Pitt ‘Green’ Design Contest Winners Combine Household Wind Turbine With Tips for Low-cost Power Conservation

Issue Date: 
May 26, 2009

An affordable wind turbine coupled with a book of energy-saving tips is the winning idea in the sustainable-design contest hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

Launched in August 2008, the Energy Efficient Building Technologies Challenge asked undergraduate students from universities in Southwestern Pennsylvania to create a technique for “greening” old buildings that would reduce electricity consumption and pay for itself within one year.
Juniors Micah Toll, a mechanical engineering student in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, and Shaun Espenshade, a rhetoric and classics student in Duquesne University, were selected from five finalist teams to receive the $5,000 first-place prize. A $2,500 second-place prize and a $1,000 third-place prize also were awarded.

Twenty-nine proposals were received and judged for originality, possibility of successful implementation, and the degree to which they would allow people to maintain their quality of life.
Toll and Espenshade constructed a lightweight plastic wind turbine and backed it up with a rundown of useful—and often obscure—tips for reducing home-power consumption. The turbine consists of a plastic rotor and tower—they built one six-foot and one 12-foot tower—that homeowners could install themselves. The turbine could power either a battery bank that appliances could be plugged into directly, or it could connect directly to a household circuit breaker.

“We wanted to generate as much sustainable power as possible, but still make something the average family could use,” said Toll, the turbine’s primary designer. “Commercial turbines generate more power, but a nuclear family doesn’t want to wait five or 10 years for it to pay for itself. This is a low-cost investment with a short payback period and a small sacrifice of power.”

The accompanying booklet complements the turbine by encouraging less energy use, explained Espenshade, who compiled energy saving tips from various sources. The booklet includes such well-known advice as planting trees on the sunny side of the house to more creative pointers such as not keeping TVs, lamps, and other heat-producing appliances near the thermostat because they can distort the reading.

Toll and Espenshade are from Lebanon, Pa. Toll, 20, started the company Disaster Rebuilding Solutions, LLC, in 2007 to market a type of construction beam he invented for quick construction in such locations as refugee camps, disaster areas, and war zones. The beams are made of a corrugated plastic shell with a foam core, require no tools for construction, and are lightweight, weatherproof, and fire resistant. The product earned Toll induction into the National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors in 2007. He is working on starting a second company for a separate invention.

For the second-place prize, Pitt mechanical engineering student Patrick Wetherill and industrial engineering student Stephen Palmer combined cooling and heating systems into a single device with a solar-assisted window fan/heating unit.

From Carnegie Mellon, chemistry student Jacob Mohin, architecture student David Kennedy, and mechanical engineering student Benjamin Kwadwo Som-Pimpong netted the third-place prize for a device that would transmit home power-use data to a personalized Web site, reducing consumption by informing people of how much power they burn.

The Mascaro Center initiated the contest because buildings are one of the largest energy drains. Older buildings in particular commonly 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 retrofitting of older buildings with energy-conserving features is a considerable issue in such areas as Pittsburgh, where many buildings and homes were built before 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 came from the Heinz Endowments.

More information on the contest and the Mascaro Center is available on its Web site, www.mascarocenter.pitt.edu.