After 300 years of window opening, a way to finally tame steam heat

Steaming ahead: Clean-energy startup (and CEBIP client) Bonded Energy, on the scene.

By GREGORY ZELLER // With a dose of modern engineering, a 300-year-old heating mechanism may prove to be one of the most energy-efficient of the 21st century.

Stony Brook-based Bonded Energy Solutions is going back to the future with a high-tech method of controlling steam-heat distribution through single-family homes, apartment buildings and industrial spaces – a potential environmental and economic “game-changer,” according to CEO Jerritt Gluck.

While modern structures are built with more efficient, more easily controlled central heating systems, there are still plenty of steam-heated buildings around. According to Energy.gov, online home of the U.S. Department of Energy, 15 percent of all U.S. buildings are steam-heated – and Gluck cited a much higher percentage for Long Island and New York City, where older single-family homes and many apartment buildings still push boiler-generated steam through primitive pipes, with the same old distribution issues.

“The closest you can get to controlling temperature is, if it’s overheated, you can open a window,” Gluck said. “But that’s not going to help in an under-heated space.”

That may soon change. Gluck, a self-described “hardware guy,” and his co-founder, “software guy” Laszlo Osher, launched Bonded Energy Solutions in 2013 to change the carbon footprints of steam-heated buildings – and the bottom lines of their owners, who according to Gluck can spend as much as $60,000 annually to heat a typical five-story, 50-unit, 50,000-square-foot structure.

The basic idea is to provide true heating zones, as opposed to heating the entire square footage. Like a fluid, steam always escapes through the biggest available hole, so the engineering challenge is to “purge the air quickly and allow the steam to flow into the space where the air has moved out,” according to Gluck.

To do that, the inventor created the air eliminator, a device that ushers air out of pipes and invites steam in. The eliminator also contains a small sensor that becomes buoyant when the device fills with steam, automatically closing vents when a set temperature is reached.

The current way to control steam heating.

The current way to control steam heating.

Gluck conceived of the system in his circa-1700s, steam-heated Oyster Bay farmhouse. First he tried to create heated zones using repurposed hot water; later, he tinkered with WiFi-enabled thermostats. Finally, he summoned his inner “crazy engineer.”

“I created the air eliminator, which is connected to the Internet through a WiFi connection,” Gluck said. “I also created a thermostat that’s connected to the Internet by WiFi, and they connect through the cloud and make decisions on when the heat should be turned on and off.”

With the help of sensors lining each temperature zone, what Gluck invented was, “in essence, the same as an air conditioning zone or a forced-hot-air zone, except now we can do it with steam.”

“The steam is coming to where it’s needed and not going where it’s not,” he said, reducing the need for steam production and creating a “direct correlation with energy savings.”

The technology, dubbed SteamTech, is currently being tested by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute. SteamTech was installed in one of two identical-design apartment buildings in the Bronx, each measuring about 30,000 square feet and containing 30 apartments; the study began in late March and will pick up again when the twin buildings start pumping steam again in the fall.

Bonded Energy Solutions, a resident of the Long Island High-Tech Incubator at Stony Brook University, landed on the institute’s radar when Dan Smith, manager of the PPI’s Green Technology Accelerator Center, addressed startup companies ripening in the High-Tech Incubator and SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program.

During the presentation, Smith noted that any company interested in having its technology vetted by the PPI was welcomed to apply. Gluck did, and after a months-long questioning process, the institute designed the two-building study to test SteamTech’s viability.

bonded2

Bonded Energy’s steam thermostat of the near future.

Smith said his visit generated conversations with many SBU-based startups, and “we’re confidentially working with a couple of them, looking at various ways we can support them further.” But Bonded Energy Solutions was quickly recognized as a perfect fit for an organization that aims to “help small businesses with innovative technologies that could have significant environmental impacts,” Smith noted.

“This is a great opportunity for New York City and Long Island relative to steam heating,” he said. “A great opportunity to obtain some operational efficiency with some of these older systems.”

It’s not the first time the PPI has worked with an SBU-related startup. In 2014, the institute completed a study with the US Applied Physics Group, a company creating next-generation LED lighting out of SBU’s Incubator at Calverton – another example, Smith said, of the “great processes” at SBU.

“(CEBIP Business Development Director) David Hamilton runs a really great organization and works with companies that are well-prepared to launch new products,” Smith added.

While Bonded Energy Solutions eagerly awaits the study results, potential customers are already lining up. Gluck has commitment letters from the owners of 125 buildings – all in the Bronx – and said he’s “in the process of rolling them into contracts.” He’s also seeking a utility patent for his steam-control technology and is working to trademark the SteamTech name.

Meanwhile, he’s adding new tech to his product, including an energy-harvesting system that uses the steam’s heat to charge the batteries inside those temperature sensors, plus continuous monitoring of the boiler to predict equipment failures before they happen.

“This wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago,” Gluck noted. “This is a building monitoring system, not just a way of turning steam on and off.”

As for funding his startup, Gluck said the model would most likely involve collecting deposits from customers – “We’re hoping we can get enough momentum from presales” – though he’d listen if the right investor came along.

“But the right investment partner wouldn’t just bring dollars to the table,” he added. “The right partner would bring access to buildings.”

The entrepreneur – who launched his first company, Bonded Building and Engineering, 26 years ago – isn’t overly worried about funding, or about signing contracts before the PPI has completed its Bronx study.

“If it doesn’t work, we’ll have our hands full with problems to deal with,” Gluck said. “But I’m confident and comfortable that it will work. We’re committed to bringing this product through to fruition. We believe in it strongly.”