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How to Win a Solar Decathlon

October 1, 2015 - 3:01pm


The finals of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 are upon us. Not familiar with the competition? Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the big event, <a href="">happening Oct. 8-18 in Irvine, California</a>. | Photo by Stefano Paltera, Solar Decathlon.

The finals of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 are upon us. Not familiar with the competition? Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the big event, happening Oct. 8-18 in Irvine, California. | Photo by Stefano Paltera, Solar Decathlon.

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 is just a week away -- but what exactly is a Solar Decathlon, and how do you win?

Let’s start with the basics. The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition to create beautiful, affordable, energy-efficient solar-powered houses. The competition involves teams of students from colleges and universities around the world, who have two years to design and build their model homes from the ground up.

What makes it a decathlon? In the Olympics, the decathlon is 10 events that test strength, speed, agility and endurance. It’s not enough to just run fast or jump high -- competitors have to excel across all 10 challenges to win gold.

So it goes with the Solar Decathlon. Built a beautiful house worthy of exhibition at a modern art museum? Great. But how much energy does it use? Devised an ingenious, power-saving way to keep your house cool? Terrific. But does it have curb appeal? Teams must tackle 10 different contests that test how well their houses balance comfort, affordability and attractive design with energy efficiency.

Here are the 10 things a team needs to do to take home top honors at Solar Decathlon 2015:

1. Have a sound, seamless design that blends form with function.

Would you want to live in a solar house that looks like a slapped-together shack? Probably not. A jury of professional architects evaluates each entry for things like construction quality, a clear design vision, attention to detail and smooth integration of energy-efficient innovations.

2. Make it comfortable, stylish and fit to inhabit 365 days a year.

Who’s going to live in your house? That’s one of the first questions teams have to answer when designing their Solar Decathlon entries. For the Market Appeal Contest, homebuilding industry professionals judge how well each house fits its target homebuyer, from convenience to curb appeal.

3. Tackle technical challenges with clever, effective solutions.

Engineering skill plays a big role in the Solar Decathlon -- after all, what good is a high-tech, solar-powered house if it doesn’t work properly? Professional engineers check the functionality, reliability and ingenuity of the many components that make these houses ultra-efficient technological marvels.

4. Tell a story, and make it compelling.

Solar decathletes have to be more than just designers and engineers. They have to become storytellers. The Solar Decathlon is a reflection of the diverse experiences and backgrounds of its participants, and each team is judged on how well they share their story through websites, social media, marketing materials and public tours.

5. Keep costs down.

Solar Decathlon houses are meant to demonstrate how solar-powered living can save consumers money and energy. A big part of that is ensuring that the home itself isn’t exorbitantly expensive. Teams can earn 100 points for keeping their construction cost to $250,000 or less.

6. Take a page out of Goldilocks’ book.

Not too cold, not too hot -- Solar Decathlon houses need to be juuust right. Between 71°F (22.2°C) and 76°F (24.4°C), to be exact, with a relative humidity less than 60 percent. During the competition, sensors will measure climate conditions in each house, with full points going to teams that stay within the perfect range. The three bears would approve.

7. Offer all the conveniences of a modern home.

These model houses aren’t just for show! Teams have to put their appliances through the paces to demonstrate that solar power can keep things running just as well as in your average home. Challenges include keeping the refrigerator and freezer cold, doing laundry, running the dishwasher and boiling water.

8. Provide a comfy spot to relax, cook and entertain guests.

A true test of whether a Solar Decathlon house has what it takes to be a home, the Home Life Contest includes the most grueling task of all: inviting the neighbors over for dinner. OK, it’s actually a lot of fun. Teams get points for hosting two dinner parties and a movie night, keeping the lights and a computer on, and producing enough hot water for showering.

9. Charge up the family car.

In our solar-powered future, electric vehicles are going to be common. The Commuting Contest challenges teams to plug an electric car into their house’s electrical system and drive around town on the charge from its solar panels. And, like real commuting, they’ll have to do it many times over the course of the week!

10. Strike a balance between solar generation and smart energy use.

Last but not least, this is where the Solar Decathlon’s super-efficient houses get to strut their sustainable stuff. Meters on each house track how much power the solar panels generate, as well as how much the house uses during the event. Full points go to the entries that are both energy-saving (using 175 kWh or less) and “net-zero” (producing as much or more electricity than needed). How smart is that?