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U.Va. Researchers Land $2 Million NSF Grant to Design 'Smart Building' Energy Systems

Original Article | News

As appeared in UVA Today, September 23, 2010

By Zak Richards

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Virginia has been awarded a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop "smart building" energy systems for residential and commercial buildings.

The researchers will focus on reducing energy used by buildings' heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. These systems are estimated to account for about 43 percent of all energy used by U.S. homes, and more than 60 percent used by homes in colder climates. Annually, HVAC use accounts for about 28 percent of the nation's electricity use, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

The plan is to develop sensors and user interfaces that will allow building occupants to better control the building temperature and enable the building to better sense and automatically respond to occupants. The team will also be designing new HVAC equipment and building exteriors, or envelopes, to improve the speed and efficiency with which buildings could respond to occupants.

"Right now, the prevailing wisdom is that buildings should be efficient in their steady state of operation; if you're going to constantly heat the building, you should be efficient at doing that," said Kamin Whitehouse, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and principal investigator for the grant. "We are going to dynamically control buildings, and so we need to revisit that whole philosophy and ask the question, 'How can we design equipment and buildings to more quickly respond to occupant behavior?' "

Researchers will address this question by drawing on the expertise of faculty and students from the Engineering School's departments of Computer Science, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Systems Engineering, as well as those from the School of Architecture and Darden School of Business. The University researchers also will work with Staengl Engineering, a local energy-efficient HVAC and mechanical systems design firm, and with architect Carrie M. Burke.

An important goal for the project will be to develop systems that are more affordable than other popular energy-saving methods, such as installation of improved insulation, new windows or solar panels. Preliminary data from research conducted on eight houses in Charlottesville showed a 28 percent reduction in HVAC energy use with a $25 investment in hardware. Ultimately, the researchers hope to reduce HVAC energy use by 30 percent to 50 percent with a startup cost of less than $500 per home and a return on investment for homeowners within two years.

To meet the energy-reduction target, the researchers are developing a wide range of technologies, including next-generation wireless sensors, HVAC equipment, building envelope designs and human-computer interfaces. They will use sensors to monitor electric and water loads, occupant motion in buildings, door and window positions, light, temperature and humidity.

The project also will employ biometric height sensors to identify different residents in the home. Ultrasonic height sensors hidden above a house's doorways are perceived to be less invasive than other identification technologies, such as cameras or microphones.

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