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Carleton’s new solar house is striving to make our homes more energy efficient

The Urbandale Centre for Home Energy Research is a testing ground for the latest in energy-saving technologies.

By ANQI SHEN | SEP 06 2016

On a grassy patch at the edge of Carleton University’s campus, a house with a bright red gable and cedar siding stands out beside a busy six-lane road. Up close, you’ll notice solar panels and wind sensors on the roof, a sky-blue box in the ground above a water tank and a heat pump out back. This house isn’t a home – it’s a research lab.

It might look like an  ordinary farmhouse, but the CHEeR house at Carleton University is an endlessly adaptable experiment in unconventional energy-saving concepts and technology for the single-family home. Photo by Luther Caverly.
It might look like an ordinary farmhouse, but the CHEeR house at Carleton University is an endlessly adaptable experiment in unconventional energy-saving concepts and technology for the single-family home. Photo by Luther Caverly.

“It’s still a work in progress and probably always will be,” says Ian Beausoleil-Morrison, a mechanical engineering professor and lead researcher at the Urbandale Centre for Home Energy Research, also called the CHEeR house. The facility, which officially opened this past May, is constantly being rejigged. An adaptable design allows researchers to modify the building to experiment with solar energy collection and storage in the summer, and extraction for winter use in detached, single-family homes – energy guzzlers that make up most of Canada’s residential sector.

Roughly 80 percent of energy use in single-family dwellings goes toward heating, and natural gas is currently the most popular energy source. “What we’re hoping is that this project will have an impact in the housing industry and, without making radical changes to the way buildings look and function, we’ll be able to rely heavily on solar energy,” Dr. Beausoleil-Morrison says. He adds that the federal government’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030 is a longshot without substantial changes in the housing sector.

Dr. Beausoleil-Morrison and a team of colleagues at Carleton – engineering professor Cynthia Cruikshank, architecture professor Sheryl Boyle and about a dozen students – have partnered with Ottawa’s Urbandale Construction to build CHEeR house and test energy-saving concepts deemed too risky to test in occupied homes. The research team has used computer simulations to predict how solar collectors and thermal storage would work together in the house, but full-scale testing is needed to see if those predictions are accurate.

The project also provides hands-on research experience for students in engineering, architecture and related fields. As a research assistant at CHEeR house over the past year, Sarah Brown, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, has been working with a PhD student to design and install plumbing and instrumentation. “It’s an important thing you don’t always get to go through in class,” Ms. Brown says. “You’re bringing something from design to fruition.”

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