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

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

October 12, 2009 08:46 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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