Innovative Energy-Saving Radiator Controller Wins Peoples Gas Award



By Simon Morrow
BORC Peoples Gas Award

Assistant Professor of Architectural Engineering Mohammad Heidarinejad and Arthur W. Hill Endowed Chair in Sustainability Brent Stephens at Illinois Institute of Technology  have been working on a low-cost retrofit to bring the advantages of smart building sensing and controlling systems to manually operated radiators. In 2022, Peoples Gas awarded their Battery-Operated Radiator Control (BORC) system their Innovation Strategies and Technologies Award. 

“Legacy steam radiators are not easy to replace, and there are no commercially available options for controlling them. They often operate when they aren’t needed, and they can be difficult to control for comfort,” says Heidarinejad. “We have developed a way to automate the control of manual legacy steam radiator valves to manage radiator output in a way that is more similar to modern buildings and can be connected to building automation systems.”

According to the United States Department of Energy, more than 70 percent of buildings in the U.S. constructed before 1945 use radiators, and building space heating is the largest building energy end use in the U.S.

In a paper published in Energy and Buildings, the team showed that automating the system consistently saved energy.

Cheap and easy to install, BORC uses a remotely controlled motor to operate a radiator’s manual valve. BORC contains sensors that monitor room temperature and occupancy, and this information is used as part of the feedback system that determines if the radiator should be turned up or down. 

The team found that the highest radiator use savings, of 63 percent, was achieved when they combined two strategies: they used the occupancy sensor to turn the radiator down when the room was unoccupied and, when the room was occupied, they used the temperature sensor like a thermostat to dynamically adjust the radiator level to keep the room at a set temperature.

“In existing buildings where replacing older space heating systems with modern ones is financially and practically unfeasible, retrofitting them with custom automatic controls has the potential to considerably reduce energy consumption while maintaining or even improving thermal comfort,” says Stephens.
Since 2017 many students have contributed to the project through the sponsor Franklin Energy’s support, as well as through both the Armour R&D and Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program. 

“We are impressed with the BORC technology, which holds real promise in substantially reducing the energy consumption in customers’ older buildings,” says Allen Dusault, manager of emerging technology for Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas at Franklin Energy. “The hard work, creativity, and problem-solving skills that the Illinois Tech students and faculty have shown is beyond our expectations, and it resulted in an innovation award to the Illinois Tech team from Peoples Gas last year. I also believe the learning experience for the students is something they can take with them that will contribute to their successful careers.”

“It is really unique to see a project sponsor that is interested in supporting students from diverse disciplines in addition to being interested in developing novel technology,” says Heidarinejad 

The team set up the BORC system on radiators at Illinois Tech’s Alumni Memorial Hall and is currently working on the extension of the project to develop an automated fault detection and diagnostics steam trap system.

“We are working with the Illinois Tech technology office and Kaplan Institute for a potential research to market translation, and this news would be very helpful to support this effort,” says Heidarinejad. “We have a great transition team that we are confident can take us to the next level.”

Christopher Riley (ME ’18, M.S. ARCE ’22), Jongki Lee (Ph.D. ARCE Candidate), Alexander Mitchell (Ph.D. ARCE Candidate), Jacklyn McAninch (CS, M.A.S. DSC 5th Year), Hoang Le (MSE 4th Year), Nyan Linn Htun (CE, M.Eng. STE 3rd Year), Matt Nicole Fajardo (CPE, M.S. TENR ’23), Siddhi Shukla (M.A.S. CS 2nd Year), Eduardo Calix-Ortiz (EE, M.S. CPE 5th Year), Muhammad Shakeel (CCSE 3rd Year), Ashfaq Siddiqui (ME, M.S. Autonomous Systems and Robotics 4th Year), Huy Cao (CPE 4th Year), Erica Acton (ARCE, M.Eng. ARCE ‘20), Urwa Irfan (ARCE ’21), Efthymia Sidiropoulou (EE 3rd Year), Remi Thelier (M.Eng. ARCE 2nd Year), Saman Haratian (Ph.D. ARCE Student), and Saeed Farhoodi (Ph.D. ARCE Student) have contributed to this project. Akram Syed Ali (M.S. ARCE ’15, Ph.D. ARCE ’21) contributed both as a student and postdoc.

“BORC is a unique device that provides an inexpensive retrofit solution to a long-standing problem of inefficiency and lack of visibility in legacy building systems such as radiators,” says Ali, now an embedded systems engineer at Argonne National Laboratory. “I’m grateful for having the opportunity to work on innovative solutions to challenges we continue to face in the energy industry.”

“The BORC project takes an innovative approach to modernizing legacy systems for greater occupant comfort. Having the unique opportunity to collaborate on the project allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the importance of sustainable solutions to not only reduce energy consumption, but also enhance productivity,” says Riley, who has recently joined a small startup that focuses on the procurement of energy through tidal movements.

Image: (From left to right) Hoang “Patrick” Le (MSE 4th Year), Assistant Professor of Architectural Engineering Mohammad Heidarinejad, and Christopher Riley (ME ’18, M.S. ARCE ’22).