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East Coast Solar

Feb. 1, 2010
The Solar Decathlon shows that innovative, zero-energy homes can be a reality

Over the next two months I’m going to recount my experiences with solar energy on both coasts of the U.S., beginning with the biennial Solar Decathlon in Washington. Next month we’ll travel to California for the Solar Power International Show.

At the Solar Decathlon, the U.S. Department of Energy hosts, and helps fund, 20 college student-led teams from around the world to compete with the challenge to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. By now you’ve read about who won ( and may have looked at the Solar Decathlon juried competitions ( where teams of judges award points that build during the event to generate intense, yet friendly, spirited competition between teams.

Some entries were more than a bit over-the-top in cost-per-square-foot — like Germany’s widely anticipated first-place drop-dead-beautiful entry. Many other entries remained well grounded with much more realistic costs that offer lots of innovative energy-conservation construction designs and a wide variety of appliances using minute amounts of new potable water and/or electricity. The products can be seen at

What goes on behind the scenes leading up to the Solar Decathlon and during the competition?

Two years ago, I was given an opportunity to participate with several Solar Decathlon team advisory groups. Of the three, only one (Penn State) made it to the final selection by the DOE. Each team deciding to submit an entry must make the commitment to sacrifice time, learn to work at decision-making in a group environment, and be willing to spend most of the next two years focused on both their normal educational workload as well as a real-world workload building an 800-sq.ft home from scratch with new, untested design-concepts.

Innovation proving ground

The costs, in spite of generous corporate and individual donation of materials, time and input, cost $200,000 to $800,000 because each one is a work of art that breaks from traditional construction techniques. These SD homes are a proving ground for innovation.

Penn State’s Solar Decathlon team garnered 4th place in their first SD in 2007 and it was a no-brainer to accept the honor of lending them a hand. We exchanged a few dozen e-mails and it was obvious this student-team was determined to forge its own plans. One of the many things we’d discussed, and they desired, was to have the most efficient mini-split inverter heat pumps available today, so they settled on the Fujitsu 9RLS 26-SEER/12-HSPF inverter units for heating, cooling and dehumidification. The unit uses only the solar-generated PV-watts required to meet demand, yet is able to rapidly ramp up or down to targeted indoor temperature and/or humidity levels.

Just a few weeks prior to the SD itself, I heard from Tom Rauch (Energy Engineering, Business & Finance major), the team’s media contact liaison: We could really use some help, particularly with the 26-SEER units from Fujitsu as well as some ductwork and other things around the house. Any chance you might be able to give us a hand?

Road Trip! Lois and I loaded up the truck with everything required to work on the R-410a Fujitsu units and headed to Penn State’s main campus, a few hours distant. The construction site was at the far end of Innovation Boulevard — a fitting name!

If I hadn’t been involved with last-minute construction details with University of Maryland’s 11th-hour punctured radiant tubing dilemma in 2007 and seen, first hand, that they were able to pull it together and go from chaos-to-finished in three weeks, I would have been panicked by Penn State’s chaotic construction. Bleary-eyed students, obviously sleep-deprived from the pending deadline were diligently striving to each do 10 things at the same time.

We met up with Tom who turned us over to Jim Gawtrop (Architectural & Mechanical Engineering; LEED AP; and ASHRAE president), the team’s Mechanical & Plumbing Project Manager. One thing you quickly learn about Jim: he is quick to smile and remains cool, calm, and collected while under pressure.

New challenge: the living room’s Fujitsu unit had to be relocated to conceal the inter-connecting refrigerant, wiring, and condensate lines! Jim called together the team and a debate ensued regarding which spot on the rear wall was best for not just the mechanical requirements, but from an architectural design and for a well-balanced look that wouldn’t be obtrusive. It was interesting to observe each of the various schools (design; architecture; mechanical engineering) negotiate the settlement.

Students do the work

You can’t learn what you don’t do, so it was important to have team members perform the actual installation. Jim was joined by Val Boudreaux (Architecture), Co-Project Manager, and together, they tackled the Fujitsu installations.

