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Energy tip #16: solar thermal energy for your home

solarhotwater.gifThere has been much in the news lately (and on this blog) about the potential of solar power. From Google’s solar panels to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s speech at the 2006 Solar conference, it seems solar has arrived onto the scene in a big way. While much of the focus has been on the photovoltaic variety, there is a low tech solar option that is still a relatively hidden gem: solar thermal.

This relatively basic technology can be employed to capture the energy of the sun both actively and passively. The passive technology is perhaps the simplest and most cost effective of any solar home improvement projects. The 4-5 year payback period and low maintenance costs (there are no moving parts) make it very attractive. Unfortunately, installing a system can run between $5,000-6,000, a hefty expenditure for most homeowners. Nevertheless, for those who can afford it, solar thermal can be a great investment.

The principle employed is to take advantage of the great furnace in the sky to heat water in a closed loop system (preferably on a south-facing roof). The system can provide warm showers and hot water with little need for gas or electricity. With a lifespan of roughly 35 years, these systems pay dividends long after they’re installed.

Solar thermal systems are also exempt from property taxes and add value to most residences in the U.S. Though, as we’ve seen with other tips (see air drying your clothes), cultural barriers do exist in certain locales and may marginally drop the value of the home.

Looking at the numbers (courtesy of the Solar Living Institute and…

Cost of solar thermal system: $5,000-6,000
Annual energy bill savings: $500-1,000
CO2 reductions (annual): 10,500-21,000 lbs
CO2 reductions (35 year lifetime estimate): 367,500 – 735,000 lbs

Last week, 18 people pledged to look into insulation. At 1,900-9,500 lbs saved per insulation project, the represents a potential savings of 171,000 lbs of CO2. Reality would suggest that this number be closer to 30-50,000 lbs, still a significant savings. Let’s keep it going! For a list of all previous conservation tips, click here.

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