LIMESTONE, Maine — In a region where even mild winters inevitably venture into subzero temperatures, every British thermal unit counts when it comes to home heating.
Last December, officials with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics were awarded approximately $80,000 through an Office of Naval Research grant to enable student-based research aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of one MSSM residential home.
Only about halfway through completion, Project Polaris is already having a profoundly positive effect on students’ education, and the application of their findings will help one MSSM educator and his family have a warmer winter with a decreased environmental footprint.
“A lot of our work in the first half of the year was more theoretical things — like how solar panels work, how you assess a house as to whether or not it can use solar energy — but once we figured that out, we came up with a plan of attack,” explained MSSM Senior Nicole Giggey of Bowdoin, who took the course during the 2011-12 school year.
“I really enjoy the fact that I took the class; it was really interesting,” she added, explaining that the course required her to use math she’d never heard of and physics she hadn’t studied until just this year. “It was a really great experience.”
With the help of a fancy thermal imaging camera, students took photos of the house in March to determine which areas needed better insulation.
Holding one such thermal image in hand, student Andrew Schade of Phippsburg explained how blue areas of the building indicated that the area was at outside temperatures — indicating proper insulation. On the sides of the windows however, particularly around the trim, the camera picked up on bright yellow and orange hues, which indicated areas where warmth was escaping.
“It was interesting to see just the difference in temperature between the solid walls from the windows and even around the windows, because it shows that the houses aren’t insulated very well — and we were doing this in March when it was really cold still, so you could see these bright yellow places and then blue,” explained Giggey.
Once the students determined where they were losing heat from, they set to work finding solutions.
Schade explained how the class learned about how windows are installed and what the possible heat loss sources could be; he also described how windows are effectively placed in a frame with gaps between the window box itself and the structure’s indoors and outdoors.
“Those [gaps] are sometimes filled in correctly, and when that happens they’re very well insulated — but in this case, they apparently weren’t, so we wrote up a request for proposal to get the windows [and doors] checked out and reinsulated,” Schade said.
Aside from losing heat through the windows and doors, the thermal images revealed that a lot of energy was being lost through the chimney and the foundation.
“The house was built on an eight-foot concrete slab, which is seriously not good,” Giggey explained.
The structure being studied by MSSM students is one of a dozen cookie-cutter dwellings MSSM was granted by the Department of Defense after the Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994 — and similar homes can be found in many central Aroostook communities.
As the students aim to make the Trafton Avenue home of MSSM English instructor Michael McCartney and his family more energy efficient, assessing where energy was being lost was crucially important to their goals.
“When you’re putting solar panels on a house, it’s always good to make sure you’re not losing the energy that you’re saving,” Giggey explained.
McCartney was surprised to find out where specifically the energy was escaping his home.
“My wife and I had very specific ideas about where the house was losing heat based on drafts, and I was really interested to find out that the places that you feel the drafts are not necessarily where you’re losing the most heat,” he said. “It was a unique ‘humanities meets engineering’ moment for me because I was thinking about it just through the pure human experience of it rather than the actual mechanics of what was going on.”
Lucy Wilcox of New Gloucester is part of the Explorations in Engineering class currently overseeing Project Polaris — and she has found that being part of the process is pretty fun.
“Obviously for a lot of the work we have contractors, but we’re actually making some decisions with the house,” Wilcox said, describing how solar panels and a heat pump will be installed into the MSSM residential building where McCartney lives.
Wilcox explained that heat pumps aren’t as common as oil heaters, but she has learned about them in class.
“[A heat pump] is basically like a refrigerator except instead of pulling the warm air out, it’s reversed and it can move hot air in,” she said. “From any temperature, even when it’s cold in the winter, there’s still heat in the air because it’s above absolute zero — so you can still extract heat from it and pump it into the house.”
Between the math, the physics, the planning and the application — Project Polaris has provided MSSM students with an unparalleled educational opportunity.
“One of the things that [Project Polaris] does, is it brings about an interdisciplinary field that most students don’t tend to get in traditional classrooms — or even in college,” explained Luke Shorty, MSSM executive director and primary investigator of the grant. “They’re using their knowledge of physics, thermodynamics, math skills and they’re using their humanities skills,” he added, explaining how earlier in the year students had to present the project to their “client.”
Aside from providing students an opportunity for real-world application of higher mathematics and physics, the research students conducted has yielded results that are applicable for all domicile occupants.
“A good portion of the heat lost through houses is through airflow when you open doors and windows,” Schade explained. “Mostly that can’t be avoided, but in the cases of air leaking through the outsides of your windows — that causes a lot of heat loss so that’s a relatively easy thing to fix, especially with [plastic over windows] — it’s a short-term, cheap fix.”
Wilcox suggested another insulation solution — putting special, insulating jackets made specifically for hot water heaters.
“It helps them heat more efficiently and keep the heat in, and those are probably the easiest with the most cost return,” she explained.
While students are learning real-world lessons through Project Polaris, McCartney is excited about the project for a couple different reasons — not only will the future heat pump help keep his house warm in the winter and cool in the summer, the future solar panels will help his family be “greener.”
One of the largest factors in McCartney’s enthusiasm for Project Polaris, however, is its student-based nature.
If you go up to McCartney’s classroom, you’ll see that he has saved various projects students have created over the seven years the educator has been with the magnet school.
“And I get to live in one [of their projects], which as a teacher, I think is really special,” he said.