News | Student Life

Startup adds energy efficient heating systems to residence halls

  • Justin Chan / Senior Staff Photographer
    GETTING HOT IN HERE | SEAS alumnus Marshall Cox’s Radiator Labs added energy-efficient covers to radiators in Watt Hall and 47 Claremont. In the next year, he’s also planning to launch a smartphone app that will allow students to control their room’s temperature.

In the next year, students may be able to control the heat in their dorm with a touch of their smartphone.

Radiator Labs—a Columbia Technology Ventures startup by SEAS alumnus Marshall Cox—is planning to launch an app next year that will allow students to access heaters in their rooms to regulate the temperature. While that is in the works, new energy-saving covers for radiators in rooms in Watt Hall and 47 Claremont have been installed.

The covers, which include a thermostatically controlled fan and a heat-insulated enclosure, consume 30 percent less heating fuel than the previous systems.

Cox, who got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2013, called the system “pretty simple.”

“We turn the fans on and push heat out into the room, and when the room heats up to a certain temperature, the fan turns off and heat is trapped in the enclosure,” Cox said. “If the room is still warm when that enclosure heats up to 100 degrees Celsius, energy is thermodynamically pushed to other parts of the building so that the heat is evenly distributed.”

The radiators in both residence halls are connected to each other via the Internet, so that real-time temperature data can be collected to manage the building’s boiler.

Daniel Held, a spokesperson for Columbia Facilities, said in an email that if the Radiator Lab’s technology is successful, “Housing and Facilities will review the results to determine if it might be expanded to other buildings.”

Cox said his inspiration for the system, which won the MIT Clean Energy Prize in Energy Efficiency in 2012, came when his brother visited him at Columbia and complained about his University’s apartment housing heating system.

“He kept going on and on about how horribly heated the apartment was, so I went out and got some bubble wrap and a small fan and cobbled together the first Radiator Labs cozy,” Cox said. “It wasn’t that hard to make.”

After that, Cox began working with Ioannis “John” Kymissis, an associate professor of electrical engineering, at the Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics.

“Radiator Labs began out of the fact that Marshall was always complaining about his apartment,” Kymissis said. “And we both had the same response eventually, which is that if you’re going to complain about something you had better do something about it.”

Cox and Kymissis worked closely together to develop the system, with Kymissis serving as the project’s technical adviser and co-founder.

“The whole development is not that technically complicated, but what was invaluable here was not to overthink it,” Kymissis said.

The systems were installed in the dorms over the past three weeks.

Radiator Labs isn’t the first effort to make Columbia’s residence halls more energy efficient. For the past two years, civil engineering professor Patricia Culligan has been working on a study to measure the energy consumption of students in Watt by using sensors in the basement.

However, Radiator Labs is partially funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, whose requirements include a clause that prohibits building occupants from being given data on their energy use. As a result, Culligan’s research was forced to a halt.

“It’s a little awkward,” Culligan said. “I want [Radiator Labs] to succeed because I think their plan is really innovative and really great. At the same time, when they moved forward, they sort of shut us down.”

Culligan said she was “a little blindsided” by the unfortunate development, but hopes that she will eventually be able to continue with her research.

Cox said that he had no idea about the conflict. 

“I feel really bad if that’s the case—they were doing good work,” Cox said.

Residents said that they were glad that the new system may provide a resolution to heating problems in the residence halls—though high temperatures still persist in some rooms.

Ling Feng Ye, CC ’14 and a Watt resident, says he’s had “a lot of problems” with the heat in his room and that the new system has only made things “slightly better.”

Jillian Ross, SEAS ’16 and a Watt resident, said she had to turn fans on and open the windows to keep her room’s temperature bearable.

“I noticed they installed something on the radiators, but I don’t know if it’s been working because it’s still extremely hot in my room,” Ross added.

Claremont 4 resident adviser Maria Laposata, CC ’15, said she received multiple complaints from her residents about the installation process. 

“There were guys coming in and out of our rooms and we didn’t really know what they were doing or why they were there,” she said. “I only found out what was going on because I actually went up to them and pestered them.”

Still, Laposata said there’s been a difference since the installation.

“It’s no longer boiling in here—now all the rooms are actually a normal temperature,” Laposata said.

Rakhi Agrawal contributed reporting.

emma.bogler@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ebbogz

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated Cox's first name. Spectator regrets the error.

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