Used by Romans! Pfft!

We bring you another sneak peak of the Autumn issue of The Blue & White, which will be on campus next week (damnit, Sandy). Here, Somer Omar investigates one engineer’s attempt to bring some relief from Columbia’s ancient and dysfunctional heating system.

Every winter, New York’s steam-heated residential buildings catch a fever. The outdated heating technology provides one uncontrolled gust of heat, a third of which will be wasted, leaving residents in significant discomfort. Marshall Cox, a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering and a Columbia housing tenant, rolled up his sleeves this summer and ventured to break the fever raging in Columbia’s notoriously steamy residences.

“Used by Romans!” is how Cox decries the out-moded, steam heating method that much of Columbia housing uses. An artifact of outdated technology from the early 20th century, the problem with this way of temperature adjustment is that there is no way to control how much steam heats your room; it operates on an all-or-nothing basis. Furthermore, double-paned windows, intended to reduce wasted energy, actually facilitate over-insulation and excess heating. The only way a resident can cool down his or her room is to open those windows, which annually wastes, Cox estimates, 400 million dollars worth of energy.

Marshall Cox, exasperated by the discomfort of dorm life, realized that the heating dilemma was an obstacle for other students living in Columbia housing. After speaking to an academic advisor about potential solutions, he built a prototype of an instrument that would allow students to control their ancient and unforgiving radiators. He knew that to fix the overheating problem, he would need to engineer something that could better match the room’s temperature to an appropriate amount of heat, instead of providing an overpowering blast. Currently, even the central system is uncontrollable.

The first step to fixing the problem was to program a code in a device called an Arduino. This is an open-source computing platform that relies on an input-output linearity, meaning you tell it how to react (output) depending on specific information it receives (input). Cox then installed fans on bottom of the radiator to distribute the radiator’s heat throughout the room. He establishes the temperatures of his room and radiator, respectively, as the input information for the Arduino processes and determines whether to activate the fans. If the radiator is hot and the room is cold, the Arduino will activate the fans, and if the room is already hot, the fans remain off.

Cox patented the heat-controlling mechanism through Columbia Tech Ventures (CTV). In most cases, entrepreneurial Columbia students would patent their products through CTV if they used material or labs belonging to the University, but Cox designed and created the heating device independently. He nonetheless chose to patent the mechanism through CTV because, in exchange for branding the device a Columbia product, they filled out all the requisite patenting forms without charge.

After patenting what started out as a relatively simple device, assembled with pocket money and material found in hardware stores (Arduinos only run about $20), Cox’s mechanism won the M.I.T. Clean Energy Prize, a prestigious national competition, under the company name “Radiator Labs.” His accomplishment drew a great deal of attention, especially from former Director of Environmental Stewardship at Columbia, Nilda Mesa, who helped to coordinate Cox’s expansion into Columbia Housing. She saw an opportunity in the relationship between an ambitious entrepreneur and a housing system with chronic maintenance problems. They agreed an undergraduate residence hall, and its residents, could be ideal candidates to test Cox’s system.

Then came the email at the beginning of the school year: “Dear 47 Claremont Resident, Your building has been specially selected to test out a new technology…” A prewar building housing mostly sophomores and juniors, Claremont is notoriously plagued by severe temperatures, spews of steam, and rattling pipes. In the past few weeks, Cox and his team, which consists of himself, his twin brother, and two other engineers, manually installed prototypes of his sensors in every Claremont room to collect data about the current heat problems.

When asked about the recent installation, residents remain ambivalent. One senior still has “no idea what it is.” The device’s temperature regulation function will not be activated until January, however, so it may be a while before Columbia can gauge how appreciative students are for the chance to participate in this experiment. Nonetheless, if the prototype runs smoothly, Cox hopes to expand the mechanism to the rest of Columbia Housing and thereby save the University tens of thousands of dollars in wasted energy.

According to Cox, there are around 14 million apartments in the United States with dysfunctional heating systems and the vast majority of these are heated with steam. He reckons the borough of Manhattan alone accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s steam heating systems, which is not surprising given the city’s high concentration of prewar buildings. He estimates that the U.S. annually loses upwards of five billion dollars worth of fuel, or about 0.5 percent of our national expenditure on oil. Overheating is a massive energy problem nationwide. Ironically, change has been slow because steam-powered radiators are extremely difficult and expensive to convert to the more modern and less wasteful hydroponic heating mechanism.

Cox’s device could very well solve this widespread problem. Moreover, if the prototype in Claremont goes well, Cox could stand to become enormously successful by selling the mechanism to other large universities, or even to various city residential complexes. His venture is a welcome alternative to the popular Internet-based start-ups that have multiplied in recent years (recall the redundancy of a profusion of textbook exchange sites). The DIY approach, and focus on a local issue, stand to show all Columbia students that if there is a problem, it is possible to be proactive. Cox doesn’t need to couch his project in terms of a grand narrative of brilliant invention. To him, it’s straightforward: “I’m an engineer, so I just built something.”