The University of Arizona

Even in the Rain, UA Solar Decathlon Team Shines

By Johnny Cruz, University Communications | October 15, 2009

The chief executive officer of a power company, the head of a solar company and a member of Congress joined hundreds of visitors at the UA's Solar Decathlon house.

(Click to enlarge) Students spent several days assembling their house on the National Mall.
(Click to enlarge) Students spent several days assembling their house on the National Mall.
(Click to enlarge) Hundreds of visitors toured the UA's Solar Decathlon house in Washington, D.C.
(Click to enlarge) Hundreds of visitors toured the UA's Solar Decathlon house in Washington, D.C.
(Click to enlarge) Rep. Gabrielle Giffords met with reporters inside the UA's Solar Decathlon house.
(Click to enlarge) Rep. Gabrielle Giffords met with reporters inside the UA's Solar Decathlon house.

The chief executive officer of a power company, the head of a solar company and a member of Congress joined hundreds of visitors who braved cold and rain to visit the University of Arizona's Solar Decathlon house on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Now in its second week, the UA Solar Decathlon team – with students primarily at the helm – had its home tested for several contests, including the comfort zone, hot water, appliances and home entertainment.

They also took time to host U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords D-Ariz.; Paul Bonavia, president and CEO of Tucson Electric Power Co.; and Olaf Koester, president and CEO of SOLON Corp., all of whom agreed that the work of the Solar Decathlon participants represents the next advancement in solar energy.

"I think it's outstanding," Bonavia said. It's really very exciting to see the final version here."

He was particularly impressed with the house's generation of solar power. The roof of the UA house holds dozens of photovoltaic panels that can produce more than eight kilowatts of electricity.

"Our long-term vision is very much based on the promise of solar energy. We see renewable energy as a big part of our portfolio and solar is the crown jewel."

The Solar Decathlon competition, Bonavia said, accelerates the level of innovation in renewable energy generation and "advances the state of the art."

Generating renewed interest in science and math education is a personal goal for Giffords, and she believes the efforts of the Solar Decathlon team members are inspiring just the right audience.

"Inspiring the next generation of kids – that is what the Solar Decathlon is all about," Giffords said. "These are going to be the next leaders in renewable energy and housing design. I'm really pleased to be here to support them."

After speaking with several team members, Giffords described their experience in Washington as a "transformational" one. "To see it (the UA house) here on the Mall, it's really a dream come true."

According to project manager Matt Gindlesbarger, nearly every element of the UA Solar Decathlon house was designed and assembled by students. While the use of outside contractors is permitted, the team only used one – for assistance with tile.

Hundreds of visitors waited in the rain for the opportunity to visit the UA house, and overwhelmingly the design feature that generated the most discussion was the innovative "water wall," designed by recent UA graduate Edward Hall.

Instead of using brick or concrete, a wall along the south side of the house uses plastic – similar to that found in water or soda bottles filled with water to collect heat energy through sunlight and releases it into the house. In the summer, the air can be vented outside.

"It's one of the passive strategies we are using to heat and cool the house," said team member Peter Secan, who recently graduated from the College College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Hall described it as a "thermal battery."

The nearly 800-square-foot house is conducive to hosting visitors, Secan believes, and was designed to provide flexiblity with regards to use of space.

Instead of dividing the home into compartments, the team chose to create a "pavillion" style open space, which would allow the owner to enjoy more breathing room and allow multiple uses for the space – such as entertaining.

"They have a huge space to set up the way they want to live in it," Secan said.