Fin MacDonald

Information on me and my current projects

Tag Archives: Nova Scotia Community College

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

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.

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.

Empowered Partnership – Success Magazine 2011

Each year NSCC puts out Success Magazine to publicize recent projects among students and staff. This year a project involving our lab was selected for printing! Dr. Alain Joseph who heads the Applied Energy Research Lab obtained a grant through NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada) to work to improve the performance of solar energy systems in Atlantic Canada. Dr. Joseph hired 8 students to help with the project over the course of the year. Travis Keeping from the Electrical Engineering Technology program and his instructor Gord Wilkie helped design a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) to monitor solar hot water. The monitoring system was deployed in industry and will provide clues to the availability of solar energy in our climate. Since I came on late in the project my work involved examining low cost alternatives to the PLC system. My work using the Web Energy Logger (WEL) was based around trying to provide the same information as the PLC system. I believe it is important to have low cost alternatives because not every system is big enough to warrant the expense of PLCs which can be in the range of thousands of dollars. We are currently deploying both a PLC system and a low cost WEL on the solar equipment on the roof of the Waterfront Campus.

I have attached a scan of the article here.

Congratulations to NSCC Graduates 2011

I would like to take a minute to congratulate the graduates of NSCC this year. My campus in Middleton, NS had their graduation on Friday. The Waterfront Campus in Dartmouth where I currently work is having their graduation today. I know first hand the challenges associated with earning your diploma, especially the heavy course load of 6 classes. It is a task that takes hard work and determination.

I would like to thank the Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology graduates in Middleton, NS for being such good role models and mentors to us students in the first year this past year. Hopefully we will be able to provide the same level of support to the new ESET students coming into the program this year.

I wish all graduates the best of luck in their future endeavors!

NSCC Waterfront Solar Monitoring (Part 1)

We are working on an electronic monitoring system for the solar thermal gear on the roof of the NSCC Waterfront Campus. The roof has 2 arrays of Thermodynamics flat plate collectors as well as 2 arrays of Thermomax evacuated tube collectors. We will be monitoring the glycol temperatures, outside air temperature, and solar radiation. The data logging will be done using the Web Energy Logger (WEL) over the Wel Server. I have installed the temperature sensors and programmed the logic for the calculations inside the WEL. We are interested in adding flow meters to this project if we can find ones within our price range and get permission from facilities management to install them.

The challenge with working on the roof is that there isn’t power or wired network access. The campus has a very weak wireless signal on the roof and I will be connecting the WEL to the internet that way by using a wireless bridging router. The router runs off 12V and the WEL can also run off of 12V. For now I will power the entire setup off of a large deep cycle battery and it will need to be changed and charged from time to time. NSCC Applied Research may add a photovoltaic panel to the roof to power the equipment and charge the battery at a later time.

This project is unique from the residential and commercial installs I have done in the past because it will be used primarily for research. An electronics student at the college was able to design us a voltage to milliamp converting circuit board that will allow us to connect a pyranometer with a voltage output to the 4-20 mA input on the WEL. By using a pyranometer and air temperature sensor I will be able to match the energy output to the solar radiation and determine the energy efficiency of the gear. I will also be able to do statistical analysis over time. The lab will be very interested in the variance of the different readings and how they relate to each other. By comparing sunny days in the winter to days with the same amount of solar radiation in the summer we will be able to determine the effect of outside air temperature on the output of the different types of collectors. This is of particular interest because our winters are cold but the sun is usually shining.

I will be posting more information as this project progresses.

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The Thermomax evacuated tube collectors are the dark blue tubes on the left of the roof. The Thermodynamics flat plat collectors are the small grey rectangular panels with the black border.

Governor General’s visit to NSCC Waterfront Campus

Today was an interesting day at the lab as the Governor General of Canada came to visit the campus. His Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnson replaced Michaëlle Jean in 2010. He didn’t have time to stop in and talk with us in the Applied Research lab but he did take a few minutes to view the renewable energy gear on the roof. The day today was largely unproductive and filled with anticipation. I’m sure it was this way for most of the staff today, but how often do you really have such an important guest? I snapped this picture of him on his tour of the building.

The Governor General of Canada on his tour of the NSCC Waterfront Campus