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Inventor Vows to Help New Yorkers Control Their Radiators

By Amy Zimmer | November 21, 2013 7:03am
 Radiator Labs, a start-up by a Columbia engineering student, hopes to fix problems of steam heat.
Radiator Labs
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MANHATTAN — When Marshall Cox was a graduate student at Columbia University, he spent winters in his Morningside Heights apartment — like millions of New Yorkers — either sweating from the heat or shivering because he'd opened a window and forgotten to close it.

Cox — who recently earned his doctorate in electrical engineering — viewed it as a challenge. Could he design something affordable and user-friendly for apartment dwellers to better control the woefully inefficient steam-heated radiators found in pre-war buildings? 

The answer, he believes, is yes.

His start-up, Radiator Labs, is piloting an easy-to-install thermal insulated device that fits over a steam heat radiator and either traps heat when it's too hot or, using a fan, blows hot air into the apartment when it's too cold. Residents will be able to control their apartment's temperature through a mobile app.

The company, which won MIT’s Clean Energy Prize in 2012 — along with $200,000 — is testing its radiator cover this winter at two Columbia buildings and one NYU building and expects to release the product this coming spring.

It will likely cost less than $300 per unit, Cox said.

Environmentalists across the city are eagerly awaiting the results.

Up to 30 percent of energy from steam-heated radiators goes to waste, according to Radiator Labs, which estimates that some 2.2 million Manhattan apartments waste $700 million because of steam heat.

Across the five boroughs, roughly $2 billion is wasted because of these inefficient boiler systems, and 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide is needlessly added to the atmosphere, Cox said.

“These buildings overheat because they have a central, all-on/all-off, heating system,” Cox said, adding that the reason some apartments get so hot is because "buildings must cater to the coldest apartment."

“Once that coldest space becomes comfortable, the majority of the building has been vastly overheated, and the only available solution is to open windows,” he continued. "Sometimes it can costs astronomical sums of money to keep one horribly cold room warm."

Radiator Labs, which is based at NYU-Poly's Hudson Square incubator for green tech start-ups, has been refining the product based on the pilot. The fan inside the device was initially too loud, Cox noted, and they've tinkered with the design to make it more appealing by using “pretty fabrics” and colors.

Some buildings might benefit more from larger-scale energy efficiency upgrades — and could qualify for financial incentives — according to Katherine Gloede, of the Long Island City-based Community Environmental Center, which offers free and reduced cost energy audits.

But if Radiator Labs can deliver on its promises, its device would be especially helpful to renters looking for a quick fix, Gloede said.

It would be particularly helpful for tenants such as herself, she noted. She said her top-floor apartment of a Hell's Kitchen walk-up is steamy, but she can’t get her landlord to respond to her complaints — “which I think is a problem a lot of New Yorkers face."

Top-floor apartments tend to be warmer than ground floor units for various reasons, such as the fact that heat rises.

“It's an opportunity for renters to have a comfortable lifestyle,” Gloede said. “This is like retrofitting your own system. You could see it as long-term investment because if you move, you can take it with you.”