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Expo Speakers Jump Start Students, the Green Way

Saturday, February 28, 2009

KU alumni and retired Microsoft pioneers Rick and Karen Hargroves
If a Train A leaves the station heading east at 60 mph at the same time Train B leaves its station heading west at 40 mph, how long before the world adopts a greener way to get things done?

The answer is: Right now.

Rick and Karen Hargrove, two University of Kansas computer science graduates, gave about 1,500 students in fourth through 12


grades a rousing lesson in real-world math, science and green engineering as keynote speakers at the 2009 Engineering Expo in February.

“This is where I’m going to wake you guys up a little bit,” Karen told the audience. Dividing the assembly down the center, she called for one volunteer from each half to come on stage.  “The rest of you have to participate (too). When I give the signal I want to hear ‘Math!’” she said, pointing to one side of the auditorium. Turning to the other side, “OK, and you guys are?”

“SCIENCE,” came the thunderous response.

Using the construction of their own dream home on the California coast as an example, the retired Microsoft researchers showed the crowded Lied Center audience how to think like an engineer, use math and science, and bring about real change.  The couple, who attended KU in the early ’80s and are believed to be the first tag-team presenters at Expo, now live in an expansive manor with a stunning view that is a net producer of energy. 

The first lesson of the morning proved to be enlightening.

Two volunteers from the audience receive a Kill A Watt after helping help Karen Hargrove demonstrate energy use of home appliances
The two young volunteers helped the Hargroves demonstrate the energy use of a table lamp and different kinds of light bulbs – incandescent, fluorescent and LED – using a Kill-A-Watt. The small device provides a digital display of wattage used by appliances plugged into it.

“So we’ve gone from 56 watts to 25 by simply changing the bulb – same light output, half the energy,” Rick said.  After screwing in the LED bulb, the crowd was surprised to learn energy use had dropped to 2 watts.  The Hargroves acknowledged that the price of replacing all the bulbs in one’s home with LED bulbs was beyond reach for most homeowners.

“Who’s going to engineer these to bring down the price?” Karen asked the audience. “You,” she told them.

The passion the Hargroves feel toward incorporating several green technologies was apparent through the depth, breadth and amazing detail of their efforts.

“We have smart lighting to reduce our costs, which is often 30 (percent) to 50 percent of electricity used in the home,” Karen said. 

“Solar is really key to what we’ve done in our home and what we’re going to talk about,” Karen said. “Being able to take advantage of new technology to reduce the amount of energy consumption makes solar even more viable. “

A typical solar panel that’s 3 feet by 4 feet produces about 200 watts.

“So if you look at 20 light bulbs, which isn’t very much, (the panel) can’t even power the normal incandescent light bulbs,” Karen said. “But if we look at LED light bulbs, it powers that and it powers more.”

The 177 solar panels on a section of their roof are hidden from most views of the home.

“The big resistance to panels in many areas has been that people (in the neighborhood) don’t like the look,” Rick said. “Our architect worked very hard to give us the square footage we wanted for the solar panels so the house could have no electrical demand.”

As a result everything in the home that requires power runs off the electricity generated from the solar panels – everything.

“We run dryers, refrigerators, ovens … our computers, we have a lot of computers, PCs, audio, video, cell-phone chargers, everything,” Karen said. “And we are a net producer of clean energy in California so we consume less than we produce. That means we use a lot of …”

“MATH,” roared half of the auditorium when it got her signal.

“And?” Karen asked pointing to the other side. 

“SCIENCE!” the students bellowed back.

The Hargroves explained other technologies integrated into their home to make its energy footprint as small as possible while still maintaining comfort and even a little luxury.

The couple harnessed geothermal energy and heat exchangers to handle the home’s heating, cooling and domestic hot water needs.

Karen Hargrove
“One really cool thing is you can get air conditioning, too, just by reversing the system,” Karen said. “I think it’s especially cool because (traditional) air conditioning is one of the biggest polluters, biggest contributors of CFCs.”

Automation plays a major role in creating energy efficiencies for the Hargroves, and it’s an area where they were able to put their computer science skills to very good use.

The home features automated blinds that respond to the seasons and position of the sun.

“We put in motorized automated blinds,” Rick said. “They don’t look like that much, and, in fact, most of the time you don’t see them because they are hidden in the walls. But the big thing is they can be controlled by our centralized system.” When deployed the blinds create a gap of dead air space that acts as an insulator.  “That dead air makes an enormous impact on how much heat is actually lost in the house in the evenings.” A more constant temperature means less work for the heat pumps, which in turn conserves the solar energy.

The automation manages a variety of systems, such as security, phone, lighting, hot water and more.

“This is the hub of the house,” Rick said, showing a photo of the home’s control room, “and it allows us really to control all the things throughout the house and make them work in concert.” The system even takes in data from outside the home and uses that to manage key systems.  He pulls online data from four different weather stations to determine whether or not to irrigate the landscaping.

“It actually looks forward using weather forecasts to say, ‘well, if there’s an 80 percent chance it’s going to rain tomorrow, then I’m not going to water today,’” Rick said. “So you save all the water that you would have used watering right before it rains.”

For all their planning, the dream home is, they admitted, missing a couple things. They don’t have natural gas hookups.  But that was by design.  One detail they don’t have yet, but are on a waiting list for, is a plug-in for an electric car.

“So for us, the future is green,” Karen said. “We think that’s where there’s a lot of engineering that needs to be done to help the world.” Estimates are that as many as 4.2 million green jobs will be created over the next 30 years.  And as part of the presentation, the Hargroves identified dozens of businesses and firms that are involved creating and improving green technologies right now.

“So do the …” Karen said, pointing.

“MATH!” they yelled.

“Do the …” Karen added.

“SCIENCE!” they screamed.

“We need you guys to engineer a green future, not just for us here in Kansas, or for out country, but for the whole world,” Karen said. “It all starts with you guys. So go get it.”



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