PUBLISHED: 4:39 PM on Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Try out solar water heating
During the summer of 2006, I did an evaluation to determine why I wasn't seeing the type of savings I expected from the tripling of my wall insulation in my energy-efficient retrofit for my house.

In the period from May 1 to September 14 I used 178 gallons of fuel oil. I assumed that almost all of that was due to the consumption of hot water. So assuming that that was a four-month rate of water use, just tripling it gave me an idea of how much of the fuel oil I use every year goes to heating hot water.

When I did the math on this, I discovered that approximately 40 percent of all my oil use was simply to heat hot water! It wasn't for heating my house. So hot water was a really considerable amount of the total load of my house. This led me to look into the prospect of getting a solar water heater.

In May 2007, Cooperative Extension, in partnership with Golden Valley Electric Association and the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), held a workshop to encourage individuals interested in installing solar hot water systems, to take a course at the CCHRC and install research solar hot water systems on the roof of that building.

Through a connection I made in the course, I was able to purchase a Heliodyne solar hot water heating system. I purchased it through ABS Alaskan, a company that is now a dealer for Heliodyne.

With the help of many of my friends and my plumbing consultant I was able to install an 80 sq. ft. solar hot water heater on my house to enable me to get a tax credit as well as lower my fuel use through the use of solar hot water.

Because I was required to buy a certified solar hot water heater system, certified by a performance test (done by the Florida Solar Energy Center, one of the national inspection and certification laboratories in the Lower 48), I had to spend a lot of money to bring the solar collector system to Alaska in order to get the tax credit. If I did not want the tax credit, I could have saved at least half of the money I spent simply by building a system myself and mounting it on my roof. As it is, I spent over $8,000 plus a lot of help from my friends for labor and installation expenses to get this system installed.

My original estimates for the performance of this system came from a computer solar simulation of a smaller system. The prediction was that I would get about 55 to 60 percent of my annual hot water heating needs from the solar system, which would save me around $800 a year. This along with the first year tax credit of $2,000 means I would save nearly $3,000 the first year.

Of course if oil prices increase rapidly, the payback occurs even faster. Add to this the convenience of guilt-free showers, not contributing fossil fuel combustion to the global warming potential, and a wonderful solar hot shower is also good for morale in this time of increasing energy costs. It is especially comforting when you can do this in Alaska.

So although the system is pricier than installing a new boiler, there is a very important energy cost savings and environmental advantage to solar hot water. Right now, there is still a federal tax credit and you can take advantage of it.

I chose flat plate collections for several reasons.

First of all, I was very familiar with flat plat collectors and had built some of my own in the past. They are simple and I can fix them myself if they break or have leaks.

Secondly, Jake Tornatzky, the instructor for the solar course, mentioned that evacuated tube-type collectors are so efficiently insulated that snow will not melt off the tubes.

One more reason was that the flat plate collector option gave me the opportunity to build a system that was independent of the local power supply. Having a photovoltaic pump means that if the power goes off in the middle of the day and the solar collectors are relying on grid power for the pump, they could over heat and boil off collector fluid. Although this sounds unlikely, it isn't all that unlikely. And so putting together a system which is independent of the grid means that, in most cases at least, the photovoltaic pump would work regardless of whether the local power is on or not and the system would not stagnate. If a vacuum collector system did stagnate it's much more likely to overheat because the temperatures of operation are so much higher.

So for all these reasons, I chose the lower tech, slightly less efficient, but more easily operated independently, flat plate collector system.

Rich Seifert is the energy and housing specialist with the Cooperation Extension Service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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