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updated 1/22/2013 1:21:07 PM ET 2013-01-22T18:21:07

It's getting hot in here, so take off — actually, don't take anything off; add this retrofit onto your old steam radiators instead.

Radiator Labs, a New York-based startup, is developing a retrofit for steam and hot-water radiators that will allow people to control the temperature in individual rooms. Radiator Labs engineers hope such control will reduce energy waste in steam and hot water-heated buildings, which make up 10 percent of the U.S. housing stock. They're also hoping their product will make apartment-dwellers more comfortable in the winter. They're now testing the idea in a Columbia University dorm.

Anyone who has lived in an older building in cities such as Boston or New York knows how amazing this idea sounds. Steam radiator systems, which were first developed a century ago, are notoriously difficult to control in individual rooms or apartments. They send a steady stream of water vapor up from a boiler in the basement into radiators in individual rooms, but the radiators themselves have no controls beyond "open" and "closed."

Because of differences in room sizes, insulation and placement, apartments end up heating unevenly. Some apartment residents, who don't pay for heat, open their windows to cool down overheated rooms. Radiator Labs estimates such practices waste 15 to 30 percent of the heat a boiler creates.

The Radiator Labs prototype covers radiators with insulation. A small fan near the bottom of the retrofit allows heat through. A thermostat in the room controls the fan, so that the heat only comes on when the room falls below whatever threshold the room's occupant sets.

Radiator Labs has finished the first phase of the Columbia test, which consisted of just monitoring the test building's rooms' temperatures and energy use from September through December 2012. Now, Radiator Labs will add its retrofits to the building's radiators, and see what changes. Engineers will also distribute surveys to find whether the dorm residents liked the retrofit. 

Marshall Cox, Radiator Labs' CEO, told Greentech Media he wants to have the smarter radiator covers ready for sale by the 2013-2014 winter season. To meet his goal, he'll need more investor funding and improvements to the covers' designs so they are appealing and affordable, Greentech Media reported.

The project was previously supported by a competitive prize from the U.S. Department of Energy and from MIT.

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