Coming off an intense heat wave, it may feel a bit early to think about winter.
But a startup in Manhattan — which swings from sweltering to frigid every year — is getting ready to test a solution for the too-hot/too-cold dilemma of city dwellers with antique steam radiators.
Called Radiator Labs, the company, an outgrowth of a Columbia University student's project, has a simple but clever solution: Cover each radiator with an insulating fabric and equip it with thermometers and fans to pump out heat only when needed.
"I built the first unit in my apartment (university housing) and it worked so well that we started a company based on the idea," Marshall Cox, the student founder, told TechNewsDaily in an email.
Newer homes and buildings have multiple "zones" controlled by individual thermometers. But in older buildings with steam heat (more than 10 percent of U.S. housing, according to Radiator Labs), the whole structure is essentially one zone.
A boiler heats steam that circulates through the entire building and must keep the chilliest apartment above a certain minimum temperature. But not all apartments lose heat at the same rate. (Think of apartments with two outside walls vs. one, for example, or a higher floor vs. a lower.)
To keep that hardest-to-heat apartment warm enough, every other apartment has to be overheated. Hence the odd spectacle of wide-open windows on bitter cold days as dwellers try to vent out the excess, and ultimately wasted, heat.
Radiators generally have valves, but the old hardware is frequently stuck or too fragile to risk fiddling with. And even if they can, the best residents generally muster is to swing from too hot to too cold as they alternately open and close the valve. And according to Cox, setting the valve half open doesn't decrease heat but does cause the pipe-banging sound so familair in apartment buildings.
Radiator Labs simple solution consists of a thermal blanket material — essentially an oven mitt — that fits over the radiator and holds heat in. As the temperature in the room drops below a level set by the user, a heating fan blows warm air out of the enclosure. By using only the heat that's needed, the system conserves it for the rest of the building.
Each radiator cover is wireless equipped, so a control system in the basement can measure how much heat the entire building requires and adjust accordingly, cutting into the $8.5 billion that Radiator Labs reckons goes up the chimney every year due to the inefficiency of primitive steam heat. The radiator covers are also Internet connected, so people can adjust them from smartphones, for example.
Radiator Labs is now outfitting the system in a 100-dorm building on the Columbia University campus to see if it can work on a large scale this coming winter.
The company is aiming to produce the covers for about $100 (selling them for somewhat more), so it might be worthwhile for overheated individuals to get their own. But Radiator Labs is also banking on landlords purchasing the system for an entire building. If, as the company reckons, each radiator wastes at least $100 per year, the retrofit would soon pay for itself.