Solar flair

Team Orange County’s zero-net energy home called "most innovative" design in Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2015

Team Orange County, the hometown entry led by University of California, Irvine with Chapman University, Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College, scored big in the prestigious engineering contest at the U.S. Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015. Jurors praised their net zero energy Casa del Sol home as “the most innovative in the entire competition.”

Judges cited a “dazzling display” of technologies, including a first-ever bi-directional inverter that converts the sun’s rays into direct current to power an electric car, a paraffin lined clothes dryer and other energy-saving features. Team OC scored just one point less in the engineering contest than Stevens Institute of Technology, which won the overall decathlon for their disaster-response themed solar home.

The win on the last day of a grueling two-year competition was met with jubilant cheers and fist pumps. The 100-plus students, faculty and sponsors who worked on Casa del Sol saw some of their unique devices break down during the contest, including a crack in the inverter; the judges’ praise vindicated their boundary-stretching designs and hard work.

“We really pushed the envelope in big ways,” said project engineer Moritz Limpinsel, a UCI graduate student studying chemical and materials physics. “We wanted to show that these new technologies can replace business as usual. It feels great. I’m glad the jury acknowledged our unique designs.”

“Whoooooo! Yahooooo!!” shouted UCI electrical engineering student Euiso Kim behind him. Limpinsel laughed: “Euiso’s right; that says it much better.”

Gregory Washington, dean of the Samueli School of Engineering, and fellow faculty from the four schools beamed.

“These students now believe they have the ability, the know-how, the tenacity, the perseverance to change the world,” Washington said. “And they will literally try to do it.”

“This is what great universities do, they provide opportunities for their students to show just how brilliant and creative and hard-working they are,” said Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller. “They built a great house and I’m very proud of them.”

Read below for more on Team Orange County and Casa del Sol:

The August forecast calls for triple-digit heat in Irvine, Calif. – for the next week and the next century.

Alex McDonald, 31, a graduate student in engineering at the University of California, Irvine, is unfazed. He gazes at the thick walls of a home taking shape in a corner of the Irvine Valley College campus. “Our house is fully sustainable and comfortable,” he says. “It’s modeled after the California poppy, which opens and closes to the sun. And water is a big concern here in California, so it’s also drought-resistant.”

Team Orange celebratingMahdi Jorat, 19, of Saddleback College agrees. “We’re the first generation to fully live with global warming, as this weather shows, and we’re building a house that does something about it,” he says.

“We’re the first generation to fully live with global warming … and we’re building a house that does something about it.” – Mahdi Jorat, 19, UCI engineering major

Over the past two years, they and about 100 other students and faculty from UCI, IVC, Chapman University and Saddleback College have designed an energy-efficient, drought-tolerant, affordable home of the future. Now construction is underway.

Casa del Sol is Orange County’s first-ever entry in this month’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which challenges college students worldwide to build and live in a zero-net-energy home. That means it must produce and store more electricity than it needs.

For power, the UCI-led team looks to the blazing sun rather than polluting coal. But they leap far beyond standard solar panels, employing innovative residential direct current instead of typical AC/DC, which “leaks” voltage at a high rate; solar thermal radiant cooling in the ceilings; a paraffin-lined dryer that holds heat for multiple loads; and other big energy- and water-saving features.

student on site workingThe competition process is mind-boggling: Team Orange County had to not only draw sophisticated plans capable of passing tough state codes but also raise about $1 million in donated time, parts and cash. After the concept home is built at IVC, the students must test the plumbing and power to make sure they work, then rip it all down, get it to the Orange County Great Park and rebuild it in a matter of days. There, from Oct. 8 to 18, judges and the public – more than 65,000 at the last decathlon – will get to see them live in and explain their vision.

“The Solar Decathlon is the most comprehensive student design build test that I know of,” says Gregory Washington, dean of UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering. “Building a home is complex; building a net-zero home is ultracomplex; and then building a home that’s competing against 15 or 20 other teams globally really ratchets up the intensity.”

