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Tina Casey headshot

How Your Building Could Be Like the Empire State Building

By Tina Casey

Radiator Labs, a company formed by a group of students from Columbia University,  has come up with a radiator retrofit that could give any steam-heated building a little something in common with the Empire State Building.

The iconic Empire State Building has been undergoing a LEED Gold makeover that includes energy saving retrofits for its 6500 heat radiators, and Radiator Labs has designed a variation on that theme for use in homes, office buildings and apartment buildings.

The Empire State Building and energy retrofits

The Empire State Building is emerging as a national showpiece for the power of energy efficiency retrofits to squeeze significant savings from old buildings. Though some of the improvements are unique to skyscrapers - like a regenerative braking system that scavenges waste energy from the Empire State's 65 elevators - others can be applied to millions of smaller buildings across the country.

That's the case with the retrofits for the Empire State Building's steam heat radiators. Each of them was given an energy efficiency makeover simply by inserting a reflective panel against the wall, sending more heat to the interior of the rooms. It's a low tech solution, but multiplied by 6500 the savings really adds up.

Making the case for a steam heat makeover

According to Radiator Labs, 14 million homes and apartments in the U.S. use a steam or hot water system for heat. These systems depend on central boilers, which makes it difficult to regulate the temperature in individual rooms. Excess heat goes out the window -- literally, since sometimes the only way to cool an overheated room is to open the windows.

The result is an estimated 15-30 percent waste of energy, which in Manhattan alone adds up to $700 million a year under current prices.

Radiator Labs new steam heat retrofits

Radiator Labs's approach to the steam heat problem is a little more sophisticated than the panels used in the Empire State Building. The technology consists of a sheath that slips entirely over the existing radiator, along with a fan.

The insulated sheath keeps excess heat within the radiator when it is not needed. When more heat is desired, the fan blows warm air out of the sheath, into the room.

Where to invest your energy efficiency dollars

The system demonstrates that significant energy savings can be gained without the need for a futuristic high tech breakthrough, though the complete Radiator Labs system does take advantage of wireless technology to regulate the central heating equipment.

It also illustrates how important it is to consider scale when deciding where to invest your energy efficiency dollars. The sheath-and-fan configuration might not work out so well for some larger buildings, where maintaining and repairing hundreds of fans could prove to be a headache.

However, in many buildings the savings of a system like Radiator Labs could be proportionally more significant than installing reflective panels, and would be well worth any additional lifecycle expenses.

Next steps for Radiator Labs

Radiator Labs isn't quite ready to bring its product to market yet, but it's getting there. The company conducted a small-scale test on the Columbia University campus last winter, and it plans a large-scale demonstration for the 2012-2013 heating season.

Radiator Labs also won the $200,000 Grand Prize for the 2012 MIT Clean Energy Prize competition, which is co-sponsored by the Department of Energy and the utility company NSTAR.

Image: Some rights reserved by Ami's.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.



Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey