GIMME SHELTER- Heat it up: Solar panels make more sense

Galen Staengl

 Staengl Engineering

Q:  These fuel prices are killing me! I'm seriously considering a solar hot water heating system, but I don't know much about the technology. What are the advantages? What about tax credits?

A: With higher fuel and electricity costs, home owners are starting to look for ways to cut their energy bills. Some folks are finding solar hot water heating a compelling investment. But if you're thinking about installing a solar hot water heating system in your house, there are a couple of things to consider.

First of all, solar heating doesn't affect utility bills– water consumption and sewer costs are obviously the same as with gas or electric heating. Typical families spend about $475 per year on water and sewer bills, and around $350 per year on water heating. So the first place to look for savings is fixtures and appliances that reduce hot water consumption. This will save on both water heating bills and water and sewer bills. Things to look at are low-flow shower heads and low water-consumption clothes washers and dishwashers.

Once water guzzling appliances and fixtures have been eliminated, it may make sense to invest in a solar hot water heating system. Such a system typically consists of a couple of panels on the roof and a storage tank for the hot water– either a traditional hot water heater tank, part of an existing system, or an entirely separate tank. Water or an antifreeze mixture is circulated through the hot water panels when the sun is shining to capture the solar energy and heat the hot water in the storage tank.

A few systems can easily be added to an existing hot water heater, which reduces the cost of installation. Systems range from around $3,000 to $6,000 installed, depending on the type of system and the size of the house it serves.

Depending on utility rates, system cost, and water usage, these systems pay for themselves in seven to 12 years. There's a new federal tax credit of up to 30 percent of the cost of installation of a solar hot water heating system (capped at $2,000). Combined with rising energy costs, the tax credit has made solar hot water heating very attractive.

And while nobody knows what will happen with energy prices, it seems likely that rising costs will make investing in a solar hot water heating system pay for itself even more quickly in the future.

Galen Staengl