Tech students tap sun to power A/C unit

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2011



LAPLACE – As contradictory as it might sound, students and faculty at South Central Louisiana Technical College in Reserve have developed a way to use the sun to keep cool.

Students involved in the air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance program at the school have spent the past two years developing a central air conditioning unit that harnesses and operates on solar energy. Terry Carmouche, lead faculty member for the program, said the unit is the first of its kind.

“The only unit that is powered entirely by solar energy,” Carmouche said. “There are often devices that run on solar that also must include a battery backup, but it isn’t the case here. The panels we have set up are able to convert DC power to AC power.”

Carmouche said the unit has even caught the eye of representatives from the Lennox Corp. He said the company plans to feature the unit in its national publication and added that Lennox technicians have offered use of training materials to tech college students for future endeavors.

“The Lennox reps were blown away by it,” Carmouche said. “The plan to give us great publicity. The company utilizes solar technology but not to this extent.”

The unit got its start more than two years ago when Carmouche and the technical college faculty wrote a roughly $7,000 grant to build a small heat pump that runs off solar energy. He said the success of that project encouraged the school to think bigger.

Shortly after the first grant, Carmouche said the school went for a larger grant through the Entergy Charitable Foundation to help fund the central unit. The school was granted $25,000 toward development of the project, which took a little more than a year-and-a-half to design and develop.

The grant helped the school finance the 15 large solar panels to power the unit. The panels were fashioned and assembled into a unique mobile frame that can be wheeled in and out of a workshop relatively easily.

“The panels are designed to be affixed on the roof of the building,” Carmouche said. “The problem with that is that it isn’t exactly conducive to teaching. In order to have something that would allow us access to the panels without them getting vandalized or damaged, we enlisted the help of the school’s welding and industrial maintenance department, who designed and built our mobile display.”

Lead by faculty members Jimmy Goodson and Barry Humble, Carmouche and the welding and maintenance students spent about 32 classroom hours fashioning the mobile frame fort the panels. In addition to the easy access, Carmouche said the mobile unit has the ability to tilt back and forth so the panels follow the progression of the sun during the day to get maximum exposure.

The panels generate about 13 amps of power, which is enough energy to allow the two-ton A/C unit to cool a 1,000-square-foot space. Students who worked on the project said the unit has been given a 20-seer, or seasonal energy efficiency ratio, one of the highest for air conditioning units.

“The unit can cut energy bills dramatically,” said student Josh Landry. “When the A/C isn’t turned on, those 13 amps of power go into the school’s grid helping to limit the amount of power we are getting from other sources. When it is bright and sunny outside, we are happy because we can get free air conditioning.”

Greg Garrett, regional director for the South Central Louisiana Technical College, said the solar A/C project is a testament to the ingenuity of the refrigeration program at the school and the product of a motivated faculty member.

“This curriculum has some motivated instructors who produce great results,” Garrett said. “We have no problem getting students for this program because A/C and refrigeration are never going away, but projects like this really go a long way toward improving our program and the industry itself.”