PITTSBURGH – Inspiration for Jacob Kring came last winter in the form of a $600 electric heating bill for a small three-bedroom apartment he was renting here.
The University of Pittsburgh graduate shared the apartment with two roommates. They discovered the problem in no time: The furnace thermostat was mounted in one of the bedrooms. Close the bedroom door and the thermostat responded only to the temperature in the room, leaving the rest of the apartment chilled.
The landlord was unsympathetic.
"The heating system was just so poorly designed," said Kring, 23. "The roommate closes the door, he's comfortable, everybody else freezes. Definitely not great.
"I still think a $600 electric bill, which was more than the rent, is a little absurd."
From this absurdity of undergraduate life grew Kring's interest in how to ensure people are comfortable in their homes and offices, which turned into a senior project at Pitt and then a company called HiberSense that now has three employees and has raised $55,000 from family and friends.
HiberSense has a chance to prove that its gadget sensors and heating and cooling duct adjusters can control indoor temperatures while saving on utility bills. The company promises energy savings averaging 25 percent to 30 percent, with an estimated setup of less than $100 for a typical six-room house.
The setup also will have the capability to predict the preferred temperature at any given time in a room or office, said Daniel Mosse, a 54-year-old professor of computer science at Pitt who joined HiberSense as a technologist.
"With machine learning and control algorithms, it does some predictions and determines the optimum time to turn air on or off," Mosse said. "Battery-powered motors open and close air passages, with seven different positions."
HiberSense, whose third employee is Chief Technology Officer Brendan Quay, has office space at a new business incubator.
Remote monitoring of heating and cooling is nothing new, but the use of machine learning to anticipate the desired room temperature at a particular time of day, accomplished partly with motion sensors, is innovative, Kring said. Utilities generally recommend programmable temperature controls for consumers, which heat or cool regardless of whether anybody is in the room.
HiberSense is trying out its technology on the 10th floor of a 100-year-old downtown building with a cranky heating and cooling system. Thirty-five people work on the floor, with few happy about office temperatures.
"Many people complain, yes," Mosse said.
The 13-story building was built early in the last century as the headquarters for the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., when Pittsburgh was still a hub of heavy industry. Among the tenants today is the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh, which is collaborating with HiberSense as part of the city's Pgh Lab initiative.
Pgh Lab is a no-cost initiative of Mayor Bill Peduto designed to reduce city expenses through innovation. HiberSense is among three start-ups in the program. An evaluation of the program is planned in October.
The 10th floor of the building was chosen because it's the only floor with an integrated heating and air-conditioning system, said Jennifer Wilhelm, manager of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the URA. The other floors use window air conditioners.
"The 10th floor is our test case," Wilhelm said. The temperature there is "not easily adjusted."
About 35 sensors have been installed on the 10th floor, Mosse said. Of the things that most irk the energy-conscious Mosse is the use of those ubiquitous heaters that office workers tuck under their desks when the air conditioning can't be properly controlled, he said.
"Double inefficiency," he said. "Drives me crazy."