McDonald, project manager, is overseeing the mammoth task of funding and constructing a home that, if everything works, will use a miserly 17 kilowatt hours daily – for running appliances, laptops and the television; holding dinner parties; and powering a 25-mile commute. The average American home runs on 30 kilowatts per day, with no plug-in car.

While he’s proud of Casa del Sol’s innovative technologies, McDonald says coordinating it all is “kind of like being in finals week – every day, for two years straight.”

Team Orange County is Dean Washington’s brainchild. It was one of 20 from around the world selected in 2014. Two months before the decathlon, only 14 are still in the grueling competition. Yale University and others have dropped out.

With the Great Park being the event’s official venue this year, Team Orange County has certain advantages. Its members know Southern California living. They’ve included architectural features to combat dusty Santa Ana winds that might roar during the October event, and they’ve maximized openings for coastal breezes. The home’s shutters and outdoor shades open and close in tune with sunlight, like the diurnal poppy, explains Paige Svehlak, 22, a Saddleback College interior design student who rode horses as a girl on what is now the Great Park.

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  4. working on Casa del Sol under a blazing sun Fittingly, most work on Casa del Sol, Team Orange’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, took place under a blazing sun. Steve Zylius / UCI
  5. large glass door is installed at the house A large glass door is installed at the house, designed and built by students from UCI, Chapman University, Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College. Steve Zylius / UCI
  6. first of the modules for Casa del Sol arrives The first of the modules for Casa del Sol arrives at Irvine Valley College, the preliminary construction site. The home would later be rebuilt at the Orange County Great Park, the official competition venue. Steve Zylius / UCI
  7. Team Orange working on the interior panels Jason Boyd, Civil Engineering major at UCI, helps carry a wall as Team Orange works on the interior panels for the home on the IVC campus. Steve Zylius / UCI
  8. Construction continues on Casa del Sol Construction continues on Casa del Sol, Orange County’s entry in the Solar Decathlon, a biennial event challenging 20 student teams from around the nation to build the best-designed, most affordable, net-zero home. Jocelyn Lee / UCI
  9. installing solar panels on the roof Tyler Bolden (left) and Bret Pursuit (center) of Sullivan Solar Power and Moritz Limpinsel (right) of UCI install solar panels on the roof of Casa del Sol. Steve Zylius / UCI
  10. 2,000-square-foot home The 2,000-square-foot home features an outdoor living room with a retractable screen ceiling; air conditioning from chilled water pipes; an inverter that directly powers an electric car from rooftop panels; and tanks that capture graywater to irrigate vertical landscaping. Steve Zylius / UCI
  11. team orange discussion Team Orange interior designer Paige Svehlak (right) confers with fellow Saddleback College student Josie Truong (left) and mentor Socorro Vargas. Steve Zylius / UCI
  12. worker sanding a beam A worker sands a beam at Casa del Sol, which boasts a flexible, open floor plan and a separate studio with its own kitchenette and bathroom. Steve Zylius / UCI
  13. Teagan Barnes leads group UCI mechanical engineering major Teagan Barnes (in doorway) leads the mechanics and power group at Casa del Sol. Steve Zylius / UCI
  14. Casa del Sol begins to take shape Casa del Sol begins to take shape at Irvine Valley College. Inspired by the California poppy, the home is drought-resistant and opens to the sun during the day and closes up at night to conserve energy. Steve Zylius / UCI
  15. 800-gallon water tank Irvine Valley College student Nick Tran prepares the home’s 800-gallon water tank for installation. Chris Nugent / UCI
  16. home’s pivoting panels Painting the home’s pivoting panels are (from left) UCI engineering graduate Yon Chung, UCI engineering grad student Aria Etemadieh and Irvine Valley College student Geoffrey Mangalam. Steve Zylius / UCI
  17. home’s charging station with electric car UCI alumnus J.B. Wagoner (far left) and UCI grad student Moritz Limpinsel (in orange hard hat) test the home’s charging station with Wagoner’s electric car. Steve Zylius / UCI
  18. solar panel to Casa del Sol’s roof Moritz Limpinsel, chief technical officer for Team Orange, attaches a solar panel to Casa del Sol’s roof. Steve Zylius / UCI
  19. testing on home’s plumbing system UCI associate professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering Jack Brouwer and UCI mechanical engineering major Teagan Barnes share a laugh as they test the home’s plumbing system. Steve Zylius / UCI
  20. Solar panels on roof Solar panels are installed on the home’s roof. As many as 100,000 visitors are expected at the Orange County Great Park between Oct. 8 and 18 to tour Casa del Sol and other student-created houses. Winners will be announced Oct. 17. Steve Zylius / UCI

