To shut him up, Cox, then a PhD student in electrical engineering at Columbia University, developed a radiator retrofit that can regulate the temperature in steam-heated buildings. Now Cox's freshly formed startup Radiator Labs is developing the retrofit for commercial use. The Thermostatic Radiator Enclosure is scheduled to hit the market before next winter. How Cox turned a home-improvement hack into a commercial contender can be credited in large part to his own entrepreneurial determination--though help from Columbia's technology transfer process didn't hurt, either.
The idea came about as Cox, 33, chatted about his heating woes with his advisor, Ioannis Kymissis, who runs the Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics, a group that researches thinfilm electronics. "It was just sort of a casual conversation," Kymissis says -- one of a thousand different ideas he and Cox bat around each week. But this one Cox went ahead and built, putting together a prototype and testing it within his overheated studio apartment.
The invention Cox calls a "glorified oven mitt" fits around your single-pipe radiator and fixes the uncontrollable temperature swings most steam-heated units experience. Today, most new buildings are heated through forced hot air or hot water. But older buildings, especially those built before World War II, use steam heat, and in the 1970s, the rise of double-paned glass windows, which are excellent insulators, radically changed the amount of heat needed to keep a room warm -- and changed it by different amounts for each room -- causing those dramatic temperature swings. This is especially problematic in apartment buildings, where the boiler is all on, or all off, for everyone--there's no halfway with steam heat. So buildings have to cater their heat consumption to the coldest apartment in the unit, leaving residents in some apartments hot and bothered while other units feel comfortable. It isn't just unpleasant, it's bad for the environment: Up to 30 percent of the energy generated by steam heated radiators goes to waste. New York City, an area that uses 20 percent of the nation's steam heat, wastes hundreds of millions of dollars every winter keeping many of its residents uncomfortable.
Cox's "glorified oven mitt" works by trapping heat so that the heat doesn't escape into the room. Some heat leaks out of the cover, but ideally only enough to heat the room on winter's warmer days. When a sensor outside the enclosure determines that the room is too cold, an automatic fan pushes more hot air out of the enclosure and into the room. When the fan is off, the enclosure heats up, trapping the energy that would have been wasted overheating the room in the system as steam, which can then be used to heat colder parts of the building. Cox estimates that if the millions of U.S. housing units with steam-based radiators adopted the technology, they could save billions of dollars in energy costs and reduce carbon emissions by more than 6 million tons--the rough equivalent of removing 1.25 million automobiles from the road.
After building the original prototype, Cox submitted an invention report form to Columbia Technology Ventures. Columbia Technology Ventures is the university's technology transfer office. Its mission is to "facilitate the translation of academic research into practical applications, for the benefit of society." In the process, it helps students and faculty file patents, set up companies and network with industry professionals to help commercialize the research done on campus.
Columbia paid for the initial fees associated with filing a patent (which can cost anywhere from $5,000 to more than $50,000) and helped Cox set up a company. Out of the hundreds of inventions Columbia Technology Ventures deals with each year, only about 15 become startup companies. (More commonly, the tech transfer office helps researchers sell their inventions to existing businesses.) "In order to have a startup you need to have a lot of elements in place," Orin Herskowitz, the executive director for Columbia Technology Ventures, explains. The team involved in the project needs to have the right combination of business and technical know-how, and it has to be a product that has the potential to attract investors.
"Radiator Labs is perfect in that sense," Herskowitz says. The idea could stand on its own -- it wasn't an incremental change in an already established technology from a big company like IMB -- and could be manufactured for a reasonable price. "[Cox] came to us with a great idea that was trying to solve a real need in the marketplace." Herskowitz saw Cox as an entrepreneur who "was clearly not going to stop till he got this thing to the market."
When Cox tested his first prototype, he used his own apartment and one radiator. To prove the invention would work on a larger scale, he needed a bigger apartment and more radiators. So Columbia Technology Ventures connected Cox to Columbia's facilities management group, which was more than happy to let him install an energy-saving retrofit--and test its viability--in a university-owned apartment building for free. Having free pilot rights "was hugely powerful," Cox says, because most landlords wouldn't have let him install unproven technology in their building. "We were such an early stage company."
