These are the kind of issues that might keep an energy-conscious homeowner awake at night. But for a Gorham house recently taken over by the University of Southern Maine Department of Environmental Science, these problems are perfect for the students who will use the home to gain hands-on experience in the field of energy auditing.
The USM-owned building at 19 College Ave. was built in the late 19th century as a private residence and has been used for a variety of purposes for the university, though it wasn’t in use when the department took it over in January. The applied energy program will be using it as a laboratory and research tool for students, and, if all goes to plan, the house will become a resource for the community as well.
Robert Sanford, professor and chair of the department of environmental science, said the department has long wanted a test site like the house for their students. “Most of the houses you’re going to see in Maine are going to be older house like this,” said Sanford, who commented that if students are able to provide solutions for a worse-case scenario, newer houses will be easier.
“It will make out students a lot more marketable,” he said.
During a tour of the house with The Free Press, Daniel Martinez, assistant research professor in the Department of Environmental Science and manager of the house, pointed out a host of energy conservation issues like poor insulation, an oil-fired burner and other energy-efficiency no-nos.
“Here’s a perfect example. There’s a hole here,” said Martinez, pulling out plastic from an old ventilation pipe, “and instead of patching they put a plastic bag over it.”
Martinez and professor Travis Wagner, who was also present on the tour, pointed out that the air-conditioning units were left in the windows during the winter, allowing cold air to enter the house. “It’s probably equal to punching a hole in the wall that big,” said Wagner, forming a 6-inch wide circle with his hands.
Martinez said that with the right partners the house could be useful for not just students. He envisions the possibility of hosting energy-auditing workshops or having companies use the house to display energy-efficient products.
“This is the first time at USM where we’ve tried integrating a physical structure as part of the learning process,” Martinez said.
The house will allow students to use the tools that home auditors use, like an infrared scanner to check windows and other parts of the walls for trouble spots where cool air is entering.
Mechanical engineering major Nick Randall, who previously took the energy efficiency class taught by Martinez that plans to use the house, said they previously did laboratory tests in the classroom like filling a metal can with boiling water to simulate a hot water boiler. “It will be better to actually have a house to go to and actually physically measure these things,” Randall said. “I think it will be a lot better than trying to simulate this stuff in a lab.”
Martinez said he hopes they will be acquire other energy auditing equipment like a blower from partnership with construction or energy-efficiency companies. A blower door is a machine that measures airflow and airtightness in homes. Ideally, students will be able to learn how to do a full-energy audit on a house.
The first step is to collect baseline information on the house, and Martinez said students interning for the project will begin this in a few weeks. Classes will likely begin using the house for laboratory and research purposes next fall.
Randall, a junior who is also minoring in applied science, said he hopes to do energy auditing on the industrial side with large buildings as opposed to private residences.
“Most people are going to be going into the home energy side of things from this class, so I think having an old house like that helps a lot,” he said.
Wagner, professor of environmental science and policy, said the project must be self sustaining and the only cost USM are the fixed costs of owning the house that would be incurred regardless.