UI takes ninth in solar-powered house contest

submission Photo by Susan McKenna for the University of Illinois Erica Magda

submission Photo by Susan McKenna for the University of Illinois Erica Magda

By Eric Heisig

Solar power helped the University do well in a competition in Washington, D.C. last week.

Last Friday, the University’s team for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon took ninth place overall out of 20 teams in the world that participated. The team also took first place in the categories of market viability and comfort zone.

According to its Web site, the Solar Decathlon is a competition in which participating schools build a house that runs on solar power. The teams are ranked in 10 categories, and the houses are built to be the most attractive, effective and energy efficient.

“Before we went out there, I thought we might do better as a team,” said Jason Wheeler, student project manager and graduate student. “Once we got out there and saw what we were up against, I think it is fantastic we came in ninth place.”

Even the teams that ranked below the University had good ideas, and it was very competitive, Wheeler said.

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“I felt we were in great company,” he said.

The University entry’s victory in market viability means the house could be built and sold, and people would be able to live in it. Its win in the comfort zone category credits the team for maintaining a stable temperature and level of humidity throughout the house.

“Every person that went through the house and praised it said they could see living in it,” said Susan McKenna, publication director for the project and graduate student.

The project was almost completely done by the students, said Ty Newell, faculty adviser for the team and retired professor in Engineering.

“What we tried to do is keep out of the way of the students and make sure they have all the resources to compete,” Newell said.

Beginning spring 2006, more than 200 students worked on the project until its completion, said Mike McCulley, another faculty adviser and associate professor in FAA.

The advisers also helped get financial backing and sponsors for the house, which cost between $500,000 and $600,000, Newell said.

The team had problems with its heat-pumped water system, costing it some points in the hot water category, McCulley said.

“It gave us some problems, but the students built it,” he said. “That’s what they are supposed to be doing. We paid for being innovative.”

Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, took first place in the overall competition, with the University of Maryland coming in second and Santa Clara University in third.

The University squad’s solar house was recently disassembled and taken to the Chicago Center for Green Technology, where it will be on display from Nov. 7 to Nov. 9 during the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo.