Radiator Labs Bets the ‘Cozy’ Will Make Old Steam Heaters Smart

2/25/14Follow @jpruth

[Updated 2/25/14 4:45 pm. See below.] Plenty of device makers are creating ways to remotely control gadgets in modern homes, but what about in older residences?

Some hovels have antiquated appliances that lack digital devices that can be manipulated and linked to data networks. Marshall Cox, CEO and founder of Radiator Labs in New York, says his company’s product, called the Cozy, is the answer for setting temperatures in apartments that rely on steam heat.

Smart thermostats from Palo Alto-based Nest Labs have recently upped the profile of the connected devices market; other gadget makers have also jumped into the game to outfit homes with new intelligent appliances. Radiator Labs is taking a bit of retro approach to this trend.

The Cozy is a sort of insulated shell that fits over steam radiators frequently found in urban apartments and other older dwellings. The shell blocks the transfer of heat and a fan, which can be controlled over Wi-Fi by smartphone, regulates air flow from the radiator.

Older radiators, Cox says, have limited ways to balance the heat they put out. Homeowners might decide to swap out such systems but renters rarely have such a choice. Often times the temperature in an entire apartment building must be raised to make sure the coldest apartment is sufficiently warm. That can overheat some rooms and tenants in the process. “The [superintendents] tell them to open their windows because there is nothing they can do to control how much energy goes there,” Cox says.

Rendering of the Cozy concept.

Rendering of the Cozy radiator cover concept.

Part of Cozy’s trick is that once a steam radiator hits its maximum temperature, thanks to the shell, no additional energy will be fed to that radiator. “Steam that would have otherwise overheated that room gets pushed down the line to another apartment,” Cox says.

Apartments in older cities such as New York and Boston, Cox says, are prime examples of where Cozy can be put to work. He says some 3 million apartments in New York rely on steam heating. “You find steam [radiators] in cities where a lot of growth took place before World War II,” he says. He estimates about 10 percent of U.S. residential property use steam or hot water heating. Replacing such legacy steam systems could be very costly, he says. Some of the technology that can be used to address overheating with steam and hot water radiators has been around for decades, Cox says. Creating ways to bring smart home controls to legacy systems, he says, is low-hanging fruit.

Since its early development, Radiator Labs began working on ways to increase the ability to control heating systems across entire buildings, Cox says. Earlier this month the startup began using its technology to control heat in two buildings at Columbia University, he says. The system, he says, turns off the heat transfer in hot rooms to more efficiently warm up cold rooms and also tells boilers in the buildings when to shut off. This pilot program, Cox says, with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), includes the measurement and verification of the technology for energy efficiency.

Radiator Labs is still fine tuning its technology but it has already got some praise from academics. In 2012, the startup won a $200,000 MIT Clean Energy Prize for its innovation.  So far Radiator Labs has tested prototypes of Cozy in 300 apartments. Getting the Cozy into production for the consumer market though will take a bit more backing, so Cox turned to crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Based on the proposed timetable, Cozy could ship to customers sometime in the fall.

The crowdfunding campaign, Cox says, is the startup’s first attempt at getting into the consumer market. He says the Cozy can fill the same role as a Nest thermostat but for steam radiators. “You cannot install a Nest in an apartment with these radiators because there is nothing for it to connect to,” he says.

The campaign will also give Radiator Labs some sense of consumer interest in the product, Cox says. Development of the app to control the Cozy and aesthetic improvements on its design also need some backing. “That is very expensive and we need to make sure there will be enough people to buy it,” he says.

However at the moment, the Cozy has yet to raise half of its goal with just a bit more than one week left to go. Cox says Radiator Labs will continue work on its system for controlling heat in entire buildings regardless of the outcome of the crowdfunding campaign. “If it doesn’t go through,” he says, “I don’t think it means we don’t have a consumer product that can make it in the market. It just means we need to do more development on our own.” [Comment added to clarify startup's plans.] Cox says if the crowdfunding goal is not met, development of the consumer version of the technology would be delayed potentially until 2015.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.