He built wireless capability into the Thermostatic Radiator Enclosure system so that it could connect to the Internet, giving him the ability to look at centralized data from the pilot building and data collected in a control building (also university-owned) next door from anywhere. Unfortunately, he ran into problems with the boiler in his control building, which skewed the data. But the pilot provided practical lessons nonetheless. "We learned a ton of people hate loud fans," Cox explains. "Aesthetics were an issue." The company now had much more data than before on the product, as well as pictures and testimonials from people in the pilot building.
That allowed Cox and his team to take Radiator Labs out on the road, to compete in small business-plan competitions. Depending on the nature of the product, turning an invention into a marketable product can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars for something like an iPhone app to hundreds of millions of dollars for pharmaceuticals. Columbia covers some upfront costs, but does not fund the entire process. In the spring of 2012, Radiator Labs took $221,000 home as the winner of the MIT Clean Energy Prize, an energy entrepreneurship competition supported by the Department of Energy and the Massachusetts utility company NSTAR. With funding from the Clean Energy Prize, Radiator Labs had the ability to become a serious corporate entity.
Now, the product is in a late pilot stage, being tweaked for the commercial market. It should be available this year, in time for the heating season, or next year at the latest. An early stage version of the product might include the option of a wireless receiver, which could allow for direct boiler control and Internet connectivity. It could even give you the ability to adjust the temperature of your apartment from your cell phone. For now, though, the focus is just on getting the product ready to sell. It's likely it'll be available for entire buildings -- since landlords control and pay for heat, they'll be the ones that see the energy savings. Cox -- who successfully defended his dissertation in October and now works full time on Radiator Labs -- also envisions the product as something you could buy for your personal comfort. His goal is to design something easy enough to install yourself, something you could pick up at a home improvement warehouse for just a few hundred dollars.
While I've never lived in NYC, I would question whether there are actually as many residential buildings as claimed still relying on this old type of steam radiator for heating. Especially given the fact that there have been generous government subsidies available for the past few years for covering the cost of upgrading such antiquated heating systems.
As for the business model promoted by the inventor, I would also question its validity. The only dwellings still using these ancient steam radiators for heating would be those with very low rents. And the typical tenant living in a low rent dwelling would not likely be willing to spend even a small amount of their own money to purchase this retrofit device.
At first glance it sounds great, but then I stopped reading about halfway through when I realized this is a "new" invention for a problem that has already been solved.
A thermostatic radiator valve allows a person to set what temperature they want in the room by twisting a cap installed near the inlet of the radiator. That cap, set to the user's preference, will determine at what point a valve closes, cutting off the flow of hot water or steam. With this device and the proper configuration of heating loops, you can very precisely control the temperature in each room.
But it only works in 2-pipe systems.
In a properly designed single pipe system you shouldn't really have this problem. True, the radiators at the end of a run will operate slightly cooler than those at the very beginning, but again, a properly designed system won't have that problem.
You might wonder: What is a 2-pipe system and how is it different than a 1-pipe system.
Imagine three radiators connected to each other. In a single pipe system, radiator 3 is fed by radiator 2 which is fed by radiator 1. So if you stop the flow at radiator 1, no radiators downstream (#2 and #3) will receive fresh water.
Same thing again, three radiators. But this time picture a main line carrying the water, and at each radiator that line branches off to feed that individual radiator, as the water flows out of the radiator it returns to the main line. This system allows you to place a thermostatic radiator valve at the inlet of each radiator, if that valve stops the flow of water into the radiator to which it is attached, this will not affect the flow of water into the radiators. So if the thermostatic valve shuts off radiator 1, radiators #2 and #3 can still be fed off the main line.
So now you have an idea of why it can't work on single-pipe systems. That said, a properly designed single-pipe system won't have great temperature variation between rooms. For one, radiators are meant to be installed under windows. This instantly reduces the draftiness and thereby inherent temperature fluctuation of a room. Second, radiators put out so much heat per linear foot. So if you are installing a single pipe system, put more radiator/baseboard in the room at the end of the loop to compensate for the slightly cooler water. Next, properly vent air from the system--air is the #1 culprit in reducing heat output in a system. Lastly, don't run loops that are too long. I think the maximum length for a loop in most residential installations is about 90 ft. So don't run a 200' loop and expect comfortable heat t/o.
