October 25, 2017

By Cassandra Day

MIDDLETOWN — Twelfth-grade carpentry, HVAC, architectural, plumbing and electrical students from Middletown and Meriden gathered around a tiny lavender saltbox on the grass at the rear of Vinal Technical High School on Tuesday for the opening of the state’s ninth E-House.

The seniors, joined by school, state and local officials, showed off the results of their handiwork over the last few years at what’s known as the nation’s first green construction learning laboratories for high school students.

The initiative provides a clean energy and energy efficiency curriculum and training for Connecticut’s Technical High School’s students and faculty. E-Houses incorporate solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems, premium insulation, home automation, and advanced air handling equipment.

As part of the project, plumbing students mounted solar panels that were connected to a water heater, senior Michael Thurston said.

“We put (ethylene glycol) in the solar panels and then (the sun) heats it up and transfers it to the water heater. It transfers the heat from the glycol that’s in the water heater to the water and then it circulates through the system,” he said.

“It doesn’t look that steep, but when you’re on the roof,” it’s a little nerve-wracking, said Thurston, gesturing toward the solar panels on the rear of the E-house.

During roof work, students donned safety harnesses as a safety measure, his classmate said.

“My challenge was helping them get the panels on the roof because I’m so small,” Destiny Lopez said. “It was tough when it was getting toward summertime because of the bees. It was scary sometimes when I was up there. I helped getting into small spaces with my hands because it was difficult for the guys to do it,” Lopez said.

The state’s first E-House opened in September 2011 at E.C. Goodwin Technical High School in New Britain. These projects include the efforts of architectural drafting students, who created the blueprints, and other students from Platt, Vinal, Cheney and Goodwin tech schools.

Following Tuesday’s ribbon cutting, attendees were invited inside the tiny house, in a 400-square-foot space on the ground floor, to learn about the various energy efficient systems installed inside.

Vinal electrical student Anthony Amendola explained the different types of insulation used in the home: spray foam, batt and dense-pack and blown cellulose. The latter is made from 85-percent recycled paper, he said, and treated with fire and insect retardants.

Amendola, who was the E-House project foreman at the beginning of tenth grade, marveled at how much the students had learned. “It’s a big accomplishment. You can definitely tell the difference from sophomore year — barely knowing anything — to senior year, where we put up solar panels, wired the generator,” and other tasks, he said.

One of the electrical students showed off the heat-recovery ventilator, dehumidifier, air conditioning and thermostats, explaining the HVAC system’s ability to heat or cool only half the house if needed. The design also incorporates ultraviolet air filters to kill bacteria and eliminate odors in the air, he said, popping out the easy-to-clean electronic air filter.

Outside the little home’s front porch, flanked with pumpkins and other autumn decor, an electric car sat silent, hooked up to a charging system that powers up plug-in electric cars and hybrid electric vehicles.

The students, dignitaries and other guests watched a video presentation documenting the project’s progress from its beginnings four years ago.

When the short film concluded, state Department of Labor Commissioner Scott Jackson, former mayor of Hamden, told an anecdote about one of his high school teachers whose style made a major impact on his life.

Jackson said his 10th-grade chemistry teacher, who came to America on a steamship from Italy as a teen and managed to teach himself English, told students on the first day of schoolto memorize the periodic table of elements.

“‘If you don’t memorize it, it you can’t dream about it, and if you can’t dream about it, then you can’t add another row to that table,’” his teacher told the class.

That lesson, Jackson said, is an important one for technical school students, especially those looking to begin their career in the green jobs industry.

“It’s not just learning by rote, it’s not just getting a design of something and taking this design and making it real,” he said. “It’s about looking at what’s not in that design and saying, ‘We can do this better,’” Jackson said.

The E-House project is one that has immediate real-life benefits, said Jeffrey Wihbey, interim superintendent for the Connecticut Technical High School System.

Its solar thermal hot water system is already supplying hot water to Vinal. “Not only is a learning lab, but it’s also having returns, saving taxpayers money already, providing free energy to the school and the grid,” Wihbey told those gathered.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently completed a survey of the country’s clean energy economy and determined Connecticut’s green industry now sustains 34,000 jobs, said Diane Duva, director of the Office of Energy Demand at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Partnering with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, courtesy of a federal Department of Energy grant, the DEEP asked employers in Connecticut what skills they are looking for in their workforce.

“More than half of them said they’re having a hard time finding people to fill the spots, because they need people coming into their jobs with technical skills, with the sorts of skills that you are developing and practicing on your E-House,” Duva told the students.

“It’s a lab and it’s a learning experience, so what we try to do is get as many people, as many schools, as many career areas, involved in it as possible,” said Ray Mencio, education consultant, construction trades, in the career and technical education department at Vinal.

Setbacks that arise during the building of each of these E-Houses are tackled by thinking of them as educational opportunities, he said.

“Everybody has them, but we learn more from our mistakes so everybody designs their own building and then, as the design goes up, any issues they have, they have to research it and then correct it,” Mencio said.

Now, students at the Bristol Technical Education Center are putting finishing touches on an E-House that is wholly independent from fossil fuels. It’s expected to be finished within a month, Mencio said.

“Every building is unique, each incorporates state-of-the-art technology,” he said. The next one to be built at Prince Tech will be a mixed-use, two-story structure with commercial space on the ground floor and residential on the first, he said.

“The creativity, the design, the will, the desire, the craftsmanship that this system develops is second to none,” Jackson said of the state’s technical schools.

He told the students not to think of their future employment opportunities as jobs, but rather careers in a growing field that’s the future of Connecticut.

“If you’re building something that goes underwater, if you’re building something that goes into space, or if you’re building something from the ground up in construction, nobody does it better than Connecticut and you’re a part of that legacy,” Jackson said.

The E-House initiative is funded by the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund and the Connecticut Green Bank, with the goal of an E-House at each of the state’s 17 technical high schools. Eversource and UI administer the program by managing and developing the curriculum. They are hands-on partners that see the construction through to its completion.

For information, see eesmarts.com.

Managing Editor Cassandra Day can be reached at cassandra.day@hearst