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Instrumentation for Dummies

Sunday, September 29, 2013

By Alexis Powers

If your head spins at the thought of 105 sensors collecting 12 data points every 15 minutes for all 19 houses competing in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013, you might want to pay a visit to Miss Barbara. This bodiless mannequin acts as the student liaison for the instrumentation team. Perhaps the steadiest head on the competition site, Miss Barbara helps student decathletes locate the instrumentation trailer when questions arise about measured contests.

Photo of a mannequin's head looking out of a construction trailer's window.

The unwavering gaze of Miss Barbara serves as a beacon for decathletes who are searching for answers related to monitored performance—and baked goods.

The instrumentation team is made up of five people (not including Miss Barbara), all of whom were once researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and some of whom have managed instrumentation for every Solar Decathlon since 2002. Their role is to ensure the accuracy, availability, and accessibility of data used in the monitored performance subcontests.

In addition to the Energy Balance Contest, four subcontests fall under the instrumentation team’s charge. These include Temperature and Humidity within the Comfort Zone Contest and Refrigerator and Freezer within the Appliances Contest.

Together, the instrumentation team is responsible for awarding a potential total of 220 points to each team. Considering that the difference between the first-place score and the fourth-place score in the 2011 competition was only 36 points, a team’s monitored performance can make or break its chances for becoming the next Solar Decathlon champion.

Photo of three men and one woman wearing gold shirts and Solar Decathlon hats.

Members of the Solar Decathlon instrumentation team sport gold shirts so they are easily recognizable.

The instrumentation team stays busy during the competition ensuring that each team’s datalogger and various sensors are appropriately placed and gathering data during contest hours. These dedicated folks watch the actual readings, collect stats to confirm the reliability of those readings, and ensure that the data continue providing a seamless flow of information to the Solar Decathlon scoring database.

How good are they at this? Let’s just say the instrumentation team regularly checks the remaining battery power levels, not just on the measurement devices but also on their backup batteries.

So although it’s clear that the instrumentation team takes its role seriously, the team members don’t take themselves too seriously. After all, they are willing to bribe decathletes with brownies and cookies to encourage a visit to the instrumentation trailer. Turns out Miss Barbara can bake better than she can blink.

Alexis Powers is a member of the Solar Decathlon communications team.

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