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October 24, 2014

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UNLV students’ sustainable housing model nearly ready for global competition

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Steve Marcus

A model of the UNLV Solar Decathlon home is displayed in a classroom at the School of Architecture at UNLV Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. The solar decathlon is a biennial U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored competition intended to educate the public about energy-saving residential design. UNLV will compete against 19 other schools this October in Irvine, Calif.

UNLV Solar House

A doorway is shown here at UNLV's Desert Sol project, a solar house that will operate entirely on renewable energy, on Friday, August 30, 2013. Desert Sol will travel to Irvine, Calif., in September to compete against 19 other teams from around the world in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition. Launch slideshow »

After months of battling triple-digit temperatures and severe thunderstorms, UNLV students are nearing completion on a house powered entirely by the sun.

Armed with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and matching funds from NV Energy, UNLV has high hopes of winning Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition that challenges teams of students from 20 universities around the world to build a “net-zero” house — one that uses no fossil fuels and therefore gives off no carbon emissions.

With the October competition date fast approaching, Team Las Vegas — made up of about 60 UNLV architecture and engineering students — has less than a month to finish building its solar-powered house, dubbed DesertSol. Once the house is completed, the UNLV team must transport it by truck to Irvine, Calif. There it will undergo several days of judging, exhibition and competitions against houses from other universities such as Stanford and Cal Tech.

After the competition, DesertSol will be displayed at the Springs Preserve. The house is a model the UNLV students hope will drive the future of sustainable housing in Las Vegas.

The Sun took a tour of DesertSol last week to see what the future of Las Vegas homes might look like:

    • Exterior

      The 750-square-foot house harnesses energy from 30 solar panels to power everything from its electrical appliances to its heating and cooling system. The solar panels emit 6.75 kilowatts of energy, enough to power a small house. No batteries are used in the home.

    • Heated floors

      Plastic tubes filled with water, heated between 80 and 90 degrees, are built into the floor throughout DesertSol to heat it in the winter and cool it in the summer. This technique, called hydronic radiant heating, costs more to build than the typical HVAC system in the home but is more efficient because the heating and cooling happens closer to the occupants. In the above photo, plastic tubes will be fitted into the floor’s grooves, covered with metal and wood floorboards from recycled shipping pallets.

    • Kitchen and dining room

      Team Las Vegas used sustainable and recycled materials in DesertSol’s construction. Kitchen countertops are made of artificial quartz, and cabinetry is made from composite wood. The particleboard is made from recycled wood shavings.

      In addition, the UNLV students purchased energy-efficient electrical appliances for their house. The refrigerator, convection oven, dishwasher and microwave are Energy Star-rated. The induction cooktop range is more expensive than conventional electric-coil ranges but is more efficient because it transfers heat only to metal pots and pans.

    • Natural light

      Team Las Vegas designed DesertSol with strategically placed windows and shade structures to let indirect natural light into the house. Most of the home’s windows face away from the sun during daytime hours.

    • Water feature

      Wood from recycled snow fencing from Wyoming surrounds the exterior of the house, which is built on two mobile home chassis. A water fountain, made of a galvanized steel sheet, will connect the two parts of the house.

    • Bathroom

      Students built the sink countertop from teakwood, which holds up well to moisture. The sloped-floor shower area is accessible to people using a walker or wheelchair. Tiles are made from porcelain. With the dual-flush toilet, a user can use less than a gallon of water for a “light” flush.

    • Bedroom

      The bedroom has a fan and sliding-glass door that allows air to circulate. Energy-efficient LED lights illuminate the entire house; DesertSol uses 350 watts of energy to illuminate its interior.

    • Energy-efficient glass

      Several large glass windows and doors were purchased from a German company that specializes in energy-efficient glass. The special windows and doors have extra foam insulation and double panes filled with argon to let light in but not allow exterior heat or cold inside.

    • Construction

      Students, who have been building their DesertSol house since April, have less than a month to finish construction. The $320,000 house was designed and built primarily by the students with guidance and support from faculty members, industry members, community supporters and professional contractors.

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