Affordability is key in the pricey region. One wing transitions into separate living quarters for older parents, renters or young adult offspring – “someone like me,” says Lotus Thai, a 20-year-old environmental science and business major at Chapman who lives with her parents and younger sister to cut college expenses. Once complete, the two- to three-bedroom home will cost between $250,000 and $350,000 to replicate.

"I believe that these students now believe they have the ability, the know-how, the tenacity, the perseverance to change the world. And they will literally try to do it." – Gregory Washington, dean of UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering

Orange County’s leading homebuilders and architects provide major help, along with retired carpenters and scores of others who’ve never seen a house like this.

And the hometown team’s members must move the home only a few miles rather than across a continent, yielding an extra month for construction and testing. They use every minute.

It’s a sweltering August afternoon. The mercury hits 105 degrees in the IVC parking lot. Teagan Barnes and Jewelz Andrews, both 21-year-old UCI engineering majors, and David Kincade, 30, an IVC engineering major, bend over an array of copper pipes and valves, re-welding joints for the fifth time.

“Yes, we are sweating while we sweat the pipes,” jokes Jack Brouwer, UCI associate professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering, who’s coaching them.

The pump skid provides the muscles of the house, meant to push water through the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, as well as from graywater and rainwater catchments to low-water landscaping.

But the piping they received fits metric solar tubes, not American ones. And some T valves pointed the wrong way. In short, it was a mess. The four have tried repeatedly to cut, adjust, re-weld and fit the pipes. No luck.

“It’s a struggle,” admits Kincade, who worked at copper mines and industrial sites for 10 years before entering college. “My wife is keeping me going with junk food.”

Casa Del Sol infographic

credit: LPA

  • Passive Solar Design
    Passive solar design is an efficient strategy that uses architectural elements to regulate heating, cooling and lighting demand without employing mechanical or electrical power. By anticipating the sun’s seasonal path, Casa del Sol’s architectural features passively maintain a comfortable room temperature by allowing sunlight into the building during the winter months, and providing shade and shelter from the sun during harsher summer months.

  • Biomimicry
    Casa del Sol is inspired by the resilient and diurnal characteristics of the California poppy. Similarly, Casa del Sol is designed with appropriate shading and natural ventilation to allow it to open and close to the sun. Strategically positioned windows automatically open to capture southwestern ocean breezes, keeping our home cool and shaded from the sun during the day. Other diurnal features include the south-facing veranda, the ceiling halo with a retractable tensile structure, and the eastern brise soleil that also serves as protection against the destructive Santa Ana winds. The centralized energy-management control system helps residents operate Casa del Sol in the most energy-efficient manner.

  • Flexible Floor Plan
    Casa del Sol features a movable wall system that can adjust the space to meet the residents’ needs. This flexible floor plan allows residents to use the space as an extension of the great room (living room and kitchen) or as a separate enclosed spaced to function as a bedroom, storage room or private study.

  • California Outdoor Living
    Casa del Sol’s architecture takes advantage of the unique Southern California climate by incorporating functional outdoor living spaces. Casa del Sol features an outdoor living room, outdoor dining room, and two outdoor bathing areas that allow residents to expand their living area beyond four walls. All of these outdoor spaces have glass doors that connect them to the indoor areas, creating a seamless transition between the interior and exterior portions of the home. Casa del Sol’s layout and architectural features aim to make the outdoor spaces feel as comfortable as the indoor spaces.

