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Programs Imitate People In Experimental Eco-House

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology is testing energy efficiency in the model home that's pictured.
Sabri Ben-Achour
The National Institute of Standards and Technology is testing energy efficiency in the model home that's pictured.

They're invisible. Maybe they're dead. It's unclear whether they're evil or not. But they live in a house at the National Institute of Standards and Technology — taking showers, using the blender, running the dishwasher. "They" aren't people. They're programs, designed to replicate the day-to-day activities of humans in a fully automated experimental house.

They will use energy like any other family for a year — the lights will get flipped on and off, and the shower will run and stop. They'll exist in peace for a year, and in that year they will demonstrate that a fully energy-efficient house can be "net zero," not consuming more energy than it produces. Environment reporter Sabri Ben-Achour took a tour of the house, and talked with Hunter Fanney who's chief of the Energy and Environment division here at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Following are highlights of their conversation.

Fanney on what the house is like: "What we're looking at is our net zero energy residential test facility. It's a 2,700 square foot home, 1,500 square foot basement. There's three bedrooms, three baths in the home. Yet, it has energy production capabilities on it. If you look at the main roof of the house, you see a large solar system... that's to convert sunlight into electricity. And on the porch, you actually see some additional solar collectors — they're solar thermal collectors that convert sunlight into hot water. This home is designed with two objectives in mind. It's to show that we can meet net zero — that is, have a zero energy bill over the course of a year. The second long-term objective is to provide a test bed so we can evaluate energy efficient technologies of the future."

Fanney on the "people" or robots that live in the house: "There are actually four people living there. There are two working adults, a 14-year-old and an 8-year-old, but they're virtual people. So, we can control every movement throughout the day. We tell them when to get up. We tell them when to turn on each light. We tell them when to take a shower, how long a shower is. Everything is scripted. So, all of these actions actually take place. The washer and dryer, it all runs as a normal family of four would use it."

Fanney on building an energy efficient house: "You really want to build this like a thermos jug. You want to minimize all the heat loss, heat gain and you want to build it as tight as possible. We added four inches of insulation to the exterior. It turns out in the U.S., about 20 percent of the energy that leaves a heat pump or air conditioner never gets into the space, because of air leakage from the ductwork. Here, we can deliver it through a normal duct system, but everything's in the conditioned space. So if you lose any energy, it's still in the house."

Fanney on what they will use the gathered information for: "We'd like to look at the effectiveness of distributing heat. We want to look at: do we actually have methods of test and metrics in place that will allow us to assess the relative effectiveness of these different geothermal loops in the house? It's really to develop the measurement science and the metrics to promote energy efficiency, because, right now, for a lot of the energy efficient technologies, those guides are not in place."

[Music: "Our House (Instrumental Mad House Dub Mix)" by Madness]

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