Sometimes green business ideas stare you in the face until you’re ready to jump in. That’s what happened to Patrick Beebe-Sweet, president of Ducoterra, a provider of radiant ceiling panels (RCPs) for more efficient, cost-saving heating. His triple bottom line business not only provide an affordable solution to the people who need it the most, it’s helps homeowners reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, too.
In a few words, can you summarize the biggest problems you’re trying to solve with your RCPs and why they’re better than conventional heating?
Heating costs are an enormous part of both the financial burden and carbon footprint of any building, especially our homes. We see an opportunity in helping individuals tackle both of these aspects without compromising on either – particularly in the lower-income housing market where baseboard is highly dominant and weighs heavily on those who are least able to afford it. Energy poverty is a recognized cause of homelessness in the United States, with many lower and fixed income groups paying upwards of 25% of their income just to heat their homes. We don’t believe anyone should be forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families.
Our radiant heat ceiling panels have a unique offering in the heating industry. Where typically there’s a more or less linear tradeoff between installation costs and operational costs of heating systems (baseboards on one end of the spectrum, geothermal heat pumps on the other, and gas furnaces in the middle), our panels are both inexpensive to install and operate. Homes with RCPs end up using less energy for heating, and the systems have numerous other great benefits: they’re silent, they improve indoor air quality by avoiding the constant recirculation of air through dirty ducts, they can render the space comfortable rapidly (<10 min), they are easier to retrofit than other green options, and require no maintenance over their very long lifetime.
That’s a hard question, because so much depends on how well the home is insulated as well as what heating system is currently in use. But, users who upgrade from baseboard heat can expect to see their heating bills drop by 50-60%, and those upgrading from a central furnace can expect a savings of up to around 30%.
Where is this technology the most beneficial? Is it more expensive than other heating retrofit technologies?
Radiant heating panels work great in any climate, particularly those with low cooling loads where AC and the associated ductwork is not necessary. They can efficiently heat a space in any climate however. Our RCPs are also exceptionally well suited to energy retrofits, as they require almost no intrusive work to install and only minimal electrical upgrades (if any). They are the cheapest complete home heating solution to install, aside from baseboard heating.
Who developed this technology and when? What inspired the development? Why is this technology not already popular?
The basic idea behind radiant heating is fairly old – it saw some use in the US in the 1960’s and 70s. But the implementation was primitive and inefficient and fell out of favor, especially with the availability of cheap oil and gas. With our updated construction and design however, the efficiency has been vastly improved. Today, radiant heating is actually very common in Europe – new construction over there is already using 50% radiant heating (either electric or hydronic).
It is, however, still a small market here in the US. One of the holdups is that our energy costs are still relatively low, so there hasn’t been the pressure to move to more efficient technologies. It’s also somewhat counter-intuitive and people have simply continued to use the systems they are familiar with. Breaking that mental model around what works for heating a space has been one of our biggest challenges – and one that first hand experience with the technology works best for.
We try and work directly with the people who install and sell our product – general contractors, electricians, and distributors. These individuals are the experts that homeowners often turn to when asking questions about their heating, and have a lot of influence over what ends up being installed. We have a partnership certification program that benefits the installers, ourselves, and the end user. We help the installers find clients, our end users get guaranteed quality installations, and we get a strong and lasting relationship with our contractors.
Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
That’s a good question. We haven’t made any major slipups yet, but finding the right suppliers has been a real challenge. It’s not easy to find machine shops that speak in terms of triple bottom line and sustainability! Assuming that you can control your supply chain, especially as a small startup, is one place where we’ve had to let go of finding our “perfect” supplier and just find the best currently available.
What challenges are there with developing a green business with people-planet-profit in mind?
Balancing all three aspects is a challenge – it can be easy to go down a rabbit hole pursuing green and environmental issues, or pursuing social objectives, and lose sight of the overall picture. You need to make sure you’re periodically pulling back and making sure you maintain a balanced approach – and one that matches your vision as well.
What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?
Sometimes green is right in front of you in the little things. I started doing my idea generation going for a grand environmental objective and social mission, and then this technology sort of fell in my lap and I absolutely fell in love with it the more I dug into it and thought about how it could be applied. Don’t be afraid to let go of your vision of some fictional best product or service, because sometimes the really great ones are right in front of you, just waiting to be picked up and used in a new way that will make a tremendous impact in their own right.