Fit for a Princess: Next-Generation Personal Controls Deliver Whole-Building Energy Savings and ‘Precision IEQ’

Edward Bogucz, PhD

Remember “The Princess and the Pea” by Hans Christian Anderson?

Trailblazing engineer P. Ole Fanger often cited that fairy tale in his presentations on the state of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) research and practice. Dr. Fanger gently lampooned conventional IEQ systems, observing that no car manufacturer would proudly advertise “We guarantee that less than 30% of our customers will be dissatisfied!” Audaciously, Dr. Fanger envisioned innovations that would delight everyone—even the princess who just can’t find comfort on her tall stack of mattresses on top of a pea.

At Danish Technical University in the 1960s, Dr. Fanger and his students and collaborators pioneered studies of how IEQ factors impact human comfort, performance, and health. Over the years, many groups around the world have studied impacts due to temperature, humidity, air quality, lighting, and acoustics. In 2006, Dr. Fanger joined the faculty at Syracuse University, where he helped guide strategic investments in SyracuseCoE, New York State’s Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

Dr. P. Ole Fanger [Image courtesy Syracuse COE]

Dr. P. Ole Fanger [Image courtesy Syracuse COE]

Decades of IEQ research have produced many advances in knowledge, technology, and practice, including informing development of LEED standards. But in offices around the world, still can be found legions of uncomfortable princes and princesses, dissatisfied with their IEQ.

The time is right for a revolution in IEQ technology and practice. The emerging Internet of Things and myriad other advances—wireless controls, wearable technologies, advanced manufacturing, Big Data analytics, and more—enable breakthroughs for next-generation IEQ systems that will deliver benefits across a cascade of scales from whole buildings to individual occupants.

Envision “Precision IEQ.”

In January, President Barack Obama proposed a new federal initiative to accelerate development of “Precision Medicine.” The vision is for “data-driven treatments as unique as your own body.”

For buildings, the directly analogous concept of “Precision IEQ” has been around for years: Personal Environmental Control Systems (PECS). PECS are designed to enable individuals to control IEQ in their immediate surroundings.

To date, the value proposition for PECS typically has focused on gains in worker performance, productivity and health. In the U.S., these benefits have gotten traction in only a few niche markets—such as consoles for air traffic controllers and 911 operators. A variety of PECS targeted for widespread use in office settings have not penetrated the market beyond a small number of initial demonstrations and early adopters.

Changing the game for personal controls.

A new generation of PECS promises to emerge from a program launched recently by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The program envisions achieving significant whole-building energy savings by allowing indoor temperatures to vary over a wider range and meeting occupant comfort requirements by “Delivering Efficient Local Thermal Amenities (DELTA).” (Props to ARPA-E for an awesome acronym!)

As a design point, the DELTA program envisions changing thermostat set-points by four degrees: in summer, cooling set-points are increased from 75F to 79F; in winter, heating set-points are lowered from 69F to 65F.

In PECS design, altering set-points to allow indoor temperatures to range between 79F and 65F is a game-changer: at the “extremes,” nearly everyone will be a princess, uncomfortable and dissatisfied. To achieve comfort for all, each individual will receive precision IEQ delivered via envisioned next-generation PECS.

With four-degree changes in set-points for ambient spaces and PECS delivering incremental local cooling or heating, whole-building energy consumption for space conditioning is projected to be reduced by more than 15%. Widely deployed across the country, the approach has the potential to reduce U.S. energy consumption by nearly 2 quadrillion BTU.

Catalyzing next-generation innovations.

In December, ARPA-E announced that its DELTA program had selected 11 PECS projects for awards totaling up to $30 million. The awards are a fertile portfolio of next-generation PECS concepts, including installed, portable and wearable devices.

One DELTA project was awarded to a group at Syracuse University that has been pursuing PECS research and development for more than a decade, including early guidance from Dr. Fanger. Led by NYSTAR Distinguished Professor H. Ezzat Khalifa, the team includes collaborators at SyracuseCoE, United Technologies Research Center, Air Innovations, Cornell University, and Bush Technical.

The Syracuse DELTA concept is envisioned for use in offices. The system will be self-contained in a unit about the size of a small suitcase, installed under the desk. A high-efficiency micro vapor compression system includes a tiny scroll compressor and a heat exchanger embedded in a phase-change material that freezes at approximately 65F. In cooling mode, the system will operate at night to freeze the phase-change material; when the desk is occupied during the day, 79F ambient air will flow over the phase-change material, releasing the stored cooling as a gentle breeze that is delivered directly to the occupant.

Several transformational PECS concepts are likely to emerge from the ARPA-E DELTA program. Successful innovations will make the leap from lab to market in a few years, promising to revolutionize IEQ system design and practice. To the delight of princes and princesses everywhere.

Edward Bogucz, PhD
Executive Director, SyracuseCoE, and Assoc. Professor, Syracuse University's College of Engineering and Computer Science, Dept of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.