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Gradient Turning Up The Heat On Air Conditioning Competition

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Summer is in full swing, so get ready for the annual tug-of-war debate between living sustainably and keeping the house nice and cool. Either crank the thermostat to a tolerable temperature, incurring a massive electricity bill, or become a sweaty mess. It’s a several-month compromise between you and the elements with no true winner. There is, however, a possible light at the end of this overheated tunnel.

Emerging technology may finally put the idea of choosing between comfort and sustainability to rest. Called “heat pumps,” the creation has the potential to replace standard air conditioners — which generate hot or cold air — with devices that move air of different temperatures from one space to another. 

Photo Courtesy Alexadre Lecocq

The basis for modern air conditioning has changed very little over the last 100 years. Willis Carrier created the original model in 1902. Depending on the desired effect, it sent air through coils either heated via a furnace or cooled with ice water. Today, heating and air conditioning units operate on that same basic concept, using alternative chemicals like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) for improved performance. These refrigerant chemicals are fantastic for tailoring an indoor environment to a comfortable temperature but come at a high environmental cost.

Gradient is looking to be a primary developer of high-efficiency heat pumps. The San Francisco-based company created them with cooling as a priority due to the climate differences of its likely customers. However, Northern-dwelling consumers shouldn’t be deterred since the device functions by pumping warm air outside, so one can simply turn it around for the opposite effect. This versatility keeps the product on par with higher-end systems that currently exist but at a more sustainable level. 

Photo Courtesy Jeshoots

Though the system still uses refrigerants, it employs the R290 variation, which is much more environmentally friendly than the standard R410A version currently used worldwide. Gradient says the goal is to shift from refrigerants as a whole eventually and instead use propane as an even cleaner alternative.

Heavier regulations due to the chemical’s flammability have proven to be an obstacle, though progress is being made. 

The company’s longer-term goal is to use fully renewable electricity once enough is readily available. “The goal is that these systems use as much renewable electricity as possible, as soon as possible,” said Santhi Analytis, head of engineering for Gradient.

According to Gradient CEO Vince Romanin, the company’s mission is to remove carbon from the air conditioning equation entirely. “Our end goal is a fully decarbonized heating and cooling system,” said Romanin, adding that the path to that objective involved pushing for sustainable refrigerants and “building demand response” into their system to improve access to the renewable energy grid. “Our mission is to enable everyone to have access to comfortable buildings in a way that does not compromise the environment.”


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