Now you might be thinking "its easier to buy this new device than to add a radiator or redesign the entire system." To that, I say its a matter of personal preference and ability.
"... I would question whether there are actually as many residential buildings as claimed still relying on this old type of steam radiator for heating. Especially given the fact that there have been generous government subsidies available for the past few years for covering the cost of upgrading such antiquated heating systems..."
I know that Normally, especially for Techies, the notion of everything under the Sun being NEW and installed with the latest Tech is like Breathing...but remember that MOST Cities that were built in the previous CENTURIES are filled with Housing Stock that was outfitted with Steam Heat--WHICH was the MODERN Technology of that Time.
Also consider that MANY of those old houses and Multiple dwellings had in a previous century UPGRADED to the then NEXT latest Technology-- The OIL BURNER. I grew up in a Wood frame house in Brooklyn that had a COAL FURNACE. That House was OLD enough that the Steam pipes wan along the floor...along with the Electrical Wiring (Also Newfangled for that house back then!)
CHEAP? (Do you hear my hysterical laughter?)
Steam heating systems in these Old houses is IN THE WALLS. And remember--AGAIN--the walls in TRULY OLD Biuldings are NOT Plaster Board. Every once in a while, there'll be a Suburban transplant back to the City-- and the Teenage Son will be brought to the Hospital ER with a Broken Fist or Wrist...WHY? He got angry and thought to get back at Mom by punching a hole in the wall. It worked at the old Suburban house...but here in the City, that hallway wall is MASONRY.
So when houses and biuldings were constructed with the THEN NEW TECHNOLOGY of Steam Boiler heat-- the Biulders, of course INCORPORATED the pipes...IN THE MASONRY WALLS.
SUBSIDIES? Yes-- SOME exist...for the HEATING SYSTEM..meaning the unit that goes in your furnace room. The Pipes in the walls of your Three Storey Building? Busting them out. Busting thru the Floors. REPAIRING the MASONRY WALLS. All that comes outta YOUR pocket..and guess what, that's called GUTTING the Building.
You have to be a Millionaire...and then some, to afford that.
And let's not get into Buildings that are PRESERVATION LANDMARKED.
Lastly-- Subsidies Vary from State to State...and no matter how much the subsidies give you-- there's NO DISCOUNT on what the Plumber, Electrician, and Construction/Repair guys get. You pay THEM Up Front...Full Price Hours, Material/supply, Consultation.
OH-- and here in NYC, you have to pay for PERMITS to engage in Heating Plant Changes with the Fire Department...OH-- and did I mention Inspection Charges?
"...generous government subsidies available...for covering the cost of upgrading such antiquated heating systems..." he writes
(Hysterical tearful Laughter)
With respect to the questions of the market viability of the product I have just the slightest *hunch* that someone looked into the potential demand before going ahead with the startup. Sounds like Columbia has done this tango more than a few times. The simple fact that a high-tier University like Columbia has a building lying around with this "old-fashioned" system speaks volumes to me. If a school like that hasn't gotten around to upgrading their buildings, what are the realistic odds that independent landlords have? And even if the US has upgraded heating systems (I doubt it), it's not as if only US cities use these heaters. I imagine overseas demand constitutes a noteworthy part of the predicted market.
As a second point, as a mechanical engineer, I've got to say: simple, affordable, and practical are the marks of true genius. Props to the creator!
Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.
Only Marrach understands what buildings are like in the real world. One of the thing none of the comments address is the impact of rent regulations. you can't get tenants out or even find a place to put them if they have rent regulations while renovating the units. Rents in NYC are very high, although at least 1MM units have below market leases. A fix proposed in this article is more likely than a gut renovation and more cost effective.
This thermostatic steam radiator air vent accomplishes this.
