Going Solar: Lessons from Experience

Solar water heating is an efficient affordable renewable energy photo

(One) TreeHugger Goes Solar
We're not quite at the stage where every roof boasts a solar water heater, as Lloyd has advocated, but there is no doubt that as energy prices rise, solar water heating becomes increasingly attractive. And I'm proud to say that today my wife and I took our first solar showers — yes, we've finally taken the plunge and gone solar. Because we weren't confident enough in our DIY skills, we avoided making our own solar hot water heater, and instead used a recent inheritance (thanks Naini!) to invest in this most practical, and relatively affordable, of micro-generation technologies. Given that there are plenty of readers likely to be interested in renewables for their own homes, I thought it might be helpful to go through our experience. So here's what we've learned
Firstly, we can say that the installation process was pretty painless. The installers were here for three days, four if you include the fact that work was rained off one day. Besides a little noise coming from the roof and the crawl space, the only intrusion into our lives was a 3 hour period when the water was turned off, and workers occasionally needing access to our attic space for the plumbing.

Secondly, it looks like it should be a good investment. Between federal and state tax credits, it looks like we will end up laying out somewhere in the region of $3,500 for the system — and while we don't have figures for our typical water heating costs, the installers reckoned it should pay for itself in 8-9 years. With a 25 — 30 year lifespan we are confident that the system will more than pay for itself in the long run (and we're much happier putting our money in solar than we are in stocks and bonds right now!). Of course, being solar enthusiasts and environmentalists, we're not necessarily focused on the payback period — as blogger and Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins once commented, payback periods for solar are not necessarily the whole story:

"It is not a question we ask when someone buys a new TV, a car, an i-pod, mobile phone, a swimming pool, a boat, a sofa, new carpets, a DVD player, a jacuzzi, a fitted kitchen, a new cooker, a motorbike, timber decking for the garden, a new conservatory, a caravan, a new fridge, a holiday, a computer, a printer, a double bass, a new chest of drawers or a painting.

Somehow all these things it is OK to buy because we want them, we think they will make us happier, or because we feel we need them. When it comes to solar panels those criteria no longer apply. Odd that. I am buying them because they will increase the resilience of my family, they will reduce our footprint, make us less oil vulnerable, but ultimately it is actually because I want them, in exactly the same way that people want the things on the list above."

One final lesson we've learned during the process is that solar is not always the answer — on asking about solar PV for our house (hey, I'm thinking ahead!), the sales person promptly informed us that he wouldn't bother. Not because we don't have the aspect, but because a shade tree is blocking the sun. Apparently the efficiency of PV drops dramatically with a little shade, whereas water heating maintains close to optimal efficiency, even when partially shaded. And while chopping down the tree is always an option, the free service it provides in cooling our house seems awfully attractive compared to a $20,000 investment in space-age technology.

So, overall the experience has been nothing but positive, and there is something wonderful about knowing you are generating at least some of your own power. I'd recommend the experience to anyone with the funds to spare and the appropriate location. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off for (another) shower

A big shout out to my friends at Southern Energy Management who undertook the installation (And a declaration of interest: Southern Energy are a client in my day job).
More on Solar Water Heating
Largest Solar Water Heater With PET Bottles Installed in Parana, Brazil
Solar Water heater Mandate for New Hawaiian Homes
Big Steps in Building: Put Solar Hot Water on Every Roof
Make a Solar Water Heater for Under $5
Home Power's Solar Water Heating Overview

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