Connecticut Clean Energy Fund Shifts Focus

  The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, a utility-funded quasi-public fund administered by the State of CT, has refocused its funding initiatives away from residential photovoltaic subsidies.

All forms of commercial and industrial on-site co-generation, including wind, hydro, PV, and solar thermal, are being subsidized by grants already funded in the amount of 12.86 million dollars. Any project projected to yield more than 10,000 watts of peak power qualifies.

Subsidies are also available, at reduced rates, for residential PV installations up to 5,000 watts peak, when installed by “eligible” contractors.

The good news is that solar hot water subsidies, which do apply to residential consumers, have been increased by 60% and funded  through March 2012. That’s actually the bargain of the month from subsidies, as solar hot water in CT has a typical payback of 5-6 years, much more attractive than a 12-14 year payback on PV purchases and 20 year leases.

Adding up federal tax incentives, state tax incentives and Clean Energy subsidies, solar hot water is a fabulous deal, yielding solar hot water covering app. 75% of yearly costs for about one third the total installed cost of the system. If this appeals to you, even as we move toward colder weather in CT (my panels were cooking over 100 degrees all day, pre-heating my 80 gallons of storage), leave a comment or contact me.

Passive Solar at Your House, Right Now

                                       blog sunset window                                                           Sunset through dirty windows, as shown at left, is beautiful. But it’s not efficient. Clean your windows, at least the south and west facing windows, and pull those drapes aside to let more sunight in, especially now while outside temperatures are moderate and the sun is still high and able to deliver comforting heat to your home.

   You don’t have to mortgage your house to get into the passive solar game. Figure out which windows in your house, if you haven’t already noticed, get the most sun, and put them to work for you. If you’re having trouble locating the most solar-friendly windows, follow your cat around one day. Modest-sized south facing windows can transmit as much as 15% of the house’s heat load, depending upon many factors, results will certainly vary. But the gain is always in the positive, and it doesn’t cost you anything but a little thoughtful planning.

   You can, of course, spend thousands of dollars replacing all the windows in your house with low emissivity argon barrier double glazed windows. And if you want to, go ahead. But if your budget doesn’t allow for that, substitute your brain for your credit cards and get those south facing windows working for you. When it’s colder, and here in New England it certainly will get colder as the year wanes, we’ll check in again and give you some additional strategies for covering those windows at night after they’ve worked for you all day. Be careful washing those second floor windows, please.

Point of Use Hot Water Heaters

blog point of use heaterWe solar contractors generally disparage electric tank water heaters, except when used for solar storage. But sooner or later, solar is going to let you down, in cloudy weather or when it’s very cold, and you’ll need hot water for dishes, hands, cleaning and filling the pasta pot (who wants to wait for that cold water to boil?).

Whatever backup system you use to close the gap between solar and the American lifestyle, it has to be available all the time, not dependent upon the solar equipment at all, and capable of supplying your assessed need for hot water until the sun replenishes your tanks.

Consider putting a little tank of electrically heated water under your kitchen sink. Two, three, five gallons of water, kept hot all the time (you can have a switch if you can plan those solar outages an hour in advance), ready to fill a pot, wash your hands, feed the dishwasher (yes, the dishwasher has a heater, but it lengthens the cycle by about an hour waiting for it), and even draw a mug of water for tea, almost hot enough to brew the leaves, can be had for the price of some electric power and an upfront cost ranging from $500 to $1000 US. How long will it take you to pay that investment off? Not sure that’s the right question.

   What you’re buying with your money is convenience. It’s not easy to calculate a payback on that. If you’re able, by means of two or so installed point of use heaters, to turn off your backup, whether it was a gas fired boiler, oil fired tank, or big electric tank, you may save enough energy from that idle system to give yourself a payback on the point of use heaters. But showers and laundry are not served by these relatively tiny devices, and you may need to use your backup hot water source just to keep those important services going. Go ahead. Tell me you wash all your clothes in cold water, all the time. Ok; I believe you. I don’t; and I don’t recommend it, unless you dry them thoroughly at rather high temperature. Don’t make the world a better place for all those bacteria, allergens and dust mites you want to remove from your clothes. Do you think you’re making them dizzy in the spin cycle?

   For houses with multiple baths, long piping runs, and several occcupants, point of use water heaters can be a real convenience and an energy saver. I say if your hot water source is less than thirty feet from your faucets, tank insulation and a timer are your best tactics. You can decide whether a significant upfront investment and the privilege of turning off your backup source for the day balance for you economically and energy-wise.

Generators for Peace of Mind

blog generatorThe generator in the photo is probably larger than you need to run your house, and it also probably costs more than a nice car. But you can rent one like that, for a reasonable fee, and have it hauled to your house/office/business after an event to supply temporary power. At home, though, a smaller, portable generator can keep the American convenience level high while you wait for the power to be restored after a storm or accidental event. Generators are stocked at your local home store (Orange front, Red and Black front) for as little as 250 US most of the year. But taking that power plant home and connecting it to your house is more involved and requires research and planning.

