Fin MacDonald

Information on me and my current projects

Tag Archives: NSCC

My NSCC Experience

Going back to school was a tough decision. I wasn’t happy in my old career and knew I needed to get out. I looked around at the different college programs that were available. I needed something quick. I already had a 4 year business degree but I needed a skill, otherwise I would be stuck in an office forever. I found the energy sustainability engineering technology program and went for it.

Fast forward 2 years and here I am all finished. I can honestly say that the Nova Scotia Community College taught me just as much in two years as I learned in four years of university. The most important lessons I learned were lessons about myself, and what I was capable of. NSCC strives to build students confidence. This is in stark contrast with universities who force you to compete with each other for ranking, and work hard to weed out the unworthy.

As we grow older we learn in different ways. NSCC uses a completely hands on approach to learning. “Learning by doing.” Granted, there were some theory based courses I had to take but everything was applied to real world projects before the end of the program.  We had a fully functional, state of the art residential building on campus for us to test, monitor, and learn from. One of my final exams was to troubleshoot the building automation system, and my instructor even had his wife come in on exam day to play the role of the angry customer.

My classmates were awesome. We learned just as much from each other as we did from the instructors. In an academic environment without ranking and competition students are much more willing to help each other succeed. As we split up to take on our new careers, I will miss everyone. I hope to get the opportunity to work with some of them again in the future in the working world.

NSCC also has a great international department, and I was fortunate enough to be selected to take part in an international exchange program with students from Ireland and the Netherlands. Learning about energy efficiency in different countries teaches you things that you could never learn at home.

I’m tremendously satisfied with my experience at NSCC, and after graduating with honors I’m tremendously proud as well. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Preparing for the Ireland Project

In less then a month I will be departing for a 3 week project in Carlow, Ireland at I.T. Carlow. Myself and 4 other students from the Nova Scotia Community College will be working with 5 other Canadian students from Holland College in PEI, 5 students from IT Carlow in Ireland, and 5 students from Hanze University in the Netherlands. This will be a similar structure to the project we did in Halifax in the fall of 2011. We will all have different backgrounds. Students involved are studying architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, construction technology, energy sustainability, and other similar programs. The ability to participate in a multi-discipline project before graduation is an incredible experience.

Our project will be to study the Tinteán Coille Community Centre, which is an Irish social housing project in Carlow, and make recommendations to improve its energy efficiency. Specifically, we will be aiming to make the housing project net-zero carbon. This would be considered a very ambitious goal in North America, but in Europe they are leading the rest of the world in efficiency.

During the early stages of the project we will receive a half day training session in PassivHaus. PassivHaus is a German building standard that focuses on extreme energy efficiency and comfort. Our project will be orientated to providing passive solutions rather than active solutions. Passive solutions do not require energy to provide benefits. Active solutions require energy or are heavily based on technology. I have learned about PassivHaus in the past, and I’ve checked out some books on passive solutions to energy efficiency from the NSCC library. I’ve also enrolled in a one day passive solar home basics course in Halifax that takes place two weeks before I leave. I’m planning to leave for Ireland with as much knowledge as possible. I freely admit that in North America we focus on active solutions and rely almost too heavily on technology to get the job done. My previous school project work proposed many active solutions so I am entering a new domain of green design.

We have recently found out we will be staying at the Riverbank Apartments while we are in Carlow. We will also be making a trip to Dublin at the end of our project for St. Paddy’s Day. I hope to experience as much Irish culture as possible on my trip, and I can’t wait to experience the food!

Riverbank Apartments

I.T. Carlow

Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment Final Project

Our energy efficiency reports were passed in yesterday and today were the presentations. The presentations were attended by lots of students, faculty, and community members. Some students from Holland College in PEI made the trip to Halifax to watch as well.

All groups did an excellent job of their projects and presentations. Because of the different nationalities and fields of study among the participants the strategies were quite different. Each group had at least one Irish student, one Dutch student, and one Canadian. I really enjoyed experiencing the different perspectives on things.

