Do your research before switching to solar heating

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 9:18 p.m.

I recently came across a couple of videos online about solar heating. Both were from vendors in the Northeast.

Since autumn is almost upon us again, people naturally are thinking of heating. They also are wondering how to get away from heating with oil or gas. People suspect that the big, bad oil companies are conspiring to gouge us at any given chance.

That may or may not be true, but please do your research. Just because someone has a video on YouTube or, worse yet, befuddles some 23-year-old TV journalist (or newspaper reporter — it might happen!), you still need to do your homework. Video does not mean that all the statements are true.

All of the buzz about using fossil fuels and climate change is no reason to abandon common sense when judging advertising claims.

One more time: Videos that tout a given company are usually advertisements. Check the facts with people who are not selling you the hardware you are looking at.

For the record, I will put my reputation (such as it is) on the line: You can usually solar heat 100 percent in Maine. But you need a superinsulated home and must be willing to accept some lifestyle changes and have some form of backup system in place — just in case.

The most important thing to realize is that a single solar collector (or, for that matter, several of them) will not eliminate the oil deliverer’s visits. There are some simple rules that I can offer to help you sort out solar heating claims:

• A solar collector generates usable heat only when it is sunny out. It does not matter whether it is a vacuum tube collector or any other collector. Overcast days do not deliver much usable heat to solar collectors. Some collectors might harness energy on an overcast day, but the amount of energy will not heat anything useful. Period.

• A solar collector will generate 1 to 2 gallons of oil-equivalent energy per year per square foot. In other words, 1 square foot of surface on a collector that is heated by the sun creates enough heat to eliminate a gallon or 2 of oil a year — if the energy is stored and made useful by the balance of the system.

• When the sun shines might not be the time you need solar heat. On average, there is more solar energy available in the spring and summer months.

• You cannot store solar heat in the summer for winter use. People have tried. I have tried. MIT has tried. Sweden has tried. The big boys have met with some success, with gigantic solar arrays and gigantic heat wells that lose a fair bit of the energy that is stored. It does not work for residential use.

• Be aware of where your collectors are built. Warranties are good only if your manufacturer is accessible.

• Talk with your accountant or the IRS to make sure that you are eligible for tax credits. A lot of companies sell their hardware by basing the economics of the investment on tax credits. If you don’t make enough money, the credits are not going to help pay for the system.

If you are lucky enough to be able to afford installing a solar heating system, you should pay attention to the aesthetics of the installation. A weird-angled “gormy” installation will only diminish the value of your property.

Over the years, I have been amazed at the ability of solar installers to put up collector arrays that are expensive to install, will be a nightmare to maintain and look like the devil.

One final note: Solar heating systems use sunlight, which is free. The systems cost a fair bit of money. Solar systems do require maintenance. Pumps fail, controls fail, antifreeze requires testing and replacement on occasion, pipe insulation falls off and sometimes roofs leak.

You need to keep the system up on maintenance just like a fossil fuel system.

Maintenance doesn’t cost much, but ignoring it dilutes the performance of the system and loses money.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/09/04/living/do-your-research-before-switching-to-solar-heating/ printed on November 22, 2014