Dayton Scientists Speed Time In Pursuit Of Elusive Goal: Human Comfort

Mar 12, 2018

Emerson scientists are studying this replica home's energy performance by simulating an entire year's worth of weather conditions in just over a week.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO

More and more Americans are using technology such as LED bulbs and programmable, so-called “smart” thermostats to save on utility bills. And, despite Trump administration cuts to many EPA programs, many government, scientist and trade groups are pushing for even more energy efficient buildings.

Buildings are serious electricity hogs, and a major source of the greenhouse gas emissions most scientists agree cause climate change.

In this installment of our Scratch series, we visit a new building near the University of Dayton that could help revolutionize the way we heat and cool our homes, offices and other spaces in the future.

Inside a two-story gray house near the University of Dayton campus, all the lights are on. A remote control sits on the coffee table in front of a large flat-screen television. The dining room table is set with four placemats. Colorful throw pillows decorate a leather sofa.

“All the furnishings here are from IKEA,” says mechanical engineer Rajan Rajendran, Emerson vice president of system innovation and sustainability.

Rajendran decorated this house himself, down to the smallest detail.

“All of the equipment that you would find in a typical home are here: refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, range, microwave, a full kitchen. And this here is the dining room.”

This 2,000-square-foot suburban-style house could be found in almost any city across the United States, except for one unusual feature.

A sensor inside the Helix home's master bedroom. “Sensors are everywhere in this building. We have temperature and humidity and pressure sensors and carbon dioxide sensors,” Rajendran says.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO

Skinny metal poles run from floor to ceiling in every room throughout the house.

“Sensors are everywhere in this building. We have temperature and humidity and pressure sensors and carbon dioxide sensors,” Rajendran says. “And when we collect data using sensors, we try to figure out what that data means.”

No one actually lives here. The house is a science experiment, part of the recently opened Helix Innovation Center in Dayton.

The 40,000-square-foot Helix is the brainchild of St. Louis-based Emerson company. The $18 billion company makes a range of industrial, commercial and residential electronic, compressor and automation equipment, including refrigeration, heating ventilation and air-conditioning systems. 

Emerson employs nearly 5,000 people statewide, including nearly 2,000 workers at its Sidney location.

The company has a global footprint.

“There's probably not a single grocery store anywhere in the world where Emerson doesn't exist. Whether it is a Whole Foods or Kroger or Meijer, they all provide the food to you that are kept cold using Emerson equipment and components,” says Rajendran, who oversees the Helix.

The ultimate goal of the Helix, he says, is creating something that’s hard to put your finger on: human comfort.

“And people ask me the question, did you go overboard and get the Playstation, why do you need a big TV? Well –– we all have big TVs in our homes and everybody has a Playstation –– because, at the end of the day, all of this equipment puts out heat. There's a lot of heat that's coming out of these devices and they do affect your comfort.”

The Helix is a climate-controlled bubble, rigged with special sensors that generate a minute-by-minute stream of data on the facility's energy performance.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO

Rajendran’s research includes cutting-edge efficiency technology that can measure all this heat, humidity, pressure and other elements and automatically regulate conditions in the different rooms.

Scientists are also recreating the exterior of the house.

The house is built inside a climate-controlled hangar sealed with heavy doors. Giant heaters and air conditioners simulate the sun's effect, allowing Helix scientists to study the home’s energy performance on a single day in such far-flung locations as Alaska, Arizona or Mississippi.

“We can go all the way down to minus 30 or we can go up to 130 degrees,” Rajendran says.

Other companies and government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy, also conduct similar building research. But most do it by studying real structures located in real locations around the country in real time. So, research can sometimes drag on for years.

That’s how Emerson used to do it, too.

Now, with the Helix, scientists are able to simulate a full year’s worth of weather conditions in only about a week, speeding the time it takes for an idea to become an Emerson product in stores or on the factory floor.

The house is just one of six different simulated ecosystems inside the Helix. There’s also a grocery store, an industrial cooling system powerful enough to chill an entire Budweiser factory, a commercial kitchen that even serves food a few times a week.

The 40,000-square-foot Helix is the brainchild of St. Louis-based Emerson company.
Credit Emerson

The Helix office building itself is also a data-producing, climate-controlled bubble.

“This is truly a unique facility, there is no other facility like this in the world, not just in Emerson but anywhere. No one else has a facility like this,” says Rajendran.

The Dayton Development Coalition’s Mitch Heaton says the Helix gives Emerson a competitive edge.

“And they've already filed two patents and launched an entire new product off that, five years ahead of what the government asked for,” he says, “to look at the future of new ice machines working more efficiently, and wasting less water, wasting less energy and all of those pieces combined."

Since the Helix opened a year and a half ago, it’s also allowed Emerson to more quickly meet federal Environmental Protection Agency energy targets, officials say.

The Trump administration is working to roll back many Obama-era EPA regulations. But a national coalition that includes the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors and building-industry trade groups is continuing to move ahead with plans to dramatically reduce emissions and increase renewable-energy use over the next decade.

Rajendran says, at least for now, the Helix is not testing with renewable sources.

“We don't necessarily say everything we do has got to be solar and net zero and things like that because there is a cost element to it,” he says.

“We're not looking at things that only a very, very narrow, small segment of the population could afford to do. We're looking at where we can have the most impact for the average person, living in an average home, doing average things, living in an average building.”

Still, making heating and cooling systems more energy efficient could help buildings become more responsive to the Earth’s changing climate.

And that could be a really big deal.

A report from the nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute found commercial and residential buildings account for more than 70 percent of electricity use in the U.S., and more than 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to climate change.

And because of Emerson’s massive size, says University of Dayton Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Kevin Hallinan, the Helix has the potential to help reduce energy consumption worldwide.

“Listen, in the refrigeration world, they [Emerson] are it. They're the biggest player,” he says.

“The intelligence built into these systems can can really help manage the energy consumption to reduce it while also maintaining comfort when people need that comfort, seamlessly, but they don't even know that they're doing it,” he says. “The value to the customer would be, they get to reduce cost. If they care about emission reduction and climate change, they get to address that.”

The Helix contains six simulated ecosystems, including a house, a grocery store, an industrial cooling system powerful enough to chill an entire Budweiser factory and a commercial kitchen that even serves food a few times a week.
Credit Emerson

For the first time in more than a century, Department of Energy forecasts show U.S. demand for electricity is flat. Experts credit some of the drop to improved energy efficiency technology.  

But Hallinan is careful to point out that new technology alone can’t solve the country’s energy consumption problem.

Up to around half of the energy used in a typical home, Hallinan says, has to do with human behavior –– not technology.

The next step, he says, is to test whether the Helix’s energy efficiency performance can be replicated outside the tightly controlled, simulated lab environment.

“Because, ultimately, it needs to be proven that the work the Helix is doing has value, so, it does have to be tested and piloted in the world also.”

Emerson has already started doing this. The company has partnered with UD to build 50 occupied research homes on campus.

Collecting enough energy consumption data will take a year of real-life heating and cooling seasons.


About the Series:

A century ago, Dayton helped drive the global economy with inventions that changed the world – think, the airplane, the cash register, pop-top cans, the self-starting engine. In our series Scratch, WYSO explores some of the people and ideas that could impact life and the economy in the Miami Valley and beyond. 

The series was inspired by a simple question: where is Dayton’s famous spirit of invention still alive and well in the Miami Valley? And, who benefits? 

Learn more, and add your voice, by clicking here.