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Publication Title | Solar hot water

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Ken Olson ©2001 Ken Olson

Solar hot water is one of the most immediately cost-effective uses of renewable energy.

ot water represents the second largest energy consumer in

American households. A typical 80 gallon (300 l) electric hot water tank serving a family of four will consume approximately 150 million BTUs in its seven year lifetime. This will cost approximately US$3,600 (at US$0.08 per KWH), not accounting for fuel cost increases. Then it will be replaced by another one just like it. Hmm. Maybe we should rethink this...

An investment in a solar water heating system will beat the stock market any day, any decade, risk free. Initial return on investment is on the order of 15 percent, tax- free, and goes up as gas and electricity prices climb. Many states have tax credits and other incentives to sweeten those numbers even more. What are we waiting for? Forget the stock market. If you have invested in a house, your next investment should be in solar hot water.

In this article I’m going to cover the most common options for solar water heating, basic principles of operation, and some historical perspective on what has worked and what has not.

A Checkered Past, A Bright Future

Solar thermal’s past is a good example of why everyone should be skeptical of government involvement in energy. Lucrative federal and state tax credits for solar energy were initiated under President Jimmy Carter in the ‘70s, and abruptly eliminated under President Ronald Reagan in 1985. This dealt the solar industry a devastating “one-two punch” from which it still has not recovered.

The intention was to stimulate sales for solar thermal systems. But the tax credits resulted in an aggressive promotion of tax credits rather than solar energy. The infant industry was overwhelmed to meet the demand. The demand vanished when tax credits were eliminated, and a majority of solar thermal companies went out of business. Thousands of orphaned solar thermal systems were left behind looking for a service technician.

The solar thermal industry has been purged of the tax credit telemarketers and overnight experts. Today’s solar thermal industry includes reliable, efficient

44 Home Power #84 • August / September 2001

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