It's as if “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” went horribly awry: Away to the window you fly like a flash, tear open the shutters and throw up the sash – because it's so bleeping hot in your apartment in the dead of winter that you need to open a window or even turn on the air-conditioner. Meanwhile, other apartments in the building are too cold.
It's called "heat-distribution imbalance," a perennial problem in many buildings with old-fashioned, cast-iron steam radiators. But one Brooklyn co-op has found an innovative solution. The Radiator Cozy, from the Brooklyn-based Radiator Labs, is a "smart radiator cover" – technically a "thermostatic radiator enclosure" – that uses insulation, a small fan, and computer-regulated temperature controls to keep too much steam out of hot apartments and to send more steam to cold ones.
It's not inexpensive, even with government incentives, since each Cozy has to be custom-manufactured and installed. And the payback in terms of lower energy bills can take five to seven years. But for Clinton Hill, a 12-building complex of 1,200 apartments near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, there has been an immediate payoff.
"Our complex had been experiencing incredible overheating and underheating for decades," says Timo Lipping, a financial planner who heads the co-op board. "Some people were kind of pooh-poohing [the payback time] as not fast enough, but payback is not the only payoff. It's also people being comfortable in their apartments – and that we can advertise we have this new technology that other co-ops don't."
George Switzer, an architect and board member, adds: "The overheating was for many years the No. 1 issue people had. Less so people who were underheated. Some people were extremely overheated – like 90-plus degrees in their apartments. Resident comfort is a real issue."
How does a Radiator Cozy work? Without getting into the thermodynamic particulars, each of these insulated sheet-metal covers contains a thermostat, accessible via both a mobile app and a controller on the Cozy itself, so that each resident can set a desired temperature for that apartment. If the apartment is too cold, a built-in fan turns on and pushes heat into the room. If an apartment is at the set temperature, the fan turns off, and steam that otherwise would have overheated the room gets directed to colder apartments in that steam-pipe line.
"Rather than have a heating system with a single control that controls the heat for the whole building, it allows every radiator to have its own control," explains David Sachs, director of audits, design and implementation for Bright Power, the energy consultant on the Clinton Hill project. "So every apartment and every room is able to control its own heat."
"It's very hard to balance a steam building," says Marshall Cox, the chief executive of Radiator Labs. "The reason is that when these buildings were built almost a century ago, or even more in some cases, they were pretty well-balanced. But then we invented – and more or less universally retrofit – double-pane insulating glass, which changed how much heat those rooms needed. But you still had the same huge radiators." And so, because steam heat is a closed system, too much heat in some apartments often means too little heat in others.
Faced with this exact dilemma, the Clinton Hill board in 2017 took the prudent step of first ensuring the heating system was up-to-date and optimized. Lipping says the board replaced all the steam traps, the boiler headers, the vacuum pumps and all the controls. “That cost us probably $250,000 to $350,000,” he says, “and a lot of that work had not been done in decades. Our heating system had been neglected, and we were hoping that doing all these changes would really help us out."
Did it? "It became apparent that winter that the improvements to the heating system made it more efficient," Lipping says, "but people on the top floors were still opening their windows. And that's when we decided to roll this thing out."
This “thing” being the Radiator Cozy. A couple of professional energy engineers among the co-op's residents had been pitching in on the boiler-plant project, and they made the board and the property manager, Steve Greenbaum, a senior vice president at Charles H. Greenthal, aware of the product. Roughly concurrent with the boiler upgrade, the board had Greenbaum meet with Radiator Labs to learn more. Working with Bright Power, the board then devised a pilot project to test the Radiator Cozy.
"We picked some overheated apartments and underheated apartments to see how it would fare," Greenbaum says. "We wanted to see if people liked it and for us to see how it worked, just to see if this something that was feasible. And the response was overwhelmingly positive."
Cozys were installed in 20 units. "A bunch of us, around 40 units, decided to just pay for [Cozys] ourselves,” Lipping says, “with the caveat that if it's not introduced complex-wide we would not be reimbursed, and if it was introduced, we would be."
The pilot project ran during the winter of 2018. "It was amazing," Lipping says. "It was the best winter we'd ever had. The thing worked as advertised – it really did."
So how to pay for it?
The Cozys, which are not available for individual purchase, cost $650 to $850 each including installation, depending on the type of radiator. Greenbaum says that Clinton Hill's 1,200 apartments generally have three radiators apiece and that the outlay was somewhere around $3 million. “But there are some NYSERDA [New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] grants and rebates that we're dealing with," he adds. “We're doing an RTEM [Real-Time Energy Management] program, which should get us back about close to $900,000.”
