When Hurricane Ida swept through New York City last August, the storm damaged multiple boilers at Woodside Houses in Queens. Repairs were slow, and residents were forced to live with heat outages well into the winter; some even relied on their apartments’ gas stoves to keep warm.
That was hardly the only time residents in New York’s vast public housing system were subjected to too-cold or too-hot homes. For them, it’s a near-daily facet of life.
“Either you’re too hot or you’re freezing, and you can’t regulate it,” said Woodside resident Cynthia Pyne. Her friend Joanna Gencie concurred: “You have to have nice warm blankets, or you’re taking your clothes off.”
In an effort to help public housing residents stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter without resorting to extreme and even dangerous measures, New York announced the winners of its Clean Heat for All Challenge on Tuesday. It awarded $70 million to Gradient and Midea America, a startup and an established HVAC company, respectively. The duo will use that funding to manufacture 30,000 window heat pump units over seven years.
While the technology is relatively new and unproven at scale, proponents of the window heat pump say it could address a number of problems that plague New York’s public housing, which one in 16 New Yorkers call home. Many of those buildings feature outdated and unreliable heating systems as well as poor insulation. A large number of residents also lack access to air conditioning due to the cost of buying window units and the fees for professional installation and added energy use required by the New York City Housing Authority.
New York’s public housing tenants are also on the front lines of climate change’s impacts. In addition to shocks like Ida that can knock out HVAC systems, summer temperatures often remain elevated in the city’s public housing units even when outside air temperatures dip. Research has also shown that areas that were segregated by redlining tend to be among the worst heat islands. But historically, residents have had no choice but to rely on faulty heating and cooling systems.
Window heat pumps wouldn’t solve all these woes at once. But they would be a start to making living in public housing more comfortable, sustainable and just.
“Historically, NYCHA has always been last: last in technology, last in evolution, last in changes, last in repairs, last in the resources that are coming from Albany,” said New York Mayor Eric Adams at the launch. “You are now first … You’re first in this new technology.”
Window heat pumps can both heat and cool efficiently, and New York is the perfect test bed to deploy them, Gradient CEO Vince Romanin told Protocol, given the number of decades-old apartment buildings where comfort is a constant struggle.
Gov. Hochul at a press event announcing new heat pump units for use in NYCHA facilities.Photo: Office of the Governor of New York State
While not quite ready for installation, the models from both Gradient and Midea America meet the demands of the challenge, which called for a design that did not yet exist. They’re affordable, room-sized heat pumps that meet existing specifications for cold climates and don’t require any modifications to the building. Both also operate using a standard 120-volt outlet.
On Tuesday, both companies’ units were set up under mock windows on a Woodside basketball court, their upside-down U-shapes forming a shelf-like sill. Heat pumps rely on electricity rather than fossil fuels and work similarly to window air-conditioning units, by either pulling heat from a room or pushing it in using a coil containing a refrigerant. Most heat pumps are bulky enough that they require professional installation, which makes them great for homeowners but less so for renters. But the window units designed by both Gradient and Midea are far more compact. They could replace the window air conditioners that hang out of many of Woodside’s windows with something that works in all seasons and — importantly — lets residents control the temperature in their homes.
The technology is still very new, and no one has ever tried to manufacture cold-climate window heat pumps, let alone at the scale that NYCHA is asking for. (Cold-climate heat pumps use a different refrigerant from standard models, which has a lower boiling point and enables the units to convert colder air to heat in the winter.) Still, Romanin said Gradient has a prototype ready, and the company is prepared to meet NYCHA’s timeline.
“The bigger question is when do residents need this and what emissions reductions need to be hit to mitigate global warming, and we’re late on both counts,” Romanin said.
The challenge — issued in December 2021 by NYCHA, the New York Power Authority and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority — is similar to a 1990s NYCHA challenge for affordable, energy-efficient refrigerators. That challenge, too, was for a seemingly impossible task, given that the prevailing refrigerators of the day were likened to “gas guzzlers.” Maytag eventually won, and had its refrigerators installed across New York City, saving NYCHA money and cutting emissions to boot.
Gradient, which has been working on its window unit since its launch in 2017 but has yet to bring it to market, found itself in the lucky position of already having something in development that was close to what NYCHA was looking for.
“Just the announcement [of the challenge] was huge, because it was a giant signal that this is what the market wanted and needed,” Romanin said. “NYCHA is really accelerating market development of these new products.”
Gradient CEO Vince Romanin's company will supply NYCHA with 10,000 heat pumps.Photo: Gradient
The HVAC industry, Romanin said, is not set up for innovation. Cooling, in particular, is dominated by mini-split or central air systems largely manufactured by a handful of distributors that have entrenched relationships with installers, a dynamic that makes it hard for small companies or new technologies to break in.
Of the 30,000 window heat pumps NYCHA plans to purchase in the coming years, 10,000 will come from Gradient and 20,000 from Midea. If the project is a success, it could help bring down the cost of window heat pumps and spread their adoption more widely.
“The Clean Heat for All Challenge was saying that we need solutions to bring to bear here that can be scaled up across our state,” said Doreen Harris, president and CEO of NYSERDA. “These technologies are going to start here … but they are not going to end here.”
Under New York City law, NYCHA is required to cut emissions from its buildings by 40% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050. Installing heat pumps, which run on electricity and are far less polluting than their gas-powered heating counterparts, could play a big part in helping the agency meet its goals.
Woodside Houses will be part of the heat pump program.Photo: Lisa Martine Jenkins/Protocol
Diana Ross, the assistant superintendent for Woodside Houses, is cautiously optimistic about the program. She said that heat pumps could give residents a real sense of independence and improve comfort, especially for senior residents who rarely get outside.
“The first-, second-, third-floor residents, they get too much heat; the fourth, fifth and sixth don’t get enough,” she said. “It’s always been a balance of trying to juggle the heating in the buildings.”
NYCHA plans to start a pilot project to install the first heat pumps next fall, putting a unit in every bedroom and living room of a few dozen apartments. If that goes smoothly, the full order of 30,000 will start to be placed in windows across Woodside and other NYCHA buildings by mid-decade. Gradient is planning to release its cold-climate heat pump to the public in 2024 as well; NYCHA is just its first and biggest customer.
The company set up a demo unit in a sixth-floor apartment at Woodside Houses, which was similar to the challenge winner, but not yet up to cold-climate specifications. There, Ross peppered the installers with questions while the unit murmured in the background, keeping the room cool as the 93-degree-Fahrenheit heat outside pressed against the walls.
“Residents are excited about the program, they like the attention,” Ross said. But most importantly, “they want to see it work.”
That last bit of skepticism is warranted given NYCHA’s $40 billion backlog in repair requests and countless other issues. But the pilot, if successful, could very well show a carbon-cutting path forward that doesn’t just prioritize those who can afford new technologies.
“The climate movement is going to be best served if it starts with solving problems of those who are going to see the worst effects of climate change,” Romanin said.