is used in about 10 percent of the housing stock. And while renters might not be motivated by the cost of heat, since they don’t directly pay for it, many want more control.

Radiator Labs’ technology offers both energy savings and control. A cover with a small fan built into it goes over the radiator. The enclosure, which is essentially a big 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. Cox said if the technology is installed in an entire building, it can nearly eliminate steam heat loss. 

The company is currently in a pilot testing 110 units north of New York City. The first pilot last winter ironed out some of the initial problems: the fan was too loud; the installation time needed to be reduced.

But to scale, other challenges need to be addressed. Radiators are not typically one standard size, so Radiator Labs will need to decide how many sizes would need to be manufactured. The cover also needs to look nice. If nothing else, people like to cover up their old, ugly radiators. For those who already have expensive, custom covers for their radiators, Radiator Labs covers can fit underneath, according to Cox.

People have likely been cracking windows during the freezing days of winter since the mid-nineteenth century, when the heating radiator was invented. But creating a system to control it was impractical until recently because of the cost of the components, said Cox.

He noted that everything from microprocessors to quiet fans are readily available in the marketplace and can be easily assembled and programmed to respond to temperature signals. He also pointed to developments like Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform. The radiator units all have a ZigBee radio installed, so that when the devices are installed in an entire building, they can communicate node-to-node and down to a boiler. Radiator Labs is also considering adding Wi-Fi so that individuals can control the radiator from the internet or a smartphone.

The company has an ambitious target of offering the units for sale by the 2013-2014 winter session, “but that will require capital and more design,” admitted Cox. He also said that they plan to offer it to both building owners, who could likely see a two- to three-year payback, as well as to consumers. “The biggest challenge is getting a consumer-ready design out.” Not only does it have to be easy to install -- it has to be aesthetically pleasing and cheap enough for someone to buy it strictly for comfort. That figure will probably start around $200 to $300, but drop as production scales up.

Radiator Labs is not alone in finding solutions for Northeast-centric problems. ThinkEco, which was also a part of the New York cleantech incubator NYC ACRE, is in pilots with Consolidated Edison to control window AC units, energy hogs that are also common in older cities.

But others are getting into the mix as well. EcoFactor, which uses algorithms to control heating and cooling within a few degrees of a set point by making many small adjustments to central air systems, was just awarded patents for plug-in air conditioners and space heaters.

Radiator Labs has been self-funded to date, including the prize money from the MIT Clean Energy Prize, but will be looking for investors in 2013 to scale up to commercial production. “I think there’s already a huge amount of demand,” said Cox. “All people care about is that they want to be more comfortable.”