Thursday Oct. 24, we had a full house at Hacker Lab to hear three very interesting talks on building energy management in the real world vs. what we think is going on.  

 Kristin Heinemeier of Frontier Energy hit us with the reality that few of the fancy energy-saving HVAC systems installed over the past decades are being allowed to operate as they should.  The culprit? “Wire cutters”, as she put it. Building tenants or even the building operators at some point on most buildings become disenchanted with how the system is working and do something to defeat it.  No system in the world can stand up against someone with wire cutters to defeat it. She had pictures of equipment where someone had jammed something into the dampers supposed to bring in cool outside air when the temperature is right and then close when it’s hot to recirculate inside air.  In one photo, someone in fact used the air-damper control box, ripped off the wall, to jam open the dampers. Other examples were seeing systems totally unplugged, so no energy savings were being generated at all. Why? Because people did not know how to readjust the system properly to provide the comfort levels they wanted.  What happened to the operators trained by the installers when the systems were first put in? They work somewhere else now and did not train their replacements adequately. This creates a huge opportunity for Frontier to audit existing buildings, get the systems operating again, and deal with whatever the comfort issues were that led occupants to take things into their own hands.  

 Zach Denning took it one step further.  His company installs an autonomous AI-based virtual engineer (“Hank”) to learn the systems in the building, understand the comfort and other occupant requirements, and then tweak the existing systems to achieve those targets.  Zach confirmed that they often have to reconnect the installed systems on a building to get a useful starting point. But his idea is to let “Hank” do the tweaking, rather than depending on a rookie building engineer getting trained well.  Zach and his team can interface with almost any brand of system installed on a building and work with it. That’s an enormous savings over a building manager installing all new equipment, assuming the problem is that the existing equipment is defective.  Zach’s insight is that it is not the equipment but the humans “tweaking” the system in the wrong way. Hank takes that problem away. Usually the energy savings are 40+%. That’s a lot of money compared to the monthly fee for Hank, running as a SaaS platform. 

 Zach is getting good traction with customers and has recently raised a $250K round to keep up his momentum.  He is currently generating revenue.

 The third presentation of the evening was from Prof. Marcus Romani of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Sac State.  His talk was on advances in using solar to provide air conditioning in buildings, not through running an electric motor-driven vapor compression system (the kind most people have), but through using the sun’s heat directly to run an absorption cooling cycle.  The idea is not new, but recent advances are making it more economical. The principal advance is in the efficiency of the solar heating panels that drive the system. Absorption cooling is how most ice houses and refrigerators worked originally. It involves using heat to boil a chemical solution to drive off a certain ingredient, and then letting that ingredient re-dissolve in another part of the system, which creates cooling.  Early devices used ammonia in an aqueous solution. Modern devices use more complicated chemical stews to improve efficiency. Prof. Romani’s point is that buildings seeking zero net energy status but not having enough roof space to install PV panels to offset all electric use, may be able to eliminate all electric use for A/C by switching to absorption cooling. Solar thermal collectors can capture more of the sun’s energy than a PV panel.

 All three presentations captured the full attention of the crowd.  There is much more to discuss about startups targeting building energy management and we are sure to bring this topic back in future MeetUps.  

 Our next MeetUp is set for Thursday, December 5, at the Hacker Lab from 5:30-8:00 pm.  Save the date and look for the announcement of the speakers. This will be our last MeetUp for the year, so don’t miss it!

Thomas Hall, Executive Director, kicks off meetup.

Zach Denning introuduces us to “Hank”, an autonomous AI-based virtual engineer who learns the systems in the building.

Prof. Marcus Romani of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Sac State talks on advances in using solar to provide air conditioning in buildings.

Thomas Hall


Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStarts Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

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College of Engineering & Computer Science at Sacramento State