A Model Teacher: A real-world education in energy efficiency

Model Teacher DiagramEngineering students and faculty learn quite a bit from BERT. The exclusively hands-on lessons include new ways to control power usage in buildings, the mechanics of thermal storage, smart grid technology, and much more. This  popular teacher doesn’t take attendance, require tests, or have a class schedule.

That’s because BERT is actually the Building Energy Retrofit Testbed, a living laboratory at the UNM Mechanical Engineering building. SOE researchers and students use BERT to see how existing structures can become more energy efficient — and stay that way — by intelligently monitoring their own operation and comparing it with an accurate model running in parallel with the real system.

When the ME building opened in 1980, it was a showcase of energy conservation. Since then, new systems and equipment have been added, resulting in approximately $35,000 of energy savings annually, according to Hans Barsun, physical plant engineer.

Barsun is also pursuing a Ph.D., researching how to integrate BERT with other energy systems on the electric grid.

Now, thanks to generous support from Yearout Mechanical Inc., BERT’s energy systems will be augmented by new digital controls in all 70 air mixing boxes that deliver heating and cooling to the building’s rooms and by a series of sensors that measure and monitor airflow and quality throughout the building. The added control and feedback make it possible to effectively compare building heating and cooling scenarios against the energy simulation models.

Ph.D. student Birk Jones, who is leading the implementation of the new equipment, hopes that his research will increase their abilities to accurately predict energy use and reliably operate energy systems within existing buildings.

BERT is also an excellent research complement to the new NEDO consortium studying microgrid technology at Mesa del Sol (see previous article). The experience gained through BERT will help the team operate the sophisticated microgrid equipment installed by NEDO. For example, some of the control strategies developed and fine-tuned using BERT will be used in the more demanding commercial building environment.

Improvements and research progress can be followed on the website http://iseslab.unm.edu