Twenty-two years ago, I moved from Indiana, with its four discrete seasons, to South Texas, one extended summer interrupted by a couple of months of freezing rain. I love the region but have never gotten used to the heat and stay interested in thermal comfort systems (read: air conditioning).

It turns out that San Antonio has a history of making buildings cooler. In 1883, Ed Friedrich started a company that pioneered refrigeration in the United States, becoming the largest manufacturer of refrigeration equipment by the 1950s. The St. Anthony Hotel opened in 1909 and was the first hotel in the world with fully functioning air conditioning. The Milam Building, the tallest in the country when it opened in 1928, was the first high-rise in the U.S. to have central air conditioning.

Today, according to the Department of Energy, “three-quarters of all homes in the United States have air conditioners. Air conditioners use about 6% of all the electricity produced in the United States, at an annual cost of about $29 billion to homeowners.” 

The systems being used to force temperature-regulated, humidity-controlled conditioned air into our living spaces are not remarkably different from the window units Friedrich first made decades ago. Cooling with vapor-compression refrigerants is expensive, bad for the environment and wasteful. The world keeps getting hotter and the heat of extreme weather is deadly. This is an area ripe for improvement and, without exaggeration, necessary to our survival on this planet.

When I, a skateboarder turned computer geek from the Midwest, naively purchased an old coffee factory and converted it into a living space, a co-working space for my brother and our software business ventures and a private maker space to prototype the future, I found myself using energy like a commercial tenant. Running computers, sound systems, lights, kitchens, water heaters, pumps, an ice machine, laser cutters and CNC machines is costly. Cooling the space in August is much worse.

As someone who helped run data centers, I witnessed firsthand the tremendous strain that cooling an acre full of servers churning out webpages and waste heat takes on infrastructure. These facilities use industrial-sized chillers to circulate cool water through the building to maintain a stable 70-degree environment.

Instead, a small-scale, hydronic cooling system could be developed and implemented into new-build construction. Hydronic cooling occurs when a cooled liquid lowers the temperature of a heated space rather than the usual mix of gases in a forced air system. The heat energy in the space radiates to the cooler liquid where it is absorbed and transported. This cycle repeats until the desired temperature of the room is reached. 

The variable speed pumps use less energy when matched to actual demand and can work with lower voltage. Closed loop systems reduce contaminants in the system without a negative impact on indoor air quality. In addition, the extra heat removed during the cooling process can be used to warm domestic hot water. 

A hydronic cooling system could lead to a future where smaller panels, like acoustic-damping sound boards, could hang on the walls and ceilings of our living rooms and offices, providing ambient cooling. Imagine if “Made in San Antonio” was stamped on those panels. It will take work to make these advances. Components will have to be made cheaper. New building techniques will have to be developed. Control systems need to be designed. 

For San Antonio and beyond, the work is worth it to produce solutions that would reduce environmental devastation, create efficient, affordable cooling and lessen strain on the power grid. Not to mention, innovation leads to needed skills and training and creates new job opportunities with involved trades.  I have no doubt Friedrich would be proud to see these advances start in San Antonio. 

Brett Elmendorf is a global advisor to EPIcenter, a San Antonio-based nonprofit propelling innovation and thought for our global future with a think tank, incubator and accelerator, strategic partnerships,...