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

iPhone apps, Web used to manage, monitor consumption for Solar Decathlon

WASHINGTON -- The 20 suburban houses standing this week on the National Mall demonstrate 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, the houses created for the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon put a lot emphasis on design aspects such as blinds and shades for directing light.

Some of the homes are costly, but mass production could make them affordable in many housing markets. 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 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.

Even more impressive is that the large windows are as sturdy as normal Canadian stud walls that prevent the escape of heat. The house also includes salt-hydrate packets under the floor that, with the help of sunlight directed by blinds, absorb heat and release it as the temperature cools. The construction includes solar panels on the side of the building so light can be captured light from low angles, another aspect conducive to northern climates, said Lauren.

Electric power is measured at every circuit through a branch circuit power meter by Schneider Electric. The solar systems are also monitored, as is hot water usage. 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, users can control lights, exterior shades, interior blinds, temperature and humidity. The app also inlcudes a switch that will retract the bed into the ceiling to create more floor space in this 800 square-foot house, the maximum size 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 increased funding. 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 and 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, an architect and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, said one of the things the judges look for is how successfully the designers use technology and incorporate 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 can be carried 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 the home would cost about $300,000 to build.

New technology from Cisco Systems Inc. is used to control all of 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 all the data.

The energy use in the Team California house can be monitored, the shades adjusted, the lights turned off and on and the 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.

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