Solar Decathlon impresses despite nasty weather

Guest Blog | October 6, 2011 | Energy Policy

Click here to watch SACE Research Director, John Wilson, discuss some of the innovative technologies being showcased at this year's Solar Decathlon
Click here to watch SACE Research Director, John Wilson, discuss some of the innovative technologies being showcased at this year's Solar Decathlon.

All week last week, while traveling to Denver for a conference by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, I was looking forward to the Solar Decathlon. (No offense to ACEEE of course.) Even on Friday, when the weather was best described as “questionable,” it was a great feeling to walk across the D.C. Mall and come across a whole village of net-zero-energy homes, each with its own unique design and method for integrating both solar and energy efficiency technologies.

But when I returned on Sunday, when the 50-degree and rainy weather could only be described as “nasty,” I was pleasantly surprised to see not only that the Solar Decathlon was still in full swing, but that there were impressive crowds that had braved the weather to come see the latest and greatest in zero-energy housing design.

In all I spent about 6 hours touring homes brought in from across the world to compete in this years Decathlon, and what struck me the most was the innovative and unique ways that each contestant went about designing and building a home that not only would travel and compete well, but that was uniquely tailored to effectively handle the living conditions presented by their home-town environs.

Even on a dreary day, hundreds of people were willing to wait in line to see the hometown favorite and ultimate Decathlon champion, University of Maryland's WaterShed home.
Even on a dreary day, the line to see the hometown favorite and Decathlon champion, University of Maryland's WaterShed home, stretched around the corner.

Let me first say that, unfortunately, I did not get to tour the hometown favorite and ultimate Decathlon champion, Maryland. By the time we got there the line stretched out the door, around the block and about 50 yards down the sidewalk. I would probably still be waiting in line, although at least today the weather is better. It’s a bit disappointing, because I was really looking forward to picking that team’s brain about the home’s liquid desiccant waterfalls that both dehumidify the home and supplement the space heating.

But, that being said, I certainly got my fill of innovation in the homes that I did tour. Here’s a rundown:

The favorite of both myself and SACE’s Research Director, John Wilson, was the “Solar Homestead” put forth by Appalachian State University (see video link above). It was also the People’s Choice Award winner. The home used bi-facial solar panels to maximize efficiency and had a unique hot water system that uses solar tubing to heat a glycol-water solution, which is then passed through a tank filled with paraffin wax (a.k.a. candle wax). As the wax melts, it stores the heat for up to 30 hours – the trunk-sized box holds the equivalent of 120 gallons of hot water. When the house needs hot water, it passes cold water through the wax to transfer the heat into the water and provide hot water to the home. The home also featured poplar bark as a siding material. It is both durable and environmentally sound — harvested primarily from the waste piles of logging mills.

Tennessee's Living Light Home scored 8th in the overall competition, but had a beautiful home and a well thought out presentation to the public.
Tennessee's Living Light Home scored 8th in the overall competition. The home was beautiful and Team Living Light had clearly put a lot of work into effectively presenting it to the public.

The close second in my mind was Tennessee — but maybe that’s because I live in Knoxville. They have a very sleek looking house that begs for a dinner party. Utilizing sophisticated computer controls and high-tech windows and blinds meant a home that was almost all windows, but one that wouldn’t get too hot in the summer sun or too cold in the winter dark. They also had clearly worked hard on effectively presenting the house to the public — it was one of the few homes where I was able to get a good understanding of how the typical resident could interact with the computer controls to maximize individual comfort levels as activity goes on throughout the house.

The Decathlon also featured multiple tents where visitors could interact with the technologies on display and see them in various parts of construction. A Main Tent also hosted workshops on a variety of topics throughout the day. Not a bad place to hang out when it got a little too cold or a little too rainy.

California's entry was, by far, the strangest looking house, but it scored very well in both afordability and overall energy usage.
California's entry was the strangest looking house, but it scored very well in both affordability and overall energy usage.

Decathlon homes came in all shapes and sizes — from Purdue University’s entry that looked about like any suburban home, garage included (see video link above), to California’s entry, CHIP, which stands for “Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype.” It looked hyper-insulated, with a soft exterior similar to a down comforter.

But put all the homes in one spot and what you got was not only a showcase of the latest greatest solar and energy efficiency technologies, but a great way to spend the day in D.C. The enthusiasm and knowledge that every team had on display was inspiring, and I personally commend every one of them for a job exceptionally well done.

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