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"Solar Decathlon"
The University of Puerto Rico on the National Mall in Washington


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In mid-September, under sunny skies, a small group of solar energy advocates from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez began to transplant a small extension of their campus onto Washington’s National Mall, placing it in a spot equidistant between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. After several days of unloading prefabricated sections from flatbed trucks and joining them into place, their attractive one-bedroom bungalow was ready to join thirteen others from sister American Universities to form "The Solar Village." Once all was ready, the Puerto Rican team, calling itself "Solar Habitat," began inviting judges and the general public to tour the home’s cozy interior and to pass judgment on their success in running all electrical systems efficiently, using solar power exclusively.

The Puerto Ricans were participants in "Solar Decathlon," an intercollegiate competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), bringing together student teams that designed, built and operated solar powered, energy efficient houses. Included in the competition were such prestigious engineering schools as Carnegie Mellon University (of Pittsburgh), Texas A&M, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Colorado. Private sector sponsors included BP Solar, The Home Depot, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), and the American Institute of Architects.

The fourteen "Solar Decathlon" finalists were chosen by a review committee composed of engineers, scientists and other experts at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Final selections were based on the proposals that best integrated design and modeling, the selection of building materials and the operation, testing, and monitoring of the house. According to a DOE spokesperson, the purpose of the contest was twofold: to give students a hands-on experience with the process of working together to create an energy-efficient, completely solar-powered house and to illustrate to the general public how energy intensive are our daily activities in the modern world and how solar energy can improve mankind's quality of life.

The objective of each university team was to capture, convert, store, and use enough solar energy power in their home to support a modern lifestyle. Throughout the fourteen days of competition, judges rated each home in ten categories, assigning points for the relative effectiveness of every electrical application, each powered by batteries charged from solar panels collecting the sun’s energy. Point values were given for the overall comfort of the unit, the quality of its design, the efficiency of each of its electrical appliances and the ease with which its occupants could perform daily tasks and necessities.

DOD engineer Richard King explained to the Herald how the various systems were monitored. "Each house had over 30 monitors. We had photometers on tables to measure light levels and the amount of energy required. We had thermometers inside the refrigerators. We required each team to run a television set for six hours. The house had to maintain a constant temperature of 72% Fahrenheit and a comfortable relative humidity." Each team was required to cook a meal in the kitchen, wash and dry clothes, operate the home office and move about the exterior exhibit area in a small electrically powered cart. Refrigeration, hot water temperatures and general illumination were calibrated to assign points to each unit. Even the quality of the interior décor and graphic design elements came under the scrutiny of judging eyes.

The small Puerto Rican contingent running the "Solar Habitat" exhibit in Washington represented the work of nearly 50 fellow students and faculty members who spent the past eighteen months designing and building the house. The University of Puerto Rico's Solar Decathlon team consisted of engineering students from the Mayaguez campus, architecture students from the Rio Piedras campus and faculty members from both. The entire team comprised architects, structural, electrical and thermal engineers, graphic artists and project managers. Among the many local sponsors of the UPR effort were The Dorado Beach East Resort, the Electrical Energy Authority, US Modular, the Ortiz Group and the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.

Even after the design and construction work was completed on the island, "Solar Habitat" faced a challenge not encountered by the other universities -- the Atlantic Ocean! All other contestants were located on the U.S. mainland and could load finished homes onto trucks for transport to the National Mall. Several entries, such as the Universities of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and North Carolina, were located within a short drive from the site. Others, including the Universities of Texas, Missouri, Auburn University (in Alabama), Crowder College (in Missouri) and Tuskegee University (in Alabama) had a longer haul to deliver their units, but overland trucks delivered the goods in no more than a few days. Not so for the "Solar Habitat" bungalow.

Project manager Gerson Beauchamp, a member of the engineering faculty at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, explained how "Solar Habitat" overcame the "small problem" of 1000 miles of ocean. "We had to design a house that was divided into four modules, each of which could be loaded onto forty by eight feet platforms able to fit aboard a cargo ship. This necessity required additional design requirements and a tighter completion schedule to allow for movement of the structure to and from two seaports and then onto trucks to actually deliver them to the site."

By the end of the competition, the Puerto Ricans had done well in the overall judging, placing seventh in the field of fourteen, just ahead of the University of Texas and well ahead of such world renowned technological institutes as Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M. The top scoring participant was the University of Colorado, followed by The University of Virginia and Auburn University. Puerto Rico’s "Solar Habitat" team scored in second place in the "Design and Livability" category, forth in the "design" competition, and fifth in the "energy balance" judging. The categories that pulled them down were "home business" and "the comfort zone." Engineering student Rafael Salgado said that this was partially due to "a language problem," since all instructions were printed in English only. Bad comprehension of one point caused the team to run a battery unnecessarily, draining needed power from critical functions. He emphasized that they quickly realized their error but by that time the damage had been done.

As the "Solar Habitat" team took down the final panel of their exhibit home, Professor Beauchamp expressed pride in the performance of his team. "This has been the House of Puerto Rico on the Mall in Washington. We are very pleased to have been here and satisfied by our performance in the competition."

For a complete list of final scoring of all teams in all categories click here.

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