The University of North Texas' Zero Energy Lab, built in 2012, is designed to test the efficiency of the latest sustainable energy technologies on a residential scale. Photos courtesy of UNT.

June 9, 2014

At the University of North Texas, they’re studying a simulated living environment to discover which technologies work best to achieve an annual net zero energy consumption.

The 1,200-square-foot Zero Energy Lab, completed in 2012, was designed specifically to give students and researchers the tools to study the next generations of sustainable and renewable energy technologies.  

Net-zero consumption means that different building systems, such as solar, geothermal and wind systems, can produce enough energy to power the building and in many cases even create excess energy to return to the power grid. 

The Zero Energy Lab featurs solar panels and a rainwater cistern.

According to Thomas Checketts, a graduate student who is studying under Dr. Yong Tao, the chair of the Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering who oversaw the creation of the lab, the building is designed to mimic both a residential setting and a small office building. 

The building, located at UNT's Discovery Park Campus, features six geothermal wells, advanced competing HVAC systems, solar panels, a solar water heater, a solar chimney a 3,000-gallon rain water harvesting tank and radiant flooring. Outside, there is a residential-scale wind turbine and an electric vehicle charging station.  

Checketts, who graduates in August, said research participants will be enlisted to live in the building on a rotational basis.

“The purpose is to set up a database of different users,” said Checketts, who maintained the lab as part of his master thesis for the last fall and spring semesters. “Some people leave lights on longer, open the refrigerator more often and like it cooler in the building than others.” 

Eventually homes could have a thermal picture of the occupants in order to make them comfortable in the environment. 

“That kind of Jetson’s futuristic home isn’t too far away,” he said.

Today about a dozen faculty members and graduate students use the lab to study aspects such as engineering, building materials and human behavior. 

Right and below, the building is designed so that research participants can live in the building for data collection purposes.

He said researchers have already used the building to test various types of equipment to see if they are as energy efficient as they promise to be. A central computer takes in the data through 160 sensors in the building. 

“Everything from plug-in outlets to the HVAC system to pumps are constantly being recorded,” said Checketts, who graduates in August. “We can control the settings manually and set up the experiments that we’re interested in doing.”

Checketts said the great thing about the building is that it’s designed to be upgraded as the technology upgrades. 

For example, the structural panels of the roof and walls can be switched out with more green type materials that are currently being developed.

“It’s able to adapt and change to whatever the needs of the research are.”

Check these out: 

Virtual Tour of UNT’s Zero Energy Lab 

Powerpoint Tour of UNT's Zero Energy Lab 

Photo Gallery of UNT's Zero Energy Lab

Minnie Payne is a Carrolton-based freelance writer. She’s written for Pegasus News, Frisco Style Magazine and Seedstock. She presently freelances for Living Magazine, The Senior Voice and Your Speakeasy. She can be reached at 

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