Heating Your Household Water With The Sun.


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Guest post by Joe Wright from PolarSolar

Out here in sunny California, 90% of the population pays to truck, pipe, and burn natural gas from out-of-state to heat the water used in the home (Over 85% comes from out of state, much of it coming all the way from west Texas). The conventional storage water heaters that the overwhelming majority of us use have constantly burning pilot lights that combust fuel 24/7 and that fire frequent bursts to keep the 40 to 100 gallons of water we typically store in these tanks ready-hot, day and night, at 120 degrees – whether we use the water or not. The fact that makes this so needless and silly is that the sun shines down a singularly efficient, clean, and abundant energy source for heating water almost every day.

The Romans knew this and so had many Californians. Many readers here might be familiar with this story, but essentially, the solar water heating industry started in the late 19th century in California and grew dramatically in the late 70s and early 80s until it basically disappeared in 1985. As a result of the energy crisis of the late 70s, generous state and federal incentives were introduced that led to a thriving solar market. Under President Carter, solar water heating was installed in the White House, and at that time California was the biggest market in the world with 165,000 solar water heaters installed in houses across the state from 1981 to 1984. In 1985, President Reagan declared the energy crisis over and removed the solar water heating system installed on the white house in a symbolic gesture.

Unfortunately, the incentive programs of this period had no real oversight on the quality of the units themselves or the competence of the installers, so among many of the great systems that were installed in the 1980s were a lot of bad ones that ended up failing. This gave the US solar water heating industry a big black eye that has lasted decades. Luckily, the industry continued to thrive in other countries such as Germany and China. The manufacturers in other countries continued to develop solar water heating technologies and the industry is very robust in many places around the world: Austria, with a climate similar to Minnesota, installed over 40 times as many solar hot water systems as California in 2008, despite having less than a quarter of the state’s population, and in China (the world’s largest market today) 1 in 10 homes have solar water heating. In Israel and other Mediterranean countries , the percentage of homes with solar hot water is about 90 percent.

Now that the focus on renewable energy is back in light of climate change, our state and federal governments have a renewed interest in solar water heating. A recent study undertaken by KEMA-Xenergy for Pacific Gas & Electric- one of California’s largest utilities, found that solar water heating has an unparalleled value in offsetting natural gas usage. These findings have been confirmed many times over. Compared to other home energy improvements that offset natural gas, solar water heating can save over twice as much as the next best option per dollar spent. For the average household of three people, this translates to an offset of about 76,000 pounds of carbon dioxide – that’s as much as the average sedan emits driving 70,553 miles! In terms of carbon, investing in solar water heating is like planting a grove of 1,375 mature maple trees.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed by President Obama, the Federal Government will now reimburse homeowners for a full 30% of the cost (parts and labor) of a solar water heating investment (no alternative minimum tax offset and no price cap), and in California there is now an additional state incentive program, recently made available in August, which offers an additional incentive of up to $1,500 for installing a solar water heater – But the very important part of all this is that the government has wised-up on how best to implement these programs so that only good systems are incentivized and the industry grows: In order to receive any of these incentives, the system must be rated by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) and in California, the incentive is given to the certified installer, contingent on the system passing a special inspection given by the California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE), the solar water heating incentive program’s administrating body.

Of course people are much more aware of photovoltaic (solar electric) systems, so we often find ourselves talking to great people who had never considered solar water heating as an option (ironic when it really should be considered first in most cases: it’s generally more cost effective and performs more efficiently in a wider variety of applications – that is, orientation and shading do not negatively impact performance as strongly as these factors do for photovoltaic systems.) That’s not to say that we don’t think solar electricity is GREAT – It’s just that for most people, an investment in PV is still typically beyond their means and not as cost effective.

In 2001, John Case, our founder, wanted to update his house again to be more energy efficient. John is a long-time environmental activist and co-founder of Bikestation, which has brought free bike parking to the major transit hubs of 7 American cities. John’s renovation plans were extensive – he wanted to do everything: re-insulate walls and attic, install energy-efficient windows and appliances, photovoltaic arrays, etc. After undertaking energy audits and months of research, John’s friends at Southern California Edison and the California Public Utilities Commission confirmed that solar water heating would be the best place for him to start in terms of energy savings and carbon offset. However, John was surprised when the solar hot water providers that he sought out were a big initial disappointment: either smaller-scale plumbing operations or solar electric installers that also happened to do a little solar water heating installation. Overall, the problem was that both had limited experience with the technology and were simply not dedicated to the service line. He basically knew more than they did about what would work best for him. This is still fairly typical: Up until this point, if a homeowner wants to install solar water heating, the burden is on him or her to figure out what system will work best for them and then to figure out how to install it or have it installed. So the beginning of our company comes out of a very strong need for expert solar water heating professionals that have the skills and experience to take the mountain of research and guess-work out of the equation.

Last year, PolarSolar widened our scope with our global initiative to provide low-cost solar water heaters to some of the globe’s poorest families. Every day, 1.4 billion people must bathe and wash clothes and dishes in cold water because the energy needed to heat large quantities of water is too expensive. In fact, if done on a daily basis, heating water for bathing and cooking would be the single-most expensive energy cost for households in developing nations. We decided that we needed to do something to affect this situation because there are now ultra-affordable solar water heaters that can dependably heat water using the sun’s free energy. We are now increasing the quality of life for people that cannot currently afford the simple amenity of hot water by providing a solar water heating unit to a family in need for every system sold in the United States.

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