Our group did an energy model of a large (3000 square foot) house that was built in 2005. The home was R2000 and had an Energuide rating of 83. In order to develop our report we took the following steps:

  • We collected utility data and normalized it using heating degree days. Linear regression and cumulative sum analysis was used to look for irregularities
  • We developed an energy model of the house using HOT2000. This is free software from Natural Resources Canada that allows you to simulate the energy use in a house and find out where the areas for improvement are.
  • A 3D model was built. The house drawings were supplied in AutoCAD and these were used to create a Google Sketchup model as well as a 3D rendering.
  • An on-site audit was conducted and we collected data about various systems in the house and took inventory of items we felt were inefficient. We also used thermal imaging, sound meters, air quality sensors, and a blower door. We interviewed the home owner at this time to help us understand occupant behaviour.

We were able to come up with several opportunities for energy and efficiency. These were:

  • Install energy efficient light bulbs in all fixtures.
  • Retire the second refrigerator.
  • Install a hot water tank insulating blanket.
  • Use the programmable thermostat to set back heating at night.
  • Install a real time energy monitoring system.
  • Install a solar hot water heating system.
  • Install a drain water heat recovery unit.
We also recommended the homeowner get a rain barrel to harvest rainwater for landscaping and to use mulch to increase water retention in the soil for his garden beds. All of our recommendations for the home would cut the energy consumption down by 42%. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8.18 tons, which is the same as planting 190 trees or taking 1.5 cars off the road. Being a part of this project was an amazing experience for me.
The international perspective was great and project based learning is a great way to learn. My field of study is quite new and I can expect to be working with people from other disciplines mostly, so the experience was priceless.
You can download a copy of our final report with recommendations here.

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EEBE Project Update

We are now 3 days into the Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment project and there have been some changes to the work that we will be doing. We will not be auditing Habitat for Humanity homes as we had originally planned. The reason for this is that we were not able to get architectural drawings for those houses, and without drawings we would need to measure which would add hours to the project. Because the timeframe is only 3 weeks we have selected different homes to allow us to focus on learning the skills that are most important.

We were put into teams and each team will conduct an audit. Our team consists of:
Fin MacDonald (Me) – NSCC, Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology
Sarah Mitchell – NSCC, Contruction Management
Arwin Hidding – Hanze University (The Netherlands), Architecture
John Booth –  ITCarlow (Ireland), Construction Building Services

The project based learning approach places us in groups with diverse skills so we can draw off each others talents. Some of us are early in our study and some of us are at the end, so our skills levels vary. There will be lots to be learned during this project.

The house we have chosen is the larger of the two. It has 3 floors including a basement. It also features some complex roof geometry. It will be more challenging to model but we chose it because it comes with 2 years of utility data so we will be able to benchmark the consumption.

Our group is currently working on a HOT2000 model of the home and today was the first day some of my group members have seen this software before. The HOT2000 model will allow us to calculate the energy load of the building as well as determine the feasibility of building upgrades. We are also creating a 3D model of the home in Autodesk Revit. Revit is a similar program to Google Sketchup but with much more advanced features. We will be calculating the Building Energy Performance Index (BEPI) and Building Energy Cost Index (BECI) as soon as we get the past utility data. These indices will allow us to benchmark the building against others in Canada. They will be normalized for building area as well as weather to aid in the comparison.

The on-site audit will take place next week, and I will provide another update after that happens.

EEBE Phase 1 – Habitat for Humanity Home Audits

The first phase of the Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment (EEBE) program with NSCC International will take place in Halifax, NS. I will be based out of the NSCC Waterfront Campus in Dartmouth during that time. We will be joined by students from Hanze University in the Netherlands and IT Carlow in Ireland. The 3 week project will be to perform complete energy audits of 2 habitat for humanity homes in the area. We will be broken into teams and each team will be assigned a house. We will visit the home to perform the physical audit and use tools like thermal imaging guns and a blower door. We will take measurements so that we can create an energy model using HOT2000, which is free software from Natural Resources Canada. The software will allow us to add upgrades and determine how they will affect the energy performance of the building. We will also be checking the houses against the LEED for Homes checklist to see how well they line up with some of the broader green strategies beyond energy efficiency. At the end of the 3 weeks we will prepare a report and presentation of our findings and recommendations.

Outside of the project work we will have some presentations and tours included in the 3 week period. We will tour Thermodynamics Ltd who manufacture solar panels for hot water heating. We will also be touring the Efficiency Nova Scotia demonstration homes built by Denim Homes. The new Halifax Seaport Farmers Market is also on our list.

