UMd.'s WaterShed a leading entry in Solar Decathlon on National Mall

WaterShed. Photo: University of Maryland Solar Decathlon team

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Solar Decathlon pits leading home designs by students worldwide against each other in a competition to make homes not only energy efficient, but energy producers.

That's not enough for some teams at this year's Department of Energy competition which are taking a more holistic approach, including water-saving technologies in their designs and working to make sure their advances make it past the concept stage and into neighborhoods.

The University of Maryland's entry in the competition that opens Friday is called WaterShed and it is not only energy conscious, but water conscious.

That's because energy and water use are intertwined in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, where stormwater runoff carries pollutants from six states into the nation's largest estuary. That runoff contains pollutants from a variety of sources, including farm and lawn fertilizer and auto and power plant exhaust washed out of the skies.

Those so-called nutrients are the culprits in a cycle where algae feed on them, creating blooms that rob oxygen from bay waters when the algae dies, threatening species such as oysters and bay grasses that are important to water quality.

So, in addition to the solar panels and solar water heating system, the squarish house is constructed of two rectangular halves with roof sections that slope in to the middle of the house, where an artificial wetland catches the water that isn't trapped by the house's green roof. The wetland is also irrigated with graywater from the shower, sinks and laundry.

"So, if you think about it, pretty much anything that comes through the house remains in the house. In a typical house it's pushed off site, so it goes into the watershed," explained Scott Tjaden (Jay-Den'), 22, a University of Maryland senior studying environmental science and technology.

The wetland "natually process water through plants which takes the nutrients out of the water so it's definitely a plus-plus." Tjaden said.

Energy and water are inseparable, said Nancy K. Stoner, acting assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as she toured the house.

Using less energy from the grid and producing more onsite also saves water, because energy generation is a huge consumer of fresh water, she said.

"The key thing is the connection between water and energy. If you save water, you save energy. If you save energy you also save water," Stoner said.

"It's the key connection here that they're on to, that they get the connection between water and energy use."

The home cost about $350,000, but the cost could come down to about $275,000 if more are built, team members said.

Organizers say the winning home will be affordable, comfortable, attractive, easy to live in and supply energy for cooking, cleaning and entertaining.

The winning home will also provide adequate hot water and as much or more energy than it consumes.

At the Empowerhouse, cost and the ability to transfer the final product to the real world were key issues for the project, which will become home for a District family after the competition.

"We were not interested in a demonstration project," said Joel Towers, Executive Dean at Parsons The New School For Design.

After the competition ends Oct. 2, the home will be heading to the District's Deanwood neighborhood across the Anacostia River, where it will have a second floor added to bring it up to Habitat for Humanity's size standards, Towers said.

The home is so well insulated that its solar-power systems provide all the energy it needs, meaning Lakiya Culley, 29, an office administrator at the State Department, won't have a utility bill when she moves in with her three sons.

Culley said the electric bill for her two-bedroom apartment can be as much as $150 a month in the summer. The mortgage on the home, meanwhile, will not be more than 30 percent of her income, she said.

"This will help me to be able to save money for my kids' college," Culley said.

That's the point of the project, said John E. Hall, acting director of the district's Department of Housing and Community Development, who said the district is looking to place more affordable, energy-saving homes on vacant lots. Most urban households spend 60 percent of their income on housing and transportation, so homes like the one Culley will live in will help residents greatly.

"It's about how can we take the land we have, especially the vacant land, and do infill housing," Hall said. "How can we really build neighborhood assets by complementing with green features. So, I think this is going to be a really unique approach for us."