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A Simple Solution For Making Dumb Radiators Part Of A Smart Home

An energy startup from Columbia University is on the road to fixing the wintertime lament of many a too-hot-too-cold apartment dweller, with an extra $220,000 from the MIT Clean Energy Prize.

If you’ve ever lived in New York or any other big city, you know the dilemma: Your landlord has to heat a whole building with one thermostat, so he or she just jacks up the heat. On a cold February day, you’re forced to open your windows to regulate the temperature.

In total, about 10% of buildings in cities around the U.S. face this problem. They are warmed by steam heating that circulates through a system of pipes in a building from the boiler. This dated system, though effective, has its drawbacks: Each part of a building may lose and store heat differently, but there’s just a single control for the plumbing as a whole.

To solve this problem, Marshall Cox, a graduate student in electrical engineering at Columbia University, created Radiator Labs, with the goal of "modernizing steam heat." Cox and the Radiator Labs startups solution to the problem won $200,000 as the grand winner of the MIT Clean Energy Prize yesterday, beating out 14 other clean energy startups.

"I started this company because I was living in an apartment that had unbelievably bad heat," Cox said. "It was hot and cold, hot and cold. I was complaining every day."

Aside from making its better-insulated residents uncomfortably warm, steam heat is wasteful. Cox estimates that 2.2 million apartments in Manhattan waste energy worth $700 million annually.

Gutting a building to change its heat system is difficult and costly. But to save energy and better control heating, Cox designed an insulating setup for individual radiators. Cox’s invention fits over a radiator like a tea cosy: "It just goes over the radiator. That’s it."

When a room is cold and needs heat, a fan inside the cover automatically turns on, blowing heat into the apartment. A temperature monitor on the cover senses when the room gets toasty and the fan is turned off, keeping the heat within the radiator and piping. The on/off data from all the apartments in a building is sent to a central node (perhaps in the boiler room), to influence how the heat is generated. Apartment owners can view and control their temperature profile online too, and writing an app to turn it on and off from a smartphone shouldn’t be too hard, says Cox.

Cox started out testing a prototype in his own apartment, and grew that to 20 units in his own building. With the MIT Clean Energy Prize winnings, the Radiator Labs team is planning a large-scale beta test with professionally manufactured equipment in a large apartment block in Hudson Valley. The startup will now compete at the 2012 National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition in Washington, D.C.

Beejli Technologies, an MIT/Harvard collaboration, won the $20,000 in the Renewable Energy category for getting electricity to rural India with a solar panel system hooked up to the wireless network. Solid Energy, a startup developing a lithium battery for electric vehicles, won top spot in the Deployment and Infrastructure category. Radiator Labs bagged the top spot in the "Energy Efficiency" category of the contest as well.