William Marshall from Equilibrium Engineering will be training us on HOT2000. I’ve been trained already but I am looking forward to refreshing my knowledge. We will also hear presentations from Josh MacLean from Efficiency NS, Allan Read from ITCarlow, and Gualdino Duarte Pais from Hanze University.

This project will be my life for the next 3 weeks. I am fortunate to have instructors at my home campus in Middleton who are willing to meet me half way and allow me the to be away from classes for 3 weeks. I will still be responsible for the material covered during that time but will not have to attend classes.

Our teams will start each day at 8:30 am and work as long as it takes to complete the project. Outside of the project work we aim to be good hosts to our Irish and Dutch guests! We’ll be introducing them to some of what Nova Scotia has to offer culturally, and we will be meeting them at the hostel first thing on Monday to show them the way to school on the first day.

                

Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment

I recently learned that I have been selected to take part in a international exchange program through NSCC International. The program is called “Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment.” It is a joint venture between the Nova Scotia Community College, Holland College in PEI, Institute of Technology Carlow in Carlow Ireland, and Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, The Netherlands. This project based learning venture will feature students in Architecture, Civil Engineering, Construction Management, Electrical Engineering, Energy Sustainability, and Mechanical Engineering. It will be a great chance for me to get some experience working with people in other disciplines.

The first stage will be a three week project in Dartmouth, NS. Each of the four schools will work together with local community partners, industry and relevant agencies to solve energy efficiency challenges related to constructing and retro-fitting homes. A special emphasis will be on low income housing and efficiency awareness and education education for the owners and tenants.

In late February the team will travel to Carlow, Ireland to undertake a second project. The details of this project will be worked out in the near future. Upon our return from Carlow we will prepare a final report as well as a presentation for the Technology Showcase 2012.

This project will allow me to gain international experience and an international perspective on energy efficiency. In densely populated areas like Europe resources are much scarcer and energy efficiency is a much more urgent priority. For this reason they are further ahead in their construction and conservation methods. I’m excited for what I can learn from them.

NSCC Waterfront Solar Monitoring (Part 3)

Friday was my final day with NSCC Applied Research working full time. When I left Friday the monitoring system was not live. There are still some challenges to overcome with this very large project. When we replaced the wire with CAT5 network wire the system worked for a little while but then we started getting shorted bus errors. Because of the number of connections the resistance on the wire was too high. We will need to solder the connections instead of using quick connect clips in order to improve the signal. The WEL sends 5V over the 1-wire bus and because of the amount of quick connects we used for sensors runs we were getting too much resistance and noise on the line. We reduced the system to include only one of the evacuated tube collectors and the signal returned to normal. Once the soldering is done we can include the others again.

Our network connection is browning out as well. We are able to get a wireless signal on the roof with the equipment we have but we can’t keep it connected. This meant we couldn’t go live with the system. We will need to replace the antenna with something stronger. We have an access point on the roof for the solar photovoltaic monitoring and we may need to try connecting through that as well. That would require significant changes to the way the photovoltaic monitoring system communicates though so we would consider that a last resort.

I leave the project in the very capable hands of Dr. Alain Joseph and they rest of the crew. They will continue to move the project forward and I expect to see the system live this summer. I prepared a manual for them documenting the process of solar hot water monitoring using the WEL. I’m sure that will provide them with the knowledge transfer required for someone else to step in and continue the project. I have also agreed to offer them support on a part time basis as needed.

The experience of working on a large project like this one has been very valuable to me. We’ve worked through a number of different problems, and learned to anticipate things to go wrong. I know now that I shouldn’t expect anything to work right the first time. I also learned the importance of documenting your work properly, so that others can pick up where you left off.

Connecting a Pyranometer to the WEL

Getting a pyranometer to work with the Web Energy Logger (WEL) was a long process for us in the lab. A pyranometer is a device that measures the solar intensity in watts per meter squared. We used a 0-5V pyranometer from Apogee (http://www.apogeeinstruments.com/pyranometer/). This was a challenge because the WEL does not have a 0-5V input. We needed to convert the signal to 4-20 mA so that it could be read by the WEL. There is a benefit to 4-20mA though since it is a current signal and not voltage it doesn’t drop off when you use a long wire run. Originally we had an electronics student design us a signal converting circuit board because we had the tools to design and mill circuit boards here at the college. We found a company that manufactures boards like this (http://controlsignalconverter.com/) and it is much more practical to purchase them then make them in most cases.

