Students Design Efficient Home with Central Air Cost of Only $38 Annually

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University of Minnesota team's winning entry in Race to Zero design competition features a small-duct, high-velocity, high-efficiency heating and air conditioning system from Unico, Inc.

University of Minnesota students worked closely on HVAC energy calculations with Unico, Inc.'s Sustainable Business Development Team, led by Shawn Intagliata (center).

The biggest energy expenditure in a home tends to be for heating and air conditioning, so specifying a high-efficiency system is important.

The winning entry in the Department of Energy (DOE) 2015 Race to Zero Student Design Competition includes a heating and air conditioning system that is so efficient, it would generate only $282 in annual heating costs, and $38 for cooling. Energy modeling shows that adding solar technology would more than offset the energy costs, reducing the energy bills to zero and qualifying it as a DOE Zero Energy Ready Home.

Students and faculty from the University of Minnesota won the grand prize for their energy-efficient design of a three-bedroom, two-bath home. The team consulted with engineers from heating and air conditioning manufacturer Unico, Inc., on calculations and efficiencies for the proposed home.

"We are impressed with the University team members who were involved in this year’s competition, and we were honored to work with them on their Zero Energy Ready Home,” said Shawn Intagliata, Unico’s Director of Sustainable Business Development. “The biggest energy expenditure in a home tends to be for heating and air conditioning, so specifying a high-efficiency system is important in designing a home with the lowest possible energy usage and costs.”

Unico’s high-velocity forced air system features two-inch diameter, flexible, insulated ducting that has zero leakage, so there is no heating and cooling going into attics and other spaces that don’t need it. The air conditioning unit removes 30 percent more humidity from the air than traditional air handlers, allowing homeowners to set the thermostat higher in the hot summer months but feeling the same cool comfort as if it were set lower.

A new outdoor compressor from Unico features a technology that creates efficiency and energy savings by never completely shutting down. This means the system never has to ramp up to achieve full power, which is when traditional units use the most power. The units also have a high SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio), which translates to more cost savings. The higher the SEER, the less power the system needs to do its job.

The University of Minnesota team was awarded the grand prize in April at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. Students from 33 teams presented their designs to a panel of experts that included high-performance homebuilders, building science professionals, building product manufacturer technical experts, and national laboratory research scientists.

The Race to Zero is an annual competition, open to college students and faculty. It is based upon a real-world scenario where a builder needs to update an existing house plan to a high-performance house design or is developing a new high performance home product line. The mandatory performance target is the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home specification. By definition, these high-performance homes are so energy efficient that renewable power can offset most or all the annual energy consumption.

In 2014, two teams used the Unico System in their designs and both were awarded the equivalent of third place.

The DOE says on its website that this competition “will help to provide the next generation of architects, engineers, construction managers, and entrepreneurs with skills and experience to start careers in clean energy and generate creative solutions to real-world problems.”

The competition results can be viewed online at

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Terri Waters
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