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 Tuesday, November 13, 2007 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


CU Solar Decathlon team helps lead the way in sustainable home design
By Carol Rowe, College of Engineering and Applied Science

The contest is over – at least for this year – but the work isn't yet done. The CU Solar Decathlon team continues to labor toward its goal of designing and building a marketable 2,100 square foot solar home, a house that can accommodate an average-sized family.

The CU home, which was pre-purchased by Xcel Energy, will ultimately be used as a permanent facility for research, education and outreach on alternative energy technologies. First, however, the 700-square-foot competition portion is expected to go on display on the Boulder campus, allowing the campus community and general public to visit and learn more about the team's innovations in energy efficiency and solar energy.

The Solar Decathlon pitted 20 of the best university teams against one another to design, build and operate a home powered completely by the sun. Technische Universitat Darmstadt of Germany ended up taking top honors in the third international competition, after CU had won both previous competitions in 2002 and 2005. A new contender this year, Darmstadt developed a design incorporating an outer layer of oak louvered frames equipped with photovoltaic cells, among other innovations.

The CU team finished third in engineering and seventh overall in this year's competition. "It was a frustrating week of competition," said Michael Brandemuehl, faculty advisor for the team. "If not for some nagging equipment problems on one of the testing days, we could have finished in third place."

Whereas the Darmstadt home cost more than $730,000 to build, CU's entry would cost less than $300,000 if mass produced.

The CU team developed its design with an eye toward the production home industry. Even though the competition rules limited each entry to about 700 square feet, the team designed a 2,100 square foot house and took a 700 square foot "competition module" to Washington, D.C. "We really wanted our design and our message to be more relevant to homeowners and the production home industry," said Brandemuehl.

One innovation the CU team developed for the 2007 competition was a "mechanical core" in which the plumbing and heating-ventilating-air conditioning systems are centralized in a completely modular, prefabricated structural core. If the concept were commercialized, the core of the home could be assembled in a factory, where it could be customized for the owner, and shipped to the job site with all the plumbing and electrical lines and major mechanical components pre-installed.

The beating heart of the mechanical system is a heat pump with two storage tanks—one hot and one cold—to capture energy from the environment when it's available, store it in tanks and use it when needed. Building-integrated photovoltaic panels generating 8.8 kilowatts provide a waterproof roofing shell while collecting all of the energy needed to power the home.

One of thousands of visitors to tour the CU home in Washington, D.C., CU alumnus Steve Whitney wrote to say the mechanical system was "dazzling" when he grasped the "profound and significant principles of heat exchange with nature that the system harnesses."

"Whatever the level of award the CU team gets in the competition, which this year is remarkably intense, their immediate contribution to society and the future contributions these students will make as professionals will pay back the investment very quickly," Whitney said.

U.S. Rep. Mark Udall agreed: "I applaud the University of Colorado team for successfully competing in the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon. These students will be among the leaders of engineers and architects guiding our next generation in renewable energy use and production."

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