Jim laid out the plan for the two Fujitsu mini-splits and the team had decided there would be no room for the condensers (outdoor units) on the roof as originally suggested more than a year prior. The team’s consensus was to have them ground-mounted because they were incorporating a new solar PV technology ( and the team reserved the roof’s solar real estate as off-limits for the condensers. Gone was my notion that this was to be a simple one-trip project! A trip to The Mall in Washington would be required to complete the HVAC installation. And, looking past the SD itself, there would be a refrigerant recovery issue.

Monday, October 5th: The scene that greeted us upon arrival on The Mall could only be described as organized chaos! Noise; gas generator fumes; saws; hammering; pneumatic tools with air-compressors straining to catch up; feverish paces; flared tempers; negotiated settlements; smiles; anger (rarely evident I should add); a few tears; harnessed, but not tethered students working on rooftops; dust; heat; no sleep for days; grizzled beards and frazzled nerves; contractors who were on site helping and those who failed to show up after promising they’d be there to help; late night second- third- and fourth-wind shifts as efforts to finish became herculean; line sets too short; electrical shorts; things that don’t fit. And, yet, through it all an ever-present sense of optimism, camaraderie, and excitement that was positively contagious.

Hard hats, safety glasses and proper footgear were mandatory and inspectors for all manner of things were almost as numerous as students. Lois was almost immediately flagged for her footwear, but I was safely out of sight under the rear deck having a chuckle because my hard-hat and safety glasses were out of reach and I’d have caught the devil if I’d been spied.

I’d no sooner begun hooking up my vacuum pump to the second not-yet-concealed condenser than a clip-board-carrying HVAC inspector appeared and began peppering me with questions: Who are you? Do you have an EPA refrigerant-handling license? Whose equipment are you installing and who authorized installing the condenser under the deck? What have you done to ensure adequate airflow and discharge-air from the condenser for proper performance? I was being grilled by the Sergeant Friday of inspectors!

Contractors help students construct a SD house.

My turn: Who are you and why the 20-questions?

“This work is considered museum-level due to the safety-concerns for the massive crowds expected who will be touring these 20 homes, so everyone must comply with our team of inspectors. All work performed, both here on The Mall and completed prior to arrival must comply with the same standards we would apply for any public museum.”

Nothing to fear

All in all, it was fun being scrutinized so closely by a top-notch inspector while having the team’s Fujitsu installations inspected because I knew they were 100% code-compliant. Knowing the equipment’s performance criteria inside out met favor from this inspector who clearly had a thorough understanding of the R-410a refrigerant cycle, process nitrogen purging, and that my digital display showing 500-microns of vacuum indicated the system was ready to be charged.

Nothing to hide and nothing to fear although rumors filtered back over the course of the day that various teams had failed a variety of inspections. Word spread quickly regarding what caused the issues and assistance was freely given between competing teams for help and materials so re-inspections would pass muster. More than one complaint was overheard that a few of the inspectors were being heavy-handed. Welcome to my world!

Lois and I had planned to work with Penn State’s team and be finished in time to find a nice quiet spot for a romantic dinner-for-two. Fate was dealing a different hand. Gawthrop was on his cell-phone talking to students down the road from the University of Wisconsin.

“Their contractor is a no-show and they need some help hooking up their two Mitsubishi mini-split inverter heat pumps. If you’re willing, they could use some help.”

As a Mitsubishi Diamond Dealer, how could I say no? The odds of their finding a mechanical contractor on The Mall with everything on board the truck required to properly install their mini-splits must have been a long shot, but Lady Luck was smiling on them. It was time to say goodbye to our Penn State team and move on to Wisconsin.

Wisconsin students Vish Rana and Justin Salerno met us with open arms. What happened to the contractor who agreed to help your team?

“No clue. He promised to be here but failed to show up and he’s not returned our phone calls. We’ll be glad to pay you for your time.”

The only payment we need is your help and, of course, a behind-the-scenes tour of your home and its mechanical systems.

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Our first challenge revolved around one of the two line sets being too short. A rapid-fire brainstorming session with approval from the architectural team members to move the two-zone condenser (outdoor) unit, also ground-mounted, resolved that conflict. Removing the wiring panel’s cover revealed another issue: the electrician did not fully understand that the incoming 220-volt single-phase would be inverted to simulated 200-volt three-phase and, therefore, a third “hot” wire was required in the two outgoing power-feeds to the indoor wall-mounted heads. He’d left the work site, but a volunteer was quickly recruited and, after a brief training session, he tackled the re-wiring and had it completed in record time!

