Students show how to heat, cool, watch TV electric bill-free

WASHINGTON -- The 20 suburban houses standing this week on the National Mall are demonstrating the use of alternative energy systems. One of many interesting aspects of this government-sponsored project is how IT is used to manage and monitor energy consumption via iPhone apps and Web interfaces. The end results are remarkable.

Undergraduate students from Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, for instance, have built a solar powered house that monitors and measures every aspect of energy generation and consumption. The house produces 150% more energy than it uses, making it a net supplier of electricity to the power company.

Along with solar energy and computerized management technologies, these houses put a lot emphasis on things like blinds and shades for directing light.

Some of the homes are costly, but mass production could make them affordable in many housing markets. And affordability only improves once the cost of living without an electric bill, or the price of oil for a furnace, is considered.

A Canadian team , for instance, made up of three universities, says it has built a house that can produce about double the amount of energy its occupants consume.

"I don't think people realize we can build that," said Lauren Barhydt, the team's program manager, and a graduate student in architecture at the University of Waterloo. Students from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, are also involved.

The Canadian entry in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon is designed for the snowy north and its physical appearance defies the conventional look of housing in cold climates. Its windows are floor to ceiling, creating a loft-like, cube shape, open structure.

But the windows are as sturdy as a normal Canadian stud wall that doesn't allow heat to escape. The house includes salt-hydrate packets under the floor that absorb heat, with the help of sunlight directed by blinds that is released as the temperature cools. The construction includes solar panels on the side so the building can capture light from low angles, another aspect of northern climates, said Lauren.

Electric power is measured at every circuit, which is done through a branch circuit power meter by Schneider Electric. The solar systems are also monitored, as well as hot water used. An industrial computer by Beckhoff Automation manages the control system but also works with a Windows-based, touch-screen system, which has controls that are also accessible via an iPhone application .

From the iPhone a user can control lights, exterior shades, interior blinds, temperature and humidity, as well as a switch that will retract the bed into the ceiling to create more floor space in this 800 square-foot house, the maximum limit for any house in the biannual decathlon.

The Department of Energy selects 20 universities, which receive a grant to get the project going but typically have to seek donations for much more. The houses must be built in such a way that they can be moved to the National Mall for display and judging.

The houses are rated in 10 categories, including architecture, market viability, engineering, lighting design, communications, appliances, metering, among others. The final winner will be announced on Friday.

Team California won the architecture award in judging held on Monday.

Architectural Juror Jonathan Knowles, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and architect, said that one of the things the judges looked for is how successfully the designers used technology and incorporated it into a house. He was impressed by the use of iPhone apps in many of the houses. Being able to monitor and control a house via a device that you carry around is something "I think is pretty incredible," he said.

Eventually, these homes may save people a lot of money. Rice University, which took second place in the architectural judging, has an entry in the Solar Decathlon that cost $140,000 to build . "That's affordable by any metric," said Knowles.

Team Ontario's house, including research and development work, cost $1.2 million, but if mass produced it may cost $400,000 (Canadian), said Barhydt.

Although it cost Team California about $550,000 to build its house, Preet Anand, an engineering and physics major at Santa Clara University and the water systems and digital communications lead on the project, said a mass produced model of its home would cost about $300,000 to build.

New technology from Cisco Systems Inc. is used to control all the home's systems. Integration work is required because a lot of the systems in the house, such as those that provide the radiant heating and cooling, speak their own language, said Anand. A Mac Mini aggregates in all the data.

The energy use in the Team California house can be monitored, shades adjusted, lights turned off and on, air and hot water temperature adjusted all via iPhone.

This remote management allows occupants to cut circuits to appliances remotely, turning off any energy consuming sources. You can even swivel a TV to face the kitchen via the remote application, if you happen to be working there.

"Our house was designed to save people time," said Anand.

This story, "Students show how to heat, cool, watch TV electric bill-free" was originally published by Computerworld.

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