Since Clinton Hill also paid about $100,000 to hire a required RTEM-eligible vendor, in this case Bright Power, to submit the complex documentation and paperwork, the $3 million project will cost the co-op about $2.2 million after the incentive rebate.
This particular incentive is a percentage rebate "based on the total cost to perform the job," says Samantha Pearce, Bright Power's director of energy-management service. The RTEM incentive "provides 30 percent of that total cost back to the owner or the service provider," she says, “so that's any design work, any service fees, all the hardware costs and labor costs to install the material NYSERDA defines as eligible under the RTEM scope."
A co-op or condo may have to lay out the whole amount up front and wait for the rebate at the end of the project, but not necessarily. "There are lots of different structures for how the payment terms get set up,” Pearce says. “At Bright Power, we charge the client the 70 percent of the [total] cost to them. When the incentive comes in, we get that direct from NYSERDA" – generally half upon installation, half after the system has been up and running for a year – "so we're not asking the client to lay out that portion of money." Even if it hadn't worked out that way, Clinton Hill had enough cash in its reserve fund, Greenbaum says.
The RTEM incentive should be around for the immediate future, Pearce says, explaining that New York State allocates a certain amount of money each year to various NYSERDA commercial and residential funds. “And,” she adds, “there is still money available in the multifamily-dwelling bucket, as I understand it, and a fairly decent amount."
As you may have gathered, the RTEM incentive is a critical piece of the Clinton Hill funding. So what is real-time energy management?
It means that a system – in this case, Clinton Hill's steam-heat system – feeds continuous performance data from sensors and meters into a cloud-based or onsite computer program. That data can be analyzed to optimize a building's energy usage. So real-time energy management is being able to “see” your building’s operations and react quickly to any problems, says Pearce.
By sharing data wirelessly via a "dashboard" that’s viewable on a computer or smartphone screen, "all these Cozys talk to each other," says Lipping, the board president. "You can tell the temperature of each radiator in each unit in the complex. That's incredibly powerful data that allows us to tweak the infrastructure. You can tell if maybe you have structural issues, like a completely clogged pipe. Or you can tweak your boiler-plant operation: 'This line is getting nice and warm, this one isn't. Let's adjust that.’”
The system can also issue alerts to the person monitoring the dashboard – the super, building manager, board members, or whoever you chose. Radiator Labs charges a subscription for this, $50 per apartment per year. "Our payback estimates include this," says Cox of Radiator Labs.
A potential privacy downside is that NYSERDA ultimately gets those numbers, too, or at least a breakdown of them, from the approved vendor – a requirement of the incentive.
"NYSERDA sets the standards for the frequency of which the vendor must collect data," says Pearce. "They require us to submit, every six months, the raw data," using NYSERDA's own approved platform, which is separate from Radiator Labs' or anyone else's. During this yearlong monitoring phase, she adds, "NYSERDA's role is strictly data collection to prove that the work took place and the points are being monitored."
One obstacle Clinton Hill overcame, says Lipping, was NYSERDA's initial insistence that every unit in the co-op had to have a temperature control. But some residents, on their own over the years, had installed fancy radiator covers and chose not to have the Cozys. "But 95 percent of the units have this product," Lipping says.
He remembers Cox saying: “ 'Yeah, I think we can talk them into that. Convince them the system is working to sufficient efficacy.' " And the bottom line, according to Cox: “We are meeting their requirements."
In terms of installation, there were the usual logistics of scheduling workers to enter apartments. In addition, Lipping says, the Clinton Hill board insisted that the crews installing the covers were certified to inspect for asbestos and lead. Neither of those toxic compounds was found.
Lipping doesn’t expect maintenance of the units to pose any problems. "The body of it is just metal and insulation,” he says. “The only part that might change is the [control] panel in the middle. They put all the guts into this one panel that's really easy to take out. I understand it's going to be no problem training our maintenance people to do any replacements." The built-in fan needs to be plugged into an outlet, but it’s low-amperage and will have negligible impact on an apartment's electrical bill.
Installation, which began last spring, is “going pretty well," says Greenbaum, the property manager, and by the turn of the year the job was about 40 percent complete. Residents were told the project would take less than two years, and it now appears it might be complete within a year and a half.
Lipping warns that Radiator Cozys need to be part of a holistic approach to a building's heating system. "You can't just install them on a system that's broken,” he says. “It's like a final adjustment. You still have to make sure the boiler is working right, your vacuum pumps are working right, all your valves and steam traps are working right, that your controls are working right. If you just slap on the Radiator Cozy, it's like putting a Band-Aid on it."
So far, the operation looks like a success. The residents are happy, the board members and managing agent say – even if payback might take a while.
"It was," says Switzer, the co-op board member, "a problem everybody wanted [us to do] something about."