University City

Grant rewards research, helps homeowners

UNC Charlotte recently became the first academic institution to receive a grant through a new U.S. Department of Energy program aimed at more efficiently weatherizing the homes of low-income Americans.

The $2 million grant was awarded to Thomas Gentry, assistant professor of architecture at UNCC, and Robert Cox, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. The money will make 800 low-income families' homes in North Carolina more energy-efficient through the Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program.

The program, which began in 2010, announced its first 16 award recipients last year. Grants were given to those who demonstrated innovative ideas for energy conservation and weatherization in single-family homes.

WIPP replaces the Energy Department's former effort, the Weatherization Assistance Program, which began in the 1970s during the nation's energy crisis.

"A lot has changed over the years, and that program has kind of become obsolete," said Gentry, who also is director of the university's Laboratory for Innovative Housing.

WAP took a more passive approach toward weatherizing homes, calling for standard practices such as insulation for conserving energy. Often homeowners were not instructed on what they could do to drive down their energy costs.

WIPP's goals focus on providing more innovative solutions and bringing homeowners into the loop.

"The idea was that organizations would get these grants and figure out how to improve upon a 35-year-old program," said Gentry.

Today, experts understand more about the weather, he said, and can bring new ideas to the table, including new technology.

"We're installing a real-time energy-monitoring device," said Gentry. "It's sort of like the higher-end cars that show you your miles per gallon and help you drive more efficiently. These essentially provide the same feedback for housing."

The device will be located near a home's thermostat and will give instructions on the best energy-efficient sources to use for heating or cooling a home, based on outside temperature.

"What the system will do is say, 'Now conditions are ideal for running the whole-house fan, rather than the air conditioning,' " said Gentry. "Our preliminary calculations say we can shed one-third to one-half of air-conditioning use for the average house. That's a substantial savings."

The program also will provide time to teach homeowners how to conserve energy in today's world.

"We're relying on the owners to take a more active role," said Gentry. "We're at that point in housing where we have to educate the occupants to the equipment in the house, and how to use energy more efficiently."

Gentry and Cox's work has caught the eye of the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado for its innovative methods. Those agencies are paying close attention to what will happen here.

Gentry and Cox, who leveraged $6 million more for the project through in-kind services and discounts with construction crews, will begin work this month on 50 houses in Cabarrus County.

"We're trying to target neighborhoods and make it in clusters," said Gentry, because it's more efficient to work on several houses in one neighborhood at a time.

Each house should take one to three days to weatherize, he said.