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Assabet students help WPI with solar-powered refrigeration system.

Think a solar-powered refrigerator is impossible? Not with the collaborative efforts of Massachusetts' Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) power! This past semester, Assabet Valley's Refrigeration/Major Appliance Repair Department has been instrumental in helping WPI with one of its student's projects.

When Paul Durand and Ronald Rogers, instructors for Assabet's Refrigeration/Major Appliance Repair Department, got the call from Stephen Bitar, program coordinator and adjunct instructor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, they immediately jumped at the challenge. One of Bitar's students--Christopher Weikel, a WPI senior in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Program--wanted to construct a small solar-powered refrigeration system as his senior project. The system was to consist of a 50-watt solar panel, a 12-volt battery, a small dorm-size fridge, and would keep things cool where standard electric power is not available. No easy task.

According to Bitar, "We needed to turn a standard refrigerator into one that could run on a battery. Most refrigerators are designed to work with standard AC power and will not work with batteries (DC). In order to run on batteries, the refrigerator must be modified by replacing the AC compressor with a DC type. DC compressors tend to be used in Europe and Africa where they have distributive power, but they are just impossible to find here in the United States. We managed to find the necessary compressor and import it from Germany, but had no way to install it. That's where Assabet came to the rescue."

Prior to his teaching at WPI, Bitar was an electronics instructor at Assabet, and he thought of his former colleague, Paul Durand, as a place to go for possible help.

Weikel and Bitar went over to Assabet's lab, where Durand and his students were instrumental in the conversion. Durand spent an entire morning making the project part of his lesson and involving students in various stages of the work.

"We love to bring our students challenging projects like this," explains Durand. "It gives them a real-world experience. Our students helped with removing the existing AC compressor, recapturing the refrigerant to protect the environment, installing the DC compressor, swaging of the copper tubing, and refilling and testing the system. We used the portable 120-volt car starter and maintenance to run the DC compressor. It worked great when we finished, and it was a fun and interesting experience for the class."

Assabet seniors working on the project included Adam Fuller, who handled disassembly, David Viveiros, who recaptured and refilled the refrigerant, and Ashley Bigeau, who sealed ports on the compressors.

Bitar was amazed and commented on the obvious effectiveness of Assabet's program, the amount of time instructors spend with the students, the organized and neat lab, and the hard work to make sure students are working on relevant skills and techniques.

And according to Durand, that's just the tip of the refrigerated iceberg, so to speak. The program has endeavored to add an HVAC program, which has been an ongoing effort for the last three years. They have applied for and moved forward with curriculum, technical upgrades and equipment to obtain both PAHRA (The Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation) accreditation for the HVAC refrigeration industry, as well as PSA (Professional Service Association) certification. With accreditation and certification, students not only have proof of their successful education, but they have expanded opportunities in another line of high-demand employment. Exit exams will prove what they know and have achieved, and serve as the first step to taking other exams for higher-level competencies and toward state licensing--and, it's a great way for employers to identify potential employees.

According to Durand, "We work hard to get our students out there in the field gaining as much practical experience as possible. We focus on integration with our technical career areas also, to help simulate real, outside-the-classroom experiences. For example, our Metal Fabrication Department will do all the ductwork for us and install it. Our Electrical Wiring Department will do the electrical drops. The mathematics and science learned in our challenging academics classes are integrated and applied.

"It's all happening as we speak. Ultimately, it's for the students. It puts our department in position where our placement numbers are higher, employment opportunities increase, and our students' skills are identified and in demand.

"The industry complains that they can't get enough technical help. They are so excited to have a place to send their equipment so that we can train their future service industry workers."

One of 19 technical career areas at Assabet, Refrigeration and Major Appliance Repair is a program designed to prepare students for employment in the refrigeration, air conditioning and major appliance repair fields. Students devote time to the study of service manuals, electrical wiring diagrams and schematics and use the latest test equipment as well as work on the latest appliances in production. Students learn proper diagnostic, installation and performance techniques. Students also prepare for the Federal 608 Certification test, which gains hours toward the state refrigeration license.

This story and photo are courtesy of Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlboro, Mass. For more information, visit
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Title Annotation:Front and Center
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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