Hands-on Activity: Zero-Energy Housing
Educational Standards :
Pre-Req Knowledge (Return to Contents)
Students should know how to graph data and find the slope of a line from a graph.
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Each group needs:
For the entire class to share:
For one testing station (you may want more than one station):
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
Imagine if we could heat houses without the use of ANY electrical or gas heaters! Think about the positive effects it would have on people all around the world. Millions of people would be able to stay warm all through the winter, save money on energy bills, and lower the greenhouse gas emissions. Interest in passive solar design is growing rapidly because of the increasing cost of energy as well as growing concerns about global climate change. This has inspired engineers to develop new techniques for passive heating and cooling that can be more easily incorporated into existing buildings and homes.
Passive solar heating brings us closer to a "zero-energy solution" than people might think. Of all the heating methods, passive solar offers the cheapest up-front costs, best reliability, easiest maintenance, and no ongoing demand for energy to operate. Unfortunately, passive solar heating is not an instant replacement to conventional heating methods because homes would need to be re-designed around the various methods to maximize the amount of heating produced. And, even then it sometimes does not produce enough heat as is desired. For now, engineers combine passive solar heating with conventional methods to reduce the need for energy-guzzling heating appliances.
Although passive solar design might seem new to you, the basic principles have been around for centuries. In years past, Native Americans who lived in harsh desert locations built partially-underground homes that kept them cool during the day and warm at night. They also built adobe homes in cliff-side caves that were chosen because the winter sun warmed them and the summer sun couldn't reach them. Today, engineers are expanding upon these principles to apply them to the many and varied homes that we all live in, so we can be efficient in our energy usage and save some money on our heating bills.
An important part of a good passive solar design is excellent insulation. This is true for any HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system, but it is especially important in passive design because passive solar heating does not produce as much heat as conventional methods. So — it is important that the heat produced is not wasted. While a number of materials exist to create well-insulated walls, ranging from spray-on foam to hay bales, it is important to remember to insulate the other parts of your house — all the places that separate the inside from the outside. These places include the roof/ceiling, and windows and doors. For example, windows let considerably more heat escape to the outside than the walls of your home.
Windows are another important component of passive solar designs. You don't want to have too many windows for a good passive solar design. On the other hand, while a windowless building would have the best insulation, would you want to live in it? Rather than eliminate windows altogether, you can install high-quality, double-pane windows and place them in strategic locations. Double pane windows are much better insulators than single pane ones. (In fact, engineers have designed many types of high-tech windows that are helpful for good passive solar design.) For heating purposes, windows are best placed primarily on the equator-facing wall so that they can let sunlight in. Windows, placed in the right locations, can bring in the most sunlight without losing too much heat.
Once the sunlight comes into a room, two other aspects of passive solar design become important: thermal mass and surface color. You probably already know that darker colors absorb more sunlight than lighter colors, so, for passive solar heating, we would want darker colors on the outside and inside of a building. A good thermal mass is a material that can absorb lots of heat and release it slowly when the surrounding temperature starts to go down. A few materials with a high thermal mass are concrete, bricks and water. When used properly, these materials absorb the heat from the sunlight coming through windows and then release that heat throughout the night. Using windows, darker colors, and thermal masses, we can create a passive solar heating design that warms up a house during the day and keeps it warm throughout the night. The trick comes in finding the right amount of each item to be used and integrating it into a house.
Another point to consider is the amount of space being heated. Larger volumes of space need more heat to make the same gain in temperature as a smaller volume. So a smart passive solar design would limit the space that needs heating to as little as necessary.
The final component to remember in passive solar design is the overall orientation of your design elements. Do you know which way the sun comes up and goes down and shines all day long? You must know from which direction the sun shines so you can place your walls and windows intended to capture the sunlight facing in that direction. Also, if you know the regular direction of cold wind, it is smart to position and design the house to block or divert that wind, to minimize it cooling your house (which makes heating it more difficult).
One of the most unique and fun aspects about passive solar heating is that it can be done in almost an unlimited amount of ways. So engineers who design passive solar heating systems can be as creative as they want!
Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)
Procedure (Return to Contents)
The goal for students is to design and build a one-bedroom model house within the provided design constraints, utilizing passive solar heating design to warm up the house as much as possible and then sustain that temperature as long as possible. The design goal, design constraints, passive solar techniques, and other important information for the student teams are provided in the Design Challenge Handout.
Once built, teams test their model house designs to compare ideas and results, and see what design modifications worked best and which did not work so well. See the Teacher Testing Handout for a description of how to go about testing the model houses.
Provide students with a variety of materials that can be used a number of ways. Below are examples of how some materials might be used:
Encourage students to think creatively and come up with their own designs. See Figure 1 for examples of student-designed and -created model passive solar houses in the testing phase.
Before the Activity
With the Students
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Safety Issues (Return to Contents)
Troubleshooting Tips (Return to Contents)
Before students begin to design and build, tell them the size of the testing thermometer, because in order to make good readings during the testing phase, it must fit through the house door and entirely inside, and be able to be read through a window.
The testing takes awhile and groups may lose interest when you can only test one group at a time. Have students use the time to complete other assignments. Or, shorten the time by making available more than one testing station if you have the supplies.
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Class Discussion: Lead a discussion with the students about passive solar heating and how it might impact the world if it became more effective and widespread than conventional heating methods in use today.
Activity Embedded Assessment
Design Review: Midway through the building phase, have groups give brief presentations to the class (or just the teacher) discussing their designs. Make sure they discuss the passive solar heating techniques they are using. Allow time for questions from their peers.
Summary Presentations: Direct each team to prepare a 5-10 minute presentation of their model house results, discussing the concepts in their original passive solar design, its successes and failures, and how they would improve on it.
Company Proposal: Ask student to imagine that they work for an engineering company that wants to sell a passive solar heating design to some building contractors. Have them write letters to their boss explaining why their design is the best fit for the community.
Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)
Have students re-test their model homes by adjusting the lamp (sunshine) angle to represent summer and winter solar exposures, and then comparing the results to see which models perform better in different seasons.
Have students redesign their model houses on paper to incorporate passive solar cooling techniques. Go a step further by having them make the modifications to their model houses and then re-test to see how quickly they can cool down their houses.
Activity Scaling (Return to Contents)
References (Return to Contents)
Passive Solar Design. Choices for the Home Construction, Consumer Energy Center, California Energy Commission. Accessed October 22, 2009. http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/home/construction/solardesign/index.html
Passive Solar Design. Sustainable Sources. (Provides a great introduction to solar design, including "rules of thumb," and many diagrams that illustrate thermal storage, ventilation and other techniques) Accessed October 22, 2009. http://www.greenbuilder.com/sourcebook/PassiveSol.html
ContributorsJonathan MacNeil, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise W. Carlson
Copyright© 2008 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Acknowledgements (Return to Contents)
The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.