Adding a little heat to the home while helping to cure cancer

UPDATE: I have recently updated this post to better explain that this project will NOT save money on heat and will not be enough to act as a primary heat source in cooler climates. This post is targeted to those who use electric heat. If you use gas or oil heat, this project will cost you MORE money since it is cheaper to generate heat from gas and oil. It is purely designed to contribute some of that power wasted on heat generation to a worthy cause.

As the temperature dipped below 0 (Fahrenheit), I realized that I would need to add some heat to our home. Our condo would probably stay above 60 degrees with no heat (VERY well insulated and above the “machine” room for the building)), but who wants to get out of the shower early in the morning to that temperature? If you do, then you enjoy suffering.

As I started to program the thermostat on our heating system, I thought of how heat is a byproduct of all work and is often considered “waste” (think: the radiator in your car). It is easy to turn energy into heat, but very difficult to turn heat into energy, so why waste energy by forcing electrons through a coil in order to generate heat? Why not have those electrons generate heat by doing something more useful?

I thought back to last year, how warm our office would become as my desktop computer churned out 650 watts worth of heat during some spirited gaming. That computer was now sitting in a closet gathering dust. What if I fired up “the old beast” and had it do something useful while sending those 650 watts of heat into my condo? I’m not going to sit in the utility closet playing games 24/7, so what kind of work could I have it do on it’s own?

Enter protein folding!

Fold003Standford started a project back in the early 2000s that allowed regular computer users to donate their unused “processing power” in order to simulate protein folding for the researchers. The results would enable scientists to perform enhanced research that would aid them in finding cures for diseases and many forms of cancer. This project is called Folding at Home (FaH for short), and I highly suggest you check out their website for more information.

One thing that “folding” is notorious for is causing your computer to generate copious amounts of heat. It does this (if so configured) by running your CPU and graphics chip at full throttle to perform the simulations. It’s a great way to test the limits of your computer.

The protein folding heater

2011-01-28_164951xI setup my desktop PC in my utility closet (my central heat/air is in that closet, and ALL intake air is pulled through there) and fired up Folding at Home. In seconds, hot air started pouring out of the back of my computer like a hairdryer. Within 5 hours, the condo temperature had gone up 2 degrees to 70. Through the next few days of near 0 degree temperature, the temperature of the condo hovered between 69 and 74 degrees without the central heat. It was only a few degrees, but it was enough to bring us into the “comfortable” zone.

Getting involved

DISCLAIMER: Following this guide can cause damage to your computer if the cooling system or system components are weak due to age and/or neglect. I am not responsible if your computer burns out!

2011-01-28_152647First of all, I HIGHLY recommend downloading the FaH Tracker program from instead of the client found at the Stanford site. This program is INCREDIBLY easy to use and will have you going in a few minutes. Make sure you pick a user id so that you can have all of your points tracked. It’s quite fun!

If you want to try out this trick before winter ends, here are some points to consider.

* Healthy computer: If your computer is making funny noises or already has an overheating problem, DO NOT fold proteins on it until you thoroughly clean dust from all areas inside your computer and replace damaged fans. If you do not feel comfortable opening your computer and cleaning it out, call a geek friend/family member over to help.

* Air circulation: Make sure there is plenty of air circulation around your computer when folding proteins. Locking it in a small closet with no air flow WILL cause the computer to burn out! If you do not have a central heat utility closet like mine, it will work fine in a normal room (Though the room will be warmed up more than other areas of the house).

* Monitoring for problems: 2011-01-28_165205When you first start folding proteins, watch your computer for signs of problems. If your computer starts crashing a lot and/or the fans are making grinding noises, stop folding and make sure all dust is cleaned out and that grinding fans are replaced. Once you confirm that your computer is stable, check on it every night before going to bed to make sure nothing new has popped up. I recommend turning it off if you plan on going away on a trip to be safe. I HIGHLY recommend monitoring your temperatures using the free program HWMonitor by CPUID.

* Computer power output: I’m currently running FaH on an Intel Quad Core (Q6600) overclocked to 3GHz with an overclocked 8800GTS NVidia graphics card. This puts out a decent amount of heat. The amount of heat your computer will put out will depend on your processor and graphics card.

* Size of home and insulation: If you live in a larger home or older apartment, this trick won’t come close to providing enough heat for living comfort (unless you hook more than one of these bad boys up). Regardless, this trick WILL contribute some heat to your home and use some of the power normally wasted on electric heat to fold proteins.

* WARNING: DO NOT use this trick on a laptop! Laptops are not designed to be run this hard 24/7, and will be more likely suffer heat related damage. I would also avoid running this on ultra compact computers, such as Mac Minis.