ARPA-E: Saving Energy Through Precision Comfort

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for buildings have traditionally been “one-size-fits-all”—a single thermostat controlling the temperature in an office or classroom. But occupants aren’t “one-size-fits-all” in terms of comfort—with this approach, at least 20 percent of occupants are typically dissatisfied with the temperature they experience.
 
With support from SyracuseCoE, faculty and students at Syracuse University and their collaborators have been working for years to transform HVAC systems through the development of personalized environmental control systems (PECS), that would allow individual occupants to adjust heat and cooling to their own level of comfort. The PECS vision took a big leap forward with the award of a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and companion awards of $319,000 from NYSTAR, and $400,000 from NYSERDA.
 
The new project responds to an ARPA-E vision for saving energy nationally by localizing thermal management on an individual level while changing the set points for thermostats for large spaces to 66 degrees in winter and 79 degrees in summer (from 70 degrees and 75 degrees respectively). The approach promises to save more than 15 percent of energy used for HVAC nationally, while simultaneously improving occupant comfort and indoor air quality.
 
NYSTAR Distinguished Professor H. Ezzat Khalifa leads the Syracuse University team that is developing a near-range micro-environmental control system. The system will provide local cooling and heating via a box about the size of medium-tower computer that will fit under an individual’s desk. The unit has a high-efficiency micro-vapor compression system with a tiny scroll compressor and an evaporator embedded in a phase-change material. This material will store the cooling or heating produced by the micro-vapor compression system at night, releasing during the day to make occupants more comfortable.
 
“Buildings consume nearly 40 percent of the energy used in the United States and other industrialized countries,” says Khalifa. “Ultimately this transformative technology will create a much more affordable and energy-efficient way to ensure individual occupant comfort.”
 
In addition to researchers at Syracuse University and SyracuseCoE, the three-year project includes partners United Technologies Research Center, Air Innovations, Bush Technical LLC, and Cornell University. The SU team was one of 11 funded nationally. This is the first ARPA-E grant awarded to Syracuse University. SyracuseCoE aided the project team in the development of the proposal and is a key player in the execution of the research, including bringing the technology to market.
 
“We see a great future for personal environmental control. By reducing the control point to each user, we only condition areas that need conditioning, and to the specific needs of that individual,” says Michael Wetzel, president and CEO of Air Innovations. “Not only will this program reduce future energy costs, but it allows individual choice of comfort settings.”