"While I've never lived in NYC, I would question whether there are actually as many residential buildings as claimed still relying on this old type of steam radiator for heating." (quoted from previous poster)
At Wikipedia search for "New_York_City_steam_system"
While only referencing the high-rise and business buildings in this Wikipedia entry, the "Roughly 30 billion lbs (just under 13.64 megatons) of steam..." cited in it tends to lead me to believe that savings are in order. If this young man can create an inexpensive and easy to install retrofit to reduce costs and environmental impact, more power to him! Where can I invest?
In a one pipe steam heating system each radiator has its own (single) pipe to the (single) main steam line. Fresh steam from the boiler shares the pipe with condensate (water) returning to the boiler by gravity flow. The valve for the radiator must be fully open or fully closed to avoid conflict between fresh steam and returning condensate at the valve, resulting in noise and irregular heating.
In a two pipe steam system, each radiator has its own pipe to the main steam line and its own pipe for returning condensate via a separate system of pipe. Here, a radiator can have a graduated valve, either manual or thermostatically controlled.
The invention described above stores the heat in the radiator and releases the heat as needed using the fans. The radiator will get hotter than a radiator that is not covered; when the radiator temperature goes over 212 degrees F that radiator will stop accepting fresh steam while other radiators can continue to receive steam. (For hot water radiators the radiator temperature will level off at the furnace water temperature and then no more heat will be extracted from the water passing through.)
Using this invention a radiator can supply a modest amount of heat to a room longer before a thermostat in the room calls for more steam from the boiler, compared with a thermostatic valve that shuts off the steam to an uncovered radiator.
How even this invention can keep the room temperature will depend on thermostatic control. A more sophisticated system will have an additional thermostat inside the radiator cover to call for more steam from the boiler (if the latter had cycled off) before the radiator gets too cool. When the boiler does cycle on, it will "recharge" all of the radiators that are equipped with this invention.
We don't have any figures for efficiency of this invention compared with a thermostatic valve for the radiator but what counts is the number of BTU delivered to the room and the absence of open windows for the purpose of cooling down a room that got too warm. There will need to be good insulation on the back side of the radiator since, with the radiator at a higher temperature, there is the potential for more heat loss out through the wall behind.
I'm curious if Columbia keeps an equity stake in these companies it helps start up. Seems it would be crazy if not. I often think that with with government grants too like are done by DARPA and NIH, etc etc. Why doesn't the government stop doling out grants and act like a venture capital firm instead. I know some people will cry "socialism" right away, but what we have now is in many ways corporate socialism. Why not let the government invest more like a normal business.
We live in a NYC apartment that has 3 "old" radiotors. Our rent? $4,400 a month. Its a doorman building. They are not converting to anything new for a long long time...once we move out this apartment will be snatched in under 24 hours. Yes, there is a huge demand for this radiator temp control here...
If the PhD candidate needed to be told that most people hate the sound of noisy fans, he should apply for federal disability funding as someone with Asperger's Syndrome. Hopefully the final product looks more like the top photo than the blanket-wrap halfway down the article. If not that's another Asperger's tell.
Columbia U is in NYC so you'd expect them to know the in-city demand for such product.
I've lived in such buildings and shudder to think of the money we cost our (hated) landlord by opening windows on very cold days where the boiler was working at full capacity but we experienced huge thermal imbalances.
A bypass valve, whether computer-controlled or manual, would however do much the same thing. On a single-pipe system you'd needa short bypass pipe and two couplings, @ > $20. A $150/hour plumber & helper should take way less than an hour per radiator on average for a whole building.
Finally: Since heat is bundled with rent with most central boiler based systems; if this hot-box (or a bypass) can pay for itself in a season or two; you've got a market selling to landlords.
BUT since a bypass valve (and pipe) is rather old tech, you may NOT have any market... outside of atherosclerosis laden organizations like Columbia U.
For those doubting the need for the devices, what is the current population of the US? 275,000,000 +-? ago I grew up in Chicago and its far Northern suburbs (that's what Ma Bell called them on the phonebook cover). The first house I can remember as home used steam radiators heated by an oil-fired boiler.
Left IL in 1974 and was never in the house again until this past fall. The boiler was replaced, but the radiators are still in use today - unchanged. No thermostatic valves. Even the original bleeder valves are in place. After 45 years.
Scotch7, I have lived in many cities and villages since 1974 an not one yet included heat with rent.