2013 UNLV Solar Decathlon Home
Las Vegas, NV 

UNLV Team Makes Impressive Showing in Solar Decathlon 2013 Competition

Students at University of Nevada Las Vegas have looked at the international U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition with a mix of envy and intimidation over the years. They have tried to enter, but never received one of the 20 invitations to participate until now. As first time competitors, the students designed and built a 754-square-foot vacation house that uses photovoltaic panels and solar-thermal collectors to harvest energy from the sun.

A team of more than 60 UNLV engineering, architecture and communications students worked on the solar house. Dubbed DesertSol, UNLV’s home features modern-looking rooms, heated flooring, a “mesquite tree” shade structure, a water fountain and several large solar panels. Jinger Zeng, UNLV graduate student and project engineer for the Solar Decathlon competition, approached Uponor for product donations once they were invited to participate in the 2013 competition.

“We wanted to showcase the best products on the market and we felt that Uponor has the best track record for product reliability, technical support and engineering documentation,” said Zeng.

It was a challenge to build the modular home since it had to be disassembled for transportation to the competition in Irvine, Calif. “The plumbing system had to be designed in a way that connections between the modules are able to disconnect and reconnect easily,” Zeng said. The mechanical was located in the west module, housing the entry for Uponor’s AquaSAFE™ multipurpose fire sprinkler and plumbing system as well as the manifold for the radiant loops.

“We needed to come up with design details to accommodate the connection between the two modules and to ensure that we had one comprehensive plumbing system in order to be cost-effective,” she said.

It took hours of engineering, planning and testing to get the fire sprinkler system to function as one between the two modules, but the students finally created a sleeve using 2" ABS pipe between the modules and installed a union in the mechanical room. When the modules come apart, the union is loosened and the PEX header comes out of the sleeve and transports with its module; when the modules reconnect, the PEX header is put into the sleeve and stub out of the mechanical room ceiling to be reconnected at the union.

When it came time to design the radiant system between the two modules, students designed four loops for the home: two in the west module for a bedroom and bathroom and two in the east module to serve the kitchen and living room. “We also used ABS pipe in this application to serve as a sleeve to create the connection for the tubing that’s coming from the other module,” Zeng explained. “Tubing entered the mechanical room from underneath the chassis and when the modules come apart, the supply and return for the two loops in the other module are disconnected at the manifold itself.”

The advantage of Uponor’s AquaSAFE multipurpose fire safety system is that when each fixture is flushed, the water in the whole system moves. And since the home’s goal is to be as energy-efficient as possible, the students were reluctant to use a booster pump for the multipurpose fire safety system as it would draw unnecessary energy. “Since we were participating in an energy competition, we didn’t want our booster pump to engage every time a small flush occurs,” Zeng said. This was solved with a variable-speed pump that compensates the threshold with an expansion tank for pressure differential control.

Zeng and her fellow students were impressed with Uponor’s level of involvement from design engineers who were available to answer questions and make recommendations. “They were very knowledgeable and helpful, and they guided us through the design and installation phase every time we approached them with questions. The products were easy to work with and we got up to speed quickly. I would say that our entire Uponor experience has been a very positive one,” Zeng said.

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Project Highlights:

• 2013 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
• UNLV placed second overall
• 750-square-foot home in Mojave Desert
• Uponor provided fire safety, plumbing and radiant systems

Project Details:

• Uponor AquaPEX® tubing for plumbing and fire sprinkler
• Uponor ProPEX® fittings
• Uponor RES-49 sprinkler heads for fire safety system
• Wirsbo hePEX™ tubing for radiant floor system

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