This article was originally published in the May/June 1995 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.
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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1995
Hey Newt, Here Are Some Orphans With Potential
Most of us remember the glory days of solar energy, when solar collectors were going to solve the energy crisis, oil shortage, and all our environmental problems. Never mind that solar collectors were expensive, caused the roof to leak, and never quite performed up to expectations. (In fact, we weren't even sure that they were working at all.) Another troubling fact was that solar contractors behaved just as sleazily as the worst vinyl-siding salesmen.
For better or worse, the solar industry in the United States crashed and burned when the solar tax credits were eliminated. A few contractors survived, providing solar water heating for pools and domestic water heating for multifamily buildings and certain special situations where energy was expensive or sun plentiful (like Hawaii).
But what happened to all those solar heaters installed fifteen years ago? Did embarrassed homeowners remove them? Did they rust away? No, they produced heat! That's why the article in this issue about Wisconsin's Orphan solar heaters is so surprising. A careful inspection of the solar heaters in Wisconsin found two-thirds of them were still operating. And simple repairs could generally restore operation of the remainder. One utility decided that rehabilitating old solar water heaters could be converted into a modest, but cost-effective, DSM program. Sometimes the rehabilitation consisted of merely educating the occupants (who may not have been the original owners when the system was installed). And this was in Wisconsin, a region hardly credited with significant solar potential.
The Wisconsin experience suggests that other states could also redevelop their solar heating potential and, in the process, train a new cadre of solar contractors. This would be a very unusual group because it would get much of its training by repairing the errors of the past.
But we shouldn't overestimate the overall potential for solar heating. Since the late 1970s, there have been improvements in water and space heating efficiency. New washing machines, showers, and dishwashers consume less hot water than their 1970-vintage counterparts. This leaves less hot water for solar heaters to save, but energy prices are considerably higher, so the value of the savings are actually higher than in 1980. We also now have national certification standards for solar equipment, test procedures for rating them and a more realistic sense of where solar is going to work. A group of skilled, reputable, solar contractors is likely to find a comfortable niche, both restoring old units and installing new ones.
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