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"Oh! Did we freeze the evaporator?" Spencer asks.

Just then, Meyers shows up and makes a bad joke about how many mechanical operators it takes to run CU's system. "We think we might have iced the evaporator. We basically need this to thaw," Brandemuehl says. "So, as far as the opportunity to participate in the competition this week, if you leave here and we have not passed inspections, we cannot heat water or heat the house?"

"No, that's not correct," Meyers says. "What I'm going to do is give the organizers my final punch list. I'm going to tell them, 'Hey, the majority of the system looks great but wasn't operable. I suggest you review the modifications.'"

With just thirty minutes until tours must start, they leave the system to thaw and try to clean up. Brandemuehl and Corbin start a conversation that will continue well into the evening about which pipes need to be cut and rerouted to get the heating and cooling system up and running. On his way out, Brandemuehl notices Lyng sweeping the kitchen floor and takes a picture.

As soon as public tours end at 5 p.m., McNeill is back in front of the mechanical closet with a hose, filling the system with water in order to push out air. After many rounds of "Feel this one" and "Feel that," someone calls, "We've got warm water over here!" Brandemuehl decides they've been successful. McNeill doesn't look too sure. Still, he clears out with everyone else so that Corbin can fix the piping without distraction.

Now Corbin, who's been running in place outside to pump himself up, looks at the drawings and pipes one more time with Brandemuehl. He then gets to work, cutting and soldering around a tangle of wires. Tonight's impound starts at 10 p.m., and when the team returns a little before that, Corbin finishes without a word. Then, as he's cleaning up his tools, he says softly, "Just turn it on."

They decide to try the hot water first. Everyone gathers around the kitchen sink with their fingers in the stream.

"It's getting warm!"


With just a few minutes left, they'll have to wait until the morning — when they'll have only an hour before the temperature and hot-water tests — to try the heating and cooling. "I love our sophisticated control system," McNeill says. "Dave standing by the controls, Chad with his hand in the tank, and I'll be the relay. I'll yell out and smack Dave in the head when he needs to turn something off."

The ten contests in the Solar Decathlon are divided between subjective categories decided by juries and objective categories for which results can be measured. On Monday, October 15, the games really begin when everything is monitored: temperature, lighting, hot water, energy into and out of the batteries of their off-grid homes, efficiency of such tasks as dishwashing and clothes-drying, and mileage on the electric car that each team is given and must charge with energy from its house. Those measurements, and how they affect the teams' rankings, are updated every fifteen minutes and put on a spreadsheet for all to see. On Monday, there's also the first awards ceremony for a juried competition: architecture.

"I'm so anxious," Sofield says as people start gathering around the podium set up close to CU's front door. "It's not for me. I'm anxious for everybody else."

CU's architects arrive first, and then the rest of the team arrives to show support. Corbin hugs each of the designers as a juror takes the mike and begins talking about beauty and innovation and making the world a better place. As the juror lists notable aspects of some projects, the CU students speculate that it's a good sign he hasn't mentioned them. Maybe he's saving the best for last.

As the juror is about to name the winners, the mike goes out.

Six DOE representatives assess the situation while the students groan. A television crew offers a spare mike, but it goes out, too. After five very long minutes, a DOE staffer locates the extension cord that's apparently needed to make the system work.

The winners are finally announced, beauty-pageant style. Third place: Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Second place: University of Maryland. First place: Technische Universitat Darmstadt, whose house is across the walkway from CU's. Even though they're fierce competitors, with solar cells on every east-, west- and south-facing slot of the mechanical oak louvers surrounding their house, the German students — always smoking, dressed in black, incredibly cheerful — are hard for the Coloradans not to like.

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Jessica Centers