It’s just one of the hurdles. Eager students sawed and quickly painted 1,000 square feet of outdoor decking only to realize at day’s end that they had cut many pieces too short. Possibly worst of all, the $15,000, bidirectional AC/DC or DC/DC inverter that’s critical to winning has not yet arrived from Princeton, N.J.

The summer whine of saws, sharp crack of nails and human hum continues but at sharply reduced levels. With students graduating, Team Orange County has lost initial crews and leaders. Andy Truong, 21, a newly minted UCI graduate with a B.S. in civil engineering who’s co-construction manager and water manager, is hired off the site – without even applying – to be an engineer for the LAX expansion project.

Starting salary: $74,000. “My mother was so proud, she was crying,” he says. “Then she said, ‘Here’s an Excel spreadsheet of everything we spent on your college education.’” By Labor Day he’s gone.

Frustration leads to tempers on edge. Little slights, unreturned phone calls and delayed orders have everyone muttering and occasionally lashing out.

Sept. 9 is the hottest day of the year. A core 10 students slog on, helped by a few equally dedicated volunteers. “I’m humbled and awed by my teammates,” McDonald says. “And by our partners.”

Barnes, Kincade and Andrews carefully load the intricate plumbing rack into the power room at the back of the house. That afternoon, a freak thunderstorm sweeps in from San Diego and drenches the exhausted crews before they scramble inside. The oppressive humidity and gloom lift. Six days until the building inspector comes.

Suddenly it starts to fall into place. The inverter arrives, along with a company rep to help install it. Platoons of students arrive back from vacation ready to paint, build vertical planters, do whatever needs to be done. Every day yields milestones: the solar panels nailed onto the roof, the outdoor surf shower completed.

One afternoon, UCI electrical engineering student Euiso Kim, 21, fills the pump skid with water and flicks the switch. They wait, scared to hope. Everything from hot showers and a functioning clothes dryer to the cutting-edge radiant cooling and heating depends on this.

“I knew it would take time, but it was so slow,” Barnes says. “Then it worked! It was amazing!”

There’s one leak in a Y joint, and it’s fixed in minutes. All 12 HVAC systems function flawlessly. Barnes looks like she’s been lit by the sun from inside.

The kitchen and bathrooms take shape. Recent UCI engineering graduate Yon Chung, 22, races joyfully through all 998 square feet. “Look! It looks so cool! Before, we just had a structure; now we have a real house!”

By Sept. 18, they’re done, or as done as they can be. Now they need to take it apart; number every stick, door and panel; load everything onto tractor-trailers; and pray it all makes it through an underpass to the Great Park.

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 28, when decathlon director Richard King hollers into the microphone, hundreds of students surge across the starting line and mark their house outlines. The first of 80 trucks bearing the guts of 14 homes – from New York, Texas, West Virginia, Missouri and elsewhere – lumbers into the park.

Everyone has nine days to rebuild before judging and public viewing begins.

Heather Greene, a 22-year-old UCI engineering major who designed and helped install the water conservation features, including rainwater tanks that will capture and reuse every possible drop, says: “I’m just stoked to be at the competition site and have people coming through and be in awe of our final product. To know we designed it and picked out the products and actually built it ourselves is really cool.”

Winners will be announced Oct. 17. Some observers say Casa del Sol deserves the trophy if its state-of-the-art inverter and power and water systems work as designed. After the decathlon, plans for all the homes will be available online, and many of their innovative technologies could be widely adopted.

And Team Orange County? The sky’s the limit.

“I believe that these students now believe they have the ability, the know-how, the tenacity, the perseverance to change the world,” Washington says. “And they will literally try to do it.”

– Janet Wilson, UCI

Participating Schools

Chapman University
Irvine Valley College
Saddleback College

Team Orange in the News

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