How much electricity — and money — do you waste heating or cooling unoccupied parts of your house across a 24-hour cycle? And how often do you find yourself fiddling with the thermostat when winter or summer weather makes one end of the house uncomfortable?
This is an old problem, but Dan Myers and Kenny Tay of Flair are using sensor technology, modern data crunching, and rapid prototyping to build an easy-to-use system that helps customers conserve energy, cut costs, and enjoy a temperate indoor climate regardless of the weather outside.
Discomfort Is the Mother of Invention for Climate Control
Growing up in South Florida, Myers experienced the inadequacy of traditional climate control systems. The end of his house near the thermostat stayed cool, but the parts farthest away — including his childhood bedroom — got uncomfortably hot when the Florida sun hit them.
After college he ran into the same problem when he lived in Chicago. The hot summers and brutal winters caused enormous temperature differentials between the two floors of his house, to the point that he had to correct them by manually altering airflow.
The rest of us might leave it at that, but Myers is an engineer with a penchant for tinkering. “For fun, I decided to build a solution with Legos, Arduinos, and a Raspberry Pi,” he says. “When I found out the Chicago Public Library had 3D printers, I signed up for a library card and downloaded some 3D modeling software.” His interest grew as he found himself talking with friends who shared his climate-control problem and wanted him to build them a solution, too.
Myers was intrigued enough to summon reinforcements. “I called up the smartest guy I know, my cofounder Kenny, and started talking to him about the project,” he says. “After that, it just sort of grew legs.”
Data-Driven Comfort and Energy Efficiency for HVAC
The more they dug into the problem, the more Myers and Tay got excited about the potential to make a real impact, not just on people’s comfort but on their energy consumption. As Myers puts it: “The notion that we could look at an industry that has been making steady strides on improving the efficiency of many aspects of their systems, but then provide the most comprehensive energy and data driven approach to complement it — it’s intoxicating from a motivational perspective.”
The Flair team is committed to keeping the solution simple to install and then easy to use and maintain. The key components of the system are sensor-enabled vent covers that anyone can install in place of the existing metal or plastic ones. The sensors accumulate data steadily so that the system learns the patterns of temperature fluctuation across each room of your house.
The sophisticated use of that data is critical to the Flair system’s operation. Myers and Tay have built the product so it can be controlled remotely from your phone or a laptop, or allowed to run on autopilot. Since the cofounders are serious about data privacy, they’ve also designed the system so you can sync it to the cloud, run it entirely offline, or disable sensors one by one.
The result is convenient and customizable — and promises to cut energy bills by 30% or more.
Mastering the Tiniest Details, from Plastics to Web Pages
Building an integrated system like Flair’s has required the two engineers to understand technical details about everything from the composition of plastics to CSS for generating beautiful Web dashboards. “You need to not just know how to do things academically,” Myers says, “but how to use tools to design the product down to the tiniest of details.”
Throughout that process, they have used Fusion 360 and 3D printing extensively to create and test their mechanical designs. Myers had used Autodesk software before, particularly in high school when he used Inventor as part of a team working to build a solar-powered racecar to drive across the country. When a friend mentioned to him that Fusion 360 is available for free for early startups, he knew he needed to try it. “After that,” he says, “we never looked back.”
Fusion 360 has been especially useful because the Flair team has been operating in both China and the United States; the software is built take make it easy to collaborate, and to rapidly integrate both electrical and mechanical designs.
Faster, Better Decisions en Route to a More Connected World
The hardest part of a startup, Myers thinks, is the decision making. Every technical decision about the product comes with tradeoffs, whether in terms of cost, interoperability, or the timetable to get the product out the door.
“Not making decisions fast enough or going back and forth can really hurt momentum,” Myers says. For technical entrepreneurs, he adds, “It’s striking the balance between decisiveness and diligence thats incredibly hard to get right.”
Still, the work is a thrill. Myers is a big proponent of the speed and agility he sees taking over in manufacturing: “We are already seeing how 3D printing has empowered more people to create. And as rapid prototyping spills over into rapid production, it simply means more innovation will be able to make it to the market, and faster, which is great for humanity. It also means the tools will evolve with new processes and allow people to become more expressive and more effective.”
Myers believes that shifting device intelligence to the cloud so that we can use data in brand-new ways — as Flair is doing — will challenge many of our foundational assumptions. “Buildings, cities, and societies can and will be designed differently,” he says, “and people will benefit from those changes in overwhelming and unforeseen ways.”