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Building affordable solar water heaters

  • Story Highlights
  • Students at University of California Berkeley design efficient solar water heater
  • Heaters installed on roofs of several homes in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
  • Students plan to enter design into national competition in October
  • Team hopes to extend technology to other developing countries around world
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By Hadas Goshen
Daily Californian
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Hadas Goshen is a writer for the Daily Californian. This article was brought to CNN.com by UWIRE, the leading provider of student-generated content. UWIRE aims to identify and promote the brightest young content creators and deliver their work to a larger audience via professional media partners such as CNN.com. Visit UWIRE.com to learn more.

(UWIRE) -- In spring 2007, University of California Berkeley Energy and Resources Group professor Ashok Gadgil challenged students in his Design for Sustainable Communities class to come up with an affordable and efficient solar water heater that could be used in low-income households.

The heaters installed in Guatemala have made an important impact on peoples' lives, student says.

Now, a little more than a year later, one team of students has already installed solar water heaters on the roofs of several homes in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

They have been so beneficial to the recipients that there are already plans to mass produce the heaters locally.

The team of UC Berkeley graduate students and alumni said they are planning to enter their heater design into a national competition in October.

Though the heater has only been tested in middle- and lower-class residential homes in Quetzaltenango, the team hopes to extend the technology to other developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Southern Asia, said Kenneth Armijo, a mechanical engineering doctoral student currently in Guatemala.

"The more we advance with the project, the more we realize it has an important impact on the life of people and it has a great potential to be replicated in other places around the world," said team member Ernesto Rodriguez, who is working toward a masters in business administration.

Armijo said the team hopes the heaters will stimulate local economies.

"This is a crucial step to not only integrate technologies into the third world for beneficial resources, but to make these resources available sustainably," said Armijo.

The team spent the spring 2007 semester working to perfect the design of a solar water heater Gadgil had presented to their class.

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Over spring break, team member Merwan Benhabib, an engineering doctoral student, traveled to Quetzaltenango to assess the community and see what local materials were available to build the heaters.

"Merwan found that ... households use electric in-line heaters for showering, which are costly due to the electricity expenses and hazardous since you are prone to getting shocked," said engineering doctoral student Sara Beaini.

By the end of the spring 2007 semester, the team had built and tested a prototype that heated water up to 40 degrees Celsius-sufficient for showering, members said.

During spring break this year, members of the team traveled to Guatemala to test a third prototype of the heater and conduct market analysis surveys.

In the coming months, Rodriguez said he plans to survey the families that tested the heater to find out the impact it has had on their daily lives.

Though the team said it currently has two heaters that have been successfully installed, there are several adjustments to make based on user feedback before they can present their finished product to manufacturing companies.

"It is one thing to develop a technology in a university lab, but another to develop it in the field with all of the uncertainties and unknown challenges that aren't always technically and socially apparent," Armijo said.

Despite temporary challenges, the team remains confident that the affordability of the heater will dramatically alter the lives of low-income families. The group estimates the heaters will cost $100 each when mass produced.

"(Quetzaltenango) is an urban community with significant economic activity that has little access to new technologies ... there is a lot of potential to create a local industry that will create jobs, bring better products to the market and improve quality of life of the population," said Rodriguez.

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