ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
ECE News

From the ground up


Visit the Lumenhaus website for information on the entire project, the Solar Decathlon, the European Solar Decathlon, and the media coverage.

Center for Power and Energy

The ECE students were advised by Vergilio Centeno, director of the Center for Power and Energy.

Lumenhaus Solar Decathlon team wins VT XCaliber Award

The Lumenhaus Solar Decathlon team has received the Virginia Tech XCaliber Award for excellence in creating and applying technologies on a large-scale team project. ECE’s Virgilio Centeno is one of eight faculty members receiving the award. More than 100 students from different colleges and majors worked on the project.

ECEs design and build Lumenhaus PV system

Team members sitting on the Lumenhaus (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

Zack Zaremski, Paul Gherardi, Kenny Johnson, Damion Logan, and Justin Reyes are on the ECE team that designed, spec'ed, and built the solar power system for Lumenhaus. Other ECEs who participated: Danny Slover, Roddy DeHart, Richard Gilker, John Shields, and Josh Schaefer, Virgilio Centeno serves as ECE faculty advisor.

When a team of ECE students joined the multidisciplinary team building Lumenhaus, Virginia Tech’s entry in the Solar Decathlon, they faced an age-old misunderstanding: they were expected to be electricians.

“The house can operate anywhere. It's been a very cool project with the sustainable energy component and backfeeding to the grid.”

The project is the university’s largest cross-college design competition, involving about 100 students from disciplines including architecture, marketing, communications, and engineering. “It’s funny; the other students on the team just expect us to know everything about electricity,” said Zack Zaremski, the lead student on the power system team.

Lumenhaus interior (Photograph by Jim Stroup)

The ECEs happily pitched in and learned wiring (one ECE, Damion Logan actually had worked as an electrician before coming to Tech). But, the ECEs’ main interest was designing and building the solar power system and connecting it to the grid.

Lumenhaus is a pavilion-style home, with an open plan. The ECE team designed, specified, and built an 8kW photovoltaic (PV) array that provides enough power for the energy-efficient building’s needs and then some. The PV system can operate in almost any level of cloud cover, and does not fail when power generation spikes or dips, according to Zaremski.

The solar panels generate more power during the day than is needed by the house, which sells that power to the electric company at the high daytime price. At night, the house draws electricity from the grid at the much lower night cost. “The house can operate anywhere. It’s been a very cool project with the sustainable energy component and backfeeding to the grid,” Zaremski said.

Lumenhaus exterior (Photograph by Robert Dunay)

The fully functioning Lumenhaus as it was installed on the National Mall for the 2009 Solar Decathlon.

In addition to energy-efficient appliances, the house “has a lot of lights, including fluorescent lights in the plenum that are covered by a stretched-fabric ceiling.” The team installed a user-friendly Lutron interface that can control the lighting through an iPhone application. The system also turns off lights when a room is empty.

The U.S. Department of Energy competition in fall 2009 in Washington D.C. evaluated the teams in 10 areas; “construction and engineering,” “solar system and hot water,” and “energy balance” were the areas involving the ECE team.

Lumenhaus illustration (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

A German team won the competition by covering every available surface with solar panels and using the maximum overall dimensions allowed. The German team won many points for generating excess electricity, and the Lumenhaus team is adding PV panels for its entry into the European Solar Decathlon, to be held in June, in Madrid, Spain.

The team, however, has reservations about producing too much energy. “Part of the evaluation is on marketability, which includes affordability,” Zaremski said, “You don’t want to generate a whole lot more than you need, because when you’re offsetting your own cost it’s about 12 cents a kilowatt hour. But when you sell it back to the grid, it’s at wholesale price, which is about four cents. So it’s actually cost effective to generate just under or right about what you need.”

Other modifications to the power system that are under way include making all of the outlets tamper proof and fixing minor bugs in their code.

Zaremski is the only ECE graduate student involved. The other nine participated as part of their senior power design course. “This has been the best internship or design or team experience I’ve had,” he said. Not only do the students learn, but “there’s a lot of pride — not just school pride, but national pride. We’ll be one of only two U.S. teams competing in Spain.”