More homeowners are investing in solar panels as a more environmentally (and budget) friendly energy source. But solar panels work best when the sun shines directly on them, which means they’re only working at their full potential for one or two hours of the day.

A team of students at Santa Clara University may have found a more efficient way to harvest the sun’s energy. They designed and built a solar-powered tiny home on a revolving platform that moves with the sun.

By rotating to face the sun, the house’s solar panels are able to soak up about 30% more energy that others of the same size, Taylor Mau, one of its creators, tells Business Insider.

The design, called rEvolve, won first place at the second annual Tiny House Competition in October. Organized by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and open to California universities, the goal of the competition is to select the best zero-net energy tiny house. Last month, 10 schools demoed their creations at Sacramento’s Consumnes River College.

The students say the house cost $61,000 to build, and the platform, called a solar tracking ring, cost $25,000.

They built the first rEolve house for San Francisco-based nonprofit Operation Freedom Paws (OFP), which matches disabled veterans with service dogs. After the competition, they donated the structure to the organization, which will use it as temporary housing for veterans visiting the Bay Area. OFP normally pays for hotels for participating veterans, since its training program takes 48 weeks.

There aren’t yet any plans to build or sell more rEvolve houses, but you can check out the prototype.

The 15 undergraduate students designed the rEvolve house to make a full revolution in 12 hours (about the same time it takes the sun to go across the sky). That way, the panels are always perpendicular to the solar rays that hit them.

The house was designed for two people to live in, JJ Galvin, the project leader, says. The first one will accommodate one person and one service dog. Inside, the 238-square-foot space looks surprisingly roomy. It features a kitchen with seating and a fold-down table. The kitchen cabinets are made of repurposed wood from Santa Clara University’s basketball court floor, which was torn up for renovations. There’s also a 35-square-foot bathroom with a shower and a living room that doubles as a bedroom. A Murphy bed folds down from the wall.

After speaking with some OFP veterans who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the students decided to incorporate a light color scheme, large windows, and vaulted ceiling to open up the space. A rooftop deck can reached by climbing a spiral staircase.

The house has eight 330-watt solar panels,and stores electricity in 83-amp-hour batteries. During the winter when there’s less sunlight, the house uses the batteries’ stored energy. Once the batteries die (they have an eight-year warranty), they can be recycled and turned into new ones.

“We wanted to build a completely sustainable and off-the-grid house,” Taylor Mau says.

The project’s design phase lasted two years, but construction took only three and a half months, Galvin says.

The name rEvolve came from the notion that “the tiny house movement is leading the revolution of housing,” Jack Dinkelspiel, another student designer, says.

Image Credit: Joanne H. Lee/Santa Clara University
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