Students Develop Energy-Saving Ideas to ‘Green’ Old Buildings

Issue Date: 
December 1, 2008

Roof-top hydroelectricity from rainwater, a solar-powered device that heats and cools a room, or just a Web site that tells people the amount of power they burn.

These are among the proposals from five student teams selected as finalists in the sustainable-building contest hosted by the University of Pittsburgh Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. Launched in August, the 2008 Energy Efficient Building Technologies Challenge asked undergraduate students from universities in Southwestern Pennsylvania to create a technique for “greening” old buildings that carries a low price tag and a quick payoff.

The finalist teams represent Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duquesne University, as well as a variety of majors, including architecture, engineering, and the humanities. Each team will receive $2,500 to bring its idea to fruition: a plan for implementation, projected energy conservation for one year, and, if possible, a prototype. The winning team receives $5,000; second-place, $2,500; and third-place, $1,000. All winners will be invited to present their projects at the 2009 Pittsburgh Engineering Sustainability Conference hosted by the Mascaro Center and Carnegie Mellon’s Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research.

The contest received 29 proposals from undergraduate teams in Allegheny and bordering counties. Contestants had to create a product or system that reduces electricity consumption and would pay for itself in subsequent savings within one year. Projects will be judged for originality, for the possibility of successful implementation, and by the level at which they allow people to maintain their quality of life.

Buildings are one of the United States’ largest energy drains. Older buildings, in particular, often hemorrhage energy because of poor insulation, old wiring, and outdated lighting. To fix these shortcomings, property owners typically pay contractors large sums for solutions with a long payback time. The outfitting of older buildings with energy-conserving features is a considerable issue in areas such as the Pittsburgh region, which includes many buildings and homes built prior to 1940.

The Mascaro Center, housed in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, specializes in sustainable-design research and innovation. Support for the design challenge also comes from the Heinz Endowments. Complete rules and deadlines are available on the Mascaro Center’s Web site at

Brief proposals for the five projects follow.

Eliminating Power Drain Through Idle Devices: Whether you call it “vampire power” or “phantom load,” standby power is the electricity that appliances and gizmos not in use nonetheless devour—a television set or computer monitor in standby mode or a cell phone or iPod charger left plugged into the wall. Two Pitt bioengineering students proposed a component that would block power going to the device when the device goes from active to standby.

Renewable-source-powered Window Fan: A mechanical engineering student and an industrial engineering student from Pitt will tackle the biggest drain on household energy use: heating and cooling. The team proposes a window fan/heating unit that would combine cooling and heating systems into a single device with a renewable energy source.

Low-cost Wind Generator Coupled With Energy-saving Methods: A Pitt mechanical engineering student and a Duquesne University rhetoric and classics student conceived of a two-part plan involving a wind-energy generator coupled with typical energy-saving methods.

Hydroelectricity Through Rain Water: Forget solar power—four Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineering students envision rainwater as a convenient and renewable hydroelectric source. The proposed system would collect rainwater, then fire it into a turbine to generate electricity.

Reducing Residential Electricity Consumption Through Internet-based Power Monitoring: Chemistry, architecture, and mechanical engineering students from a Carnegie Mellon team thought of reducing energy consumption simply by informing people of how much power they burn. The students aim to help residents reduce their power consumption by 20 percent annually through a device that would transmit home power-use data to a personalized Web site.