Dinner went by the wayside, but Lois had packed a cooler with waters and snacks — more than enough to share with the hard workers on our Wisconsin HVAC inverter team — and this was not the first meal our young counterparts had missed during the construction dash towards the pending deadline. Miss your final approval-hour-deadline and your team sits out from the competition — all the while losing points — until the inspectors can reschedule and reinspect. The relief of having the two-zone Mitsubishi inverter heat pump installation completed was one less obstacle they’d need to overcome.

The night shift

Nighttime had set and the scene was naturally lit by moonlight. No slow-down in work, however, and the sounds of construction, as well as generator fumes, continued unabated. All things happen for a reason, and had we not stayed to work with Wisconsin, we’d have missed this night-scene of diligent team efforts. We strolled the center thoroughfare taking in the sights and attempted to take flash-free pictures using only the available light. Many of the students welcomed an opportunity to break with the crushing workload while giving us a brief description of their projects.

During the competition itself, the front and rear doors would be opened frequently to accommodate the thousands of visitors. The unusually cold wet weather put these mini-splits through their paces to combat both the cold blustery air pushing its way through opened doors while extracting high humidity tracked into the home via wet shoes.

When you took a good look around at the participants on those 20-teams, the volunteers, folks running the event, and, the thousands of international visitors, you’d be hard pressed to find any additional ethnic groups to add to the mix! People from all walks of life learning and working together while building teamwork skills they would never have obtained in a classroom setting; people from the four-corners of the globe engaged in animated discussions while queuing up in long lines; a smorgasbord of languages being spoken; and through it all: rain that did its best to dampen the spirit, drown the net-zero energy grid-connected decathlon effort; and keep crowds at bay due to cold wet weather.

No dice — the excitement that is the Solar Decathlon refused to yield to Mother Nature’s abuses, language barriers were overcome, the show was an unparalleled success, and in spite of constantly cloudy skies, the mini-grid on The Mall produced more power than it consumed!

And yet, in spite of the inclusive environment woven throughout this solar-themed event, each one of the 20-teams managed to incorporate influences from their home state’s cultures and environment. For example, Puerto Rico’s stunningly beautiful entry was not prepared for the early arrival of fall-like cloudy, damp, and chilly weather and had a tough time maintaining comfortable indoor temperatures.

“We constructed our home for our local climate with an emphasis on cross-ventilation and expansive glass to take advantage of natural cooling and the stunning views,” the students told us. “Our climate is much different and, as a result, our window and door frames don’t need to block energy-flow back home, but that’s been an issue we’re dealing with during this week’s cold weather.”

These homes were all grid-connected. Previous Solar Decathlons had presented off-grid challenges each team had to face and design for so that they could demonstrate solar’s ability to be self-sufficient.

“In today’s sophisticated energy grid, houses that use solar power can feed energy back into the power grid, eliminating the need for costly battery storage systems,” said Richard King, director of the Solar Decathlon, who is with DOE. “Imagine receiving a zero bill for electricity. These Solar Decathlon homes are showing us the way today.”

And, as expected, traditions continued from past years. For example, Virginia Tech’s team, once again, timed its arrival on The Mall to occur after nightfall — with their home ablaze with lights and music blaring! Talk about throwing down a gauntlet — yet all in good fun spirited competition. Some consternation regarding Germany’s unlimited budget — again. Seems there needs to be a separate category for teams without budget constraints and, over the past two years, most teams were faced with budget constraints brought on by the soured economy. Veterans of previous decathlons noted donations were either non-existent or had proven to be much more challenging than in 2007.

One more tradition: making new friends and running into past solar-friends while touring the Solar Decathlon homes. That led to an invite to be an advisor for a 2011 SD contest entry. Like a moth to a flame — how could anyone say no? It’s hard to describe how great it feels to work with these energetic and enthusiastic students, but the personal satisfaction knowing you’ve helped to a small degree when looking at the overall project is extremely gratifying. Paying it forward and I’ll wager each of them will one day return the favor by helping others attain their goals.

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