Getting Into Hot Water

Last night I went to a meeting of a local sustainability group on home solar hot water installations. There was a room of about 70 mostly older folks like myself. Many of these folks were much better informed than I, but I came away with a clearer understanding of the systems and a clearer view of who was going to have to lead the push for solar hot water heating.

The systems are fairly simple. Two or three solar panels that circulate a water/glycol solution from the solar panels to a heat exchanger wrapped around a storage tank, and back. The storage tank also has an electric element to supplement heat if the solar heater does not provide enough heat for the demand at any one time.

The systems shown cost upwards of $13K and after NYSERDA grants and tax rebates the installed system ends up costing the homeowner $3-4K. Sounds pretty good BUT

The biggest savings toward this purchase price is through state and federal tax breaks. That means you must earn enough to owe this amount in taxes – or you can’t take advantage of them. This is going to mean a household income over $100K per year, as best as I can figure. You are not actually saving that money – but it is going toward the cost of your system rather than to the federal and state governments. The NYSERDA grants are funded through what electric consumers pay to their utility providers. Hence these grants are only available for systems that are replacing an electric hot water heater.

This makes me wonder how this diversion of funds toward hot water systems for rather well heeled families affects the funding for energy assistance for poor people who can’t afford to even heat their homes in the winter.

It also means you would have to use enough hot water to make the savings beneficial to you. I think this means multiple people taking hot showers or baths, using a dish washer, using hot or warm water to do laundry etc. Now I see nothing wrong with a well to do family leading the sustainable energy parade, but it seems to beg a continuance of conspicuous consumption, and does nothing for those who could benefit most from lowered utility bills. Though many people I know who use these systems are also diligent about reducing energy usage, it would seem this financial incentive would be most attractive to those who want to continue in their comfortable ways.

The company doing the presentation even has that in their brochure –

imagine taking a long hot shower without guilt?“.

I live alone. I only use hot water for showers and doing dishes. In the cold months I only take a couple of showers a week because I have desk jobs which don’t get me dirty. My diet is such that I don’t dirty a lot of dishes. Next winter when my wood stove is in operation all my hot water needs other than a shower will be fulfilled by a tea kettle on top of the woodstove. I’ll probably save more money with that woodstove over a six month winter than I could save in an entire year with solar hot water.

But then I am one crazy old farm girl living alone in CNY.

(Hmm – I’d probably save more money if I made myself drink water instead of coffee (plus there are probably many environmental/social justice/economic reasons to stop drinking coffee. I could save a minimum of $500 a year by not buying coffee. But – then I’d be a really grumpy, crazy old farm girl living alone in CNY. Oooh but think how excited I would be to go to church on Sunday (they have coffee) and work – free coffee there! Hmmm let me ponder that over a cup of coffee – it’s already made and still hot – no sense wasting it! Now what can I grow in my garden that has caffeine and can be chewed or made into tea? (It turns out I can grow coffee and tea in pots as long as I bring them inside for the winter. They are shade tolerant so would do well in my window. Who knew?)

I wonder how much energy would be saved by preheating the water that runs into your hot water heater? It would seem that could be done by running plastic piping around the ceiling to bring it to room temperature before entering your hot water heater. I guess that would only work in summer, or with a wood heating system that tends to produce excess heat, since the cold water would tend to cool down your house. Now I am only heating my house to 60, so that is only a 10 – 15 degree difference between from approximate well temps anyway..

I will continue to beat the bandwagon for my more well heeled friends and neighbors to look into these systems and reduce the need for coal/nuke/gas powered electric plants. Meanwhile I look forward to the demonstration on micro-hydro. I’m going to try hooking up a simple solar shower that I can use this summer when I have sweat and garden grime to wash off. Close the blinds neighbors – your new crazy bat neighbor will be showering in the backyard this year!