Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Virginia Tech competes in solar decathlon competition

You can thank the sun for drying your jeans, but mind you, they won't hang from a clothesline.
Solar-powered laundry is just one of many requirements Virginia Tech's Solar Decathlon Team must meet this fall.

Started in 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy is sponsoring its fourth Solar Decathlon competition in October. Teams from 20 different universities and colleges reaching as far as Madrid, Spain, must design and build homes that function entirely on the sun's graces.

The teams convene on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to form a solar village clearly devoid of a single idiot. Numerous judging panels award honors in 10 comprehensive areas including architecture, appliance performance, lighting design and market viability.

To succeed in such a vast cross-section of categories, the Solar Decathlon Team is composed of students and faculty from many disciplines: architecture, industrial design, building construction, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science and business.

After successful entries in the first two decathlons, Virginia Tech opted out of the 2007 event to concentrate on 2009. Currently under construction, its house has already been invited to Spain next summer to compete in the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe.

"It's going to do well," said project coordinator and assistant professor in architecture, Joe Wheeler.

In a fundraising effort this past fall, the team conducted a raffle for an electric car previously donated by General Electric Motorcars. "We thought that this was a good way to activate the students and get them engaged with the community," said Wheeler. The car, a GEM e2, is the ideal transport for those with modest daily commutes. The street legal, two-passenger vehicle tops out at 25 miles per hour and 12 horsepower. With just a two-hour charge on a standard outlet, its six 12-volt batteries produce enough juice for 35 inexpensive miles. It costs less than $100 per year to operate.

Wandering the third floor offices of Pamplin Hall, two Solar Decathlon Team students knocked on Frederick Hood's door. Hood, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of finance, bought one $10 raffle ticket.

Months later while cleaning out his desk, Hood discovered the forgotten stub. Somewhere on the paper he misread "January" and, assuming the drawing had passed, tossed it in the trash.
During a March 20 visit to Tech, Preston Bryant, Virginia secretary of natural resources, pulled Hood's winning ticket.

Kevin Schafer, a fourth-year architecture student on the Solar Decathlon Team, washed the car before Hood picked up the keys. Cleaning the small vehicle for his arrival was apparently quite laborious. "I spent a solid four hours detailing that car," Schafer said. "Joe (Wheeler) wanted it like brand new, so I was in there with a toothbrush like scrubbing that thing, literally."
Hood quickly became comfortable with the sparkling car before cruising home. "I just did a little spin in the lot where the (solar) house is," Hood said. The GEM e2 currently rests in Hood's garage while he searches for time to have it registered. "I've tooled around a little bit in the neighborhood," he said, "but I try not to drive it on the street. That would be illegal."
With warm weather on our heels, though, Hood says he'll utilize his electric ride soon. I think he'll garner a reputation around campus, but Hood casually shrugged off such a consequence.
"I don't know if it's cool or not to have one of those," he said. Hood's ticket was one of more than 900 sold, yielding nearly $10,000 for the Solar Decathlon Team. While impressive, the sum hardly places a dent in the nearly half a million dollars needed to realize such a unique project.

The concept of the team's 2009 entry, LumenHaus, is "responsive architecture."
At its core, the 700 square foot LumenHaus is a transparent pavilion with an entirely photovoltaic roof. Large mobile windows on the north and south facades don't have to be barriers. Once the user slides the glass aside, the two deck terraces essentially triple the floor plan's square footage. Parallel with the windows, though, are two motor-controlled wall systems that introduce energy efficiency. Aerogel-infused polycarbonate panels can close to ensure an insulated interior. These panels are 2.5 inches thick and perform better than your apartment walls. A final shading layer controls the degree of light entry. The motors operate via sensors that communicate with computer monitors and controls. Interior and exterior conditions are simultaneously measured, and appropriate adjustments are made according to the user's pre-set comfort levels.

The user will also have the ultimate remote control: the iPhone. Tech's computer science department is crafting an application that will place your home's fate in the palm of your hand.
Among other things, you will be able to move the wall systems, monitor energy consumptions levels, and even control your front door's lock.

At the Research and Demonstration Facility on Plantation Road, students are tirelessly piecing together the house. It's an intensive process, but they seem particularly mindful of the experience's rarity. "It's a built project that I have before I graduate," said fourth year architecture student, Corey McCalla. "When I graduate I don't know what the heck is going to happen. I may not have anything built that's my own for decades."

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