When testing the pyranometer we noticed that the 4-20 mA signal would drop off around the 12 or 13 mA mark and saturate. The WEL would never receive the full 20 mA. We ran numerous tests with our equipment and determined that the problem was within the WEL itself. We spoke to the manufacturer of the WEL and he explained the problem and how to fix it. It requires some cutting to fix it. There are two zener diodes inside the WEL that need to be snipped off. To do this you need to remove the rabbit board network chip by wiggling it and lifting it at the same time. It is fairly snug so you will need to work at it to get it off. Once it is off you will have access to the zener diodes and you can snip them out with some wire cutters. You will see them next to the green 4-20 mA plug on the WEL sandwiched between two resistors. I took a picture of our board with them removed below and have identified where they used to be with a red circle. Once we removed the zener diodes it worked perfectly.

You need to scale the numbers in order to get the proper engineering units. We used the formula f(x)=78.125x-312.5 to convert the 4-20 mA signal into watts per meter squared. This was specific to the equipment we used so if you use a different pyranometer you will need to do the math yourself.

Pyranometers are important for research because they allow you to see how solar panel output changes with solar intensity. We are particularly interested in how solar performs in the winter time in our climate. It is cold but often the sun is shining. With a pyranometer in our system we will be able to draw more meaningful conclusions from our data.

    

NSCC Waterfront Solar Monitoring (Part 2)

The solar thermal monitoring project is moving along despite a couple of setbacks. We received the wireless equipment in the mail and were able to set up the wireless bridge to the schools wireless network. We used a directional antenna to improve the reception because the school’s wireless signal on the roof is weak.

We put a 12V deep cycle battery on the roof and we did a test run. It was able to power both the router and the Web Energy Logger (WEL). The battery is rated at 90 amp hours and the load for both the WEL and router is 0.4 amps combined. This means we are able to get over 3 months of power off the battery before we will need to swap it out for charging. This is good news because the battery is very heavy!

Testing with the pyranometer hit a bit of a wall initially. As I mentioned in my previous post the pyranometer measures the solar intensity in watts per meter squared. Since we are converting the 0-5V signal on the pyranometer to a 4-20 mA (milliamp) signal for the WEL we needed to scale the results. We did the math calculation and did a test run. We weren’t getting to the proper numbers in the upper ranges. Once we were confident the math was correct we tried numerous 4-20 mA devices with the WEL and had the same result. It really pays to have an electrical engineering student around when you are trying to troubleshoot electrical problems. Travis Keeping is our electrical expert at the lab and he a bunch of tests for us. In the end a call to Phil Malone from OurCoolHouse.com who designed the WEL was all it took to discover our problem. Turns out that the WEL has a defect and there are two zener diodes that we will need to snip out of the circuit and it should work fine after that. Phil also told us that new versions of the WEL will have a voltage port so we won’t need to convert the signal in the future. We have another WEL on order and it will have the voltage connection on it.

The wire we chose for the sensor wire run was cheap wire and it started giving us grief. We used a 75m run and it had too much resistance because it wasn’t twisted pair wire. Twisted pair wire helps to reduce the electrical noise on the signal. We started getting “shorted bus” errors on the WEL. I took the wire run down and we will be replacing it with CAT 5 wire, which is what is used for computer network cables. Once the new wire is installed we should be able to go live.

On the Road to Renewable Energy (Again)

Today we had a visit from Wayne Rostad at the research lab. Wayne is the former host of CBC Television’s “On the Road Again.” Wayne is building a house in Jeddore, NS and it is too remote to be connected to the electrical grid. He came by the campus to see some of our renewable energy equipment in operation and get some ideas for an off-grid system. He has a lot of wind at his location so we showed him some wind turbines in different energy classes to give him an idea of his options. We also showed him some solar photovoltaics as well because he is considering a wind/solar hybrid system. I hope we’ve left him with some good ideas for his home! I think there might be potential for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification as well. Since his home is not finished being built it is a candidate for LEED for Homes.

Wayne is no stranger to the camera so we snapped some pictures with him before he left.

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