Industry Partners: Personal Climate Control

If you surveyed employees in any office environment on any given day, it’s likely that a significant percentage would report that the temperature made them feel uncomfortable. That’s because office heating and cooling systems typically use a single thermostat to control temperature in a zone that contains many people, and thermal comfort varies from person to person.

The possibility for allowing each employee to control the temperature in their own microenvironment is moving closer to reality, thanks to an ongoing project led by Syracuse University researchers, in collaboration with Air Innovations, United Technologies Research Center, Bush Technical LLC, and Cornell University.

In 2015, Syracuse University began a $3.2 million project to develop a microenvironmental control system, called μX, to provide localized thermal management for office workers, which would dramatically reduce building energy use. That project, led by H. Ezzat Khalifa, now professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering, produced several prototype units. Now, Air Innovations is working with SyracuseCoE to redesign the unit for cost-effective commercial manufacture.

“The real core technology that was developed is commercializable, but there are individual components that are not ready for manufacture, so we need to substitute with off-the-shelf technology,” says Michael Wetzel, president and CEO of Air Innovations in Syracuse.

Wetzel says it’s important to understand how the unit will be used in practice: Will employees run it all day long, or only for parts of the day when they want to adjust the temperature? Will people want it integrated into their desk or are they comfortable with it being an object sitting on the floor? “Right now we’re focusing on making sure that the product is acceptable to the market, in terms of the actual capacity for how it will be used and in terms of form and function,” he says.

The hope is to secure funding for a field trial to be conducted in real-world office environments. “We’d like to have about 50 units in place by June 2019 and collect data over six months,” says Wetzel. The data collected will inform capacity and aesthetic decisions about the product, which he hopes to see go commercial by mid-2020.

“What’s really going to drive this product to market is people’s interest in having absolute control over their environment and their productivity,” says Wetzel. “There is a huge opportunity to save money and energy so this product can pay for itself over time.”