Solar panels aren’t hard, people are

Posted Sept. 24, 2010, at 11:04 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:47 p.m.

Jimmy Carter wrote an autobiography recently. As he is interviewed about his term as president, the conversation inevitably comes to the installation of solar collectors on the White House.

It is public knowledge that the collectors were taken down a couple years later during the Reagan administration. Some feel that it was a statement by the Republicans. I am not sure, it could have been. At the time, the reason for removing the collectors was that the building needed to be re-roofed.

The good news is that the second President Bush installed solar hot water and solar electric systems on the White House campus.

I had some involvement after the fact with the original Carter system.

I heard on the radio that the collectors were being donated to Unity College and offered my services to rebuild the collectors and re-install them on the college cafeteria.

I would do the rebuilding for free, solely for the cost of any materials I used.

That was done so my company, at the time, would receive acknowledgement as being the company that rebuilt the White House solar system.

As I recall, the materials were about $1,300, including hiring two people for a day to help get the collectors on the roof.

I spent two and a half weeks completely disassembling the collectors and rebuilding them.

This was an education in bureaucracy both national and local as well as an opportunity to work on something historic.

The original installation at the White House was done with a lot of aesthetic limitations foisted upon the solar installation team. The usual way solar collectors are installed, there are connectors in between the collectors that tie the collectors together. This results in a space between collectors of about 2 to 3 inches. On the White House array, that was deemed unattractive and the space between the collectors was to be made minimal.

Most installers use some sort of connector that can be undone for servicing purposes in between their collectors. Since these were to be close-coupled, the array was done with solid copper couplings that were brazed. These connectors were actually inside the collector case. It did look nice and made each bank of collectors a single large unit.

When the collectors were removed from the roof for the purported re-roofing, the collectors were cut apart with a reciprocating saw since there was no simple way to disassemble the collectors. After this was done, the only way to re-install the collectors was to take every collector apart and install new connectors. This would have been quite expensive since the collectors were just cut apart and were not removed very well.

I did this expensive (time-wise) rebuild.

The collectors were not that impressive by the standards of the time. The absorber plates were aluminum fins that were painted. The case for the collectors was galvanized steel that was painted white. They were insulated with rock wool insulation and each collector was about 3-feet by 6-feet. They were functional but not cutting edge technology for the time.

I took each collector apart and brazed copper unions on each collector so they could be easily re-connected (and removed) and tested for leaks.

In understanding the system to this point, one can make the assumption that there is one lesson that might be learned from this whole experience: Don’t install solar collectors on a roof that needs repairs. Fix the roof first!

We then installed the collectors at Unity College on the cafeteria.

We installed them on a roof that needed to be replaced. Not my choice, but that of the administration at the time.

We installed the system in a day or two. A couple years later, the collectors came down for a new roof. I guess installing the unions was a good thing.

Of course, you might have seen the news that the system is not functioning and is being used for public relations purposes by various groups. The system has actually been out of service since 2003.

The good news about solar hot water systems is that they are repairable. Flat plate solar collectors can be rebuilt and repaired when necessary.

The White House system can be recycled yet again and be functional in any number of solar heating applications.

The technology is not complicated, although sometimes the people who are in charge of the systems can be.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329.

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