(Energy) Testing, Testing, 1-2-3

We all know that the draft we feel when putting a hand next to that not-brand-new window must be impacting how much energy we’re using for both heating and cooling. But the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) wants to know precisely, backed-up-with-lots-of-data, how much.

Showing their efforts to do just that, we introduced you to their Home Labs project back in November, where they’re using two manufactured homes to test the impact of different energy-efficiency measures on water use, energy use, and environmental conditions.

PNNL Experimental Lab Homes

image via PNNL

How people live in a home drastically affects the way it conserves and utilizes energy, and therefore makes measuring a base level energy usage and comparing to energy usage after any upgrades quite difficult. The beauty of this study is that it eliminates the human factor variable and will generate very precise information from two highly controlled environments.

While it’s relatively easy to see varying energy usage and patterns on a smart meter, the study also seeks to understand more than just straight energy usage, factoring in human comfort by measuring humidity and the indoor environment with environmental sensors and a weather station.

The first study will be on the effects of highly insulated, triple-pane windows, followed by smart appliances, smart electric car charging stations, heat pump water heaters, efficient building envelopes, HVAC, and solar-thermal and photovoltaics. After testing each item in isolation to fully understand impact, the goal is to finally design an intelligent, responsive, zero net energy, zero peak load, retrofitted home using all the study’s leanings.

The PNNL project collaborates with a local utilities provider, Richland Energy Services, who is providing the electricity to the lab homes, oversized transformers, and smart meters. The potential for energy efficient retrofits and reducing peak loads also greatly benefits the energy company which has been able to avoid doing additional upgrades and expansion to the energy system as energy savings compensate for new building.

By avoiding new development, Richland Energy Services is able to do more with less, and began offering incentives to their customers for installing energy efficient heat pumps, insulation, windows, and doors, Energy Star appliances, and solar power installations. To encourage community participation and education, they recently launched both a video on the PNNL project and an online community forum for suggestions, tips, and feedback on energy efficiency and renewables.

The PNNL is one of ten Department of Energy national laboratories managed by the DOE’s Office of Science, and is working hard to support the DOE’s Building America program which aims to develop energy systems that can dramatically reduce annual energy use and peak loads in both new and existing homes.

As buildings account for nearly 40% of the U.S.’s energy usage, one of Building America’s goals is to reduce energy usage in current buildings by 50 percent through retrofits and energy upgrades – a lofty goal, but one with a huge potential impact if realized. This program is one calculated effort in that direction.

Angeli Duffin is a Midwest transplant currently living in San Francisco, CA. Kicking off her career doing product design and development with Fair Trade artisans around the world, she then moved on to the editorial side, writing for eBay’s Green Team blog and working as a marketing consultant for social and environmentally minded companies