UI project stands out at D.C. Solar Decathlon

UI project stands out at D.C. Solar Decathlon

Plenty to do in Washington, D.C. Stop by the Lincoln Memorial, visit the Smithsonian, maybe even tour the White House.

But lately, one of the hotter attractions in the nation's capital has been a house of a different color (natural wood, actually) – not to mention a different power source – built at the University of Illinois.

"Friday, Saturday and Sunday there were just unbelievable lines waiting to get in," said Jason Wheeler, a UI graduate student and project manager for the UI's entry in the U.S. Department of Energy's 2007 Solar Decathlon.

"I heard a lot of people say, 'Oh, I love this house,'" said Nora Wang, a UI graduate student and architecture team leader for the project.

The UI project, dubbed Elementhouse, has been on display on the National Mall for more than two weeks, along with 19 other entries in the Solar Decathlon from universities in Spain, Germany and Canada as well as the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Final winners were announced Friday afternoon and Elementhouse placed ninth, ahead of schools including MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Kansas, Texas and Texas A&M. It finished first in the comfort zone category, measuring its ability to maintain a comfortable temperature, and in the market viability category. It was the first time in the competition for the UI.

"I think we did a very good job (in the comfort category)," said Luis Martinez, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. "We kept the house comfortable more than 80 percent of the time regardless of the weather."

The UI house shows that solar technology for the home "can be built efficiently at a cost-competitive price to Americans," Alexander Karsner, assistant U.S. secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, said in a press release.

If there had been a category for portability, Elementhouse probably would have won that as well.

"We were able to set up very easily," Wheeler said. "We were actually the first team out here to have our house together."

When other teams were still at work with noisy generators in assembling their houses, the UI house was running tools on solar power, said Trishan Esram, a graduate student in electrical engineering.

The UI house was designed to be broken into three modules, which could be set on three flatbed trucks by hand using a system of rollers and jacks. The team also used a moving van to haul interior furnishings and other items to Washington, including potted prairie plants for simulated East Central Illinois landscaping.

The students, who spent about two years designing and building the house, finished in September and assembled it for public display here, then took it apart for the trip to Washington. Public tours there, which have attracted more than 150,000 people, started Oct. 12.

A rotating crew has been staffing the structure as school allows, giving tours, meeting with judges in the competition and tweaking the house's systems to try to up scores in various categories.

The students said they hadn't done much sightseeing. They generally worked at the house from early morning until night, then went back to the hotel and planned for the next day.

"I've spent probably 70 percent of every day, including sleep, on the mall," said Ben Barnes, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. "It's been an intense two weeks."

Wheeler and Esram said most visitors to the house were just curious, but more than a few of them appeared to be serious about incorporating solar technology into their homes as well.

"Many of them know about solar power and are very interested, and some of them are ready to have it now," Esram said.

"I think if we had been taking orders we would have sold a couple hundred houses," said UI engineering Professor Ty Newell, the main faculty adviser for the project.

The decathlon is designed to promote energy-saving technology and the UI house is capped by solar panels that generate electricity from the sun's rays (and store it in a battery bank for cloudy days and night).

The house also boasts a variety of features to maximize that power. For example, a heat pump water heater, which bleeds off heat from inside the house, heats water with it and, essentially, flushes it down the drain and out, helping to cool the building.

The house actually has twice as many solar panels as needed to power it, one idea of the excess being that you can plug in and charge an electric car, too. Even then, Elementhouse should produce a slight energy surplus.

Now the house is to be disassembled again and trucked to the Chicago Center for Green Technology in connection with the international Greenbuild conference in Chicago from Nov. 7-9.

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