   Connecticut Light and Power requires that portable home generators be connected to your house in compliance with the National Electric Code and its own guidelines. That means a licensed guy like me has to do the work, and the equipment has to be UL listed and approved for the purpose. The importance of all this regulatory protocol is that people die from home generator use and misuse almost as often as they die from disasters.

Major hazards are: Carbon monoxide, emitted in generator exhaust, collects in closed areas seeps down stairs into other areas, and kills people. In the 2006 storm season too many people died after the floods receded because of generator misuse. After carbon monoxide comes electrical shock caused by improper hookups in the presence of water. Electricity and water kill when mingled. And another, no less important hazard from home generators is called “islanding,” when generators feed back to the grid through home distribution panels and ad hoc hookups and send power to the transmission lines. Line workers are endangered by islanding, and there have been too many fatalities. It’s hard for linepersons to guard against some joker starting up a generator while they’re working on a pole. And other homeowners or licensed electricians are also endangered by islanding when work is being done on wiring in storm-damaged homes.

   How big a generator do you need? To operate everything in a typical modern American home (air conditioning, cooking, lights, hot water, computers, television, etc.) a round figure would be 10 kw. That’s 10,000 watts. You might do ok with 8 kw.

   You might also be fine with a smaller generator and some awareness about what loads you’re using at any one time. With shrewd load  management I can run my house on my 5 kw generator, the same one I use to power remote or as yet unconnected construction jobs. We do fine that way. But we have to think about it.

   You can have a generator, and you don’t HAVE to hook it up to your house wiring. You can run extension cords to selected loads (fridge, microwave, space heater) and get by ok. And it will be safer. That’s your most cost-effective route, but it’s inconvenient, and probably un-American.

Electric Tankless Water Heater Caveats

blog electric tanklessWe’ve posted on tankless water heaters before, but an inquiry from a client prompts us to revisit some of our reservations about tankless units. Wonderful idea, of course, good for energy, wish i’d thought of it myself, and all; but do your homework and keep your eyes open. Claims made for tankless heaters are larger than they seem in real life.

  First, flow rate. You need at least three gallons per minute of hot water at 125 degrees fahrenheit to operate a laundry machine, dishwasher, shower, kitchen sink or any combination of two faucets or appliances in the house. if your teenager is in the shower and you go downstairs to start the dishwasher, you will be cited by Family Services in this litigious society, for cruelty to a teenager. Sharing the output of a tankless electric unit is dicey. And families living in multi-bathroom houses will, sooner or later, need to share that output.

   Second, power needs. The only electric tankless that begins to fill the bill for a family is something like the Bosch AE 125 . The power requirement of this water heater is app. 125 amps at full load. Do you have a 100 amp service feeding your entire house, as I do? Fuhgeddabouddit. You can’t install electric tankless in your house. Do you have a 200 amp service? Expect to give away 60% of that capacity while using hot water, which means that you can’t operate your electric range, air conditioning, and clothes dryer all in tandem with this water heater. You have to do what we call “load management,” in which you stop to think, ok, toaster is 110 watts, dryer 4500, range is 8000 unless I only use one burner, turn up the air conditioning thermostat, and,,,, ok, now we can do hot water. And if you have electric heat, you’ll have to shut some of it off to avoid an overload, even with a 200 amp service. No, you can’t have a 300 amp service on a house, not without paying lots of money. Perhaps in the “home of the future.”

   If it’s just two of you in the house, or if the kids only come home for Christmas, this all may work out well. You can save up to 25% over electric tank hot water by virtue of  lowering your standby costs (the expense of keeping the tank hot and losing heat to the surrounding air). If your house is large, full of kids, or if you have a big kitchen and you’re always in it, beware.

    Electric tankless water heaters are growing in popularity, and they should. But i’m always concerned when a past or potential client buys one off the internet and asks for a quote to install it. My bill for installation will commonly exceed the cost of the water heater, if indeed I can even shoehorn it into the house’s electrical system. Then I’m delivering the bad news, the phone goes “click,” and the unhappy client is off down the road to a plumbing company which knows not-so-much about electrical loading and is willing to take the client’s money for installing an inadequately sized unit. Happens several times a year.

  Other technologies are more practical. Oil, natural gas, LP gas, almost any fuel other than electric power makes for a better performance in water heating, due to the ability of those fuels to deliver larger amounts of energy instantaneously to the water, exceeding electricity by far in the critical category of  “recovery rate.”  Watch your loading, watch your pricing, beware of claims made by salesmen bearing gifts, and consider all  your options. Sometimes a heavy insulation blanket and a simple timer can turn an old electric tank into a lean, mean green machine, for a lot less money.

Solar PV Primer, Simple Concepts

blog pv rooftop  The house at left is roofed with solar panels. No doubt there’s a real roof under there, but someone has cleverly configured photovoltaic panels to cover the roof so neatly that the eye sees only tempered glass and aluminum frames. The roofing material under the panels will not deteriorate, seeing no sunlight, clomping feet or ice and snow, so its life should be at least as long as that of the panels. The panels are attached flat to the roof, with a slight standoff for cooling air, so wind forces should not be a problem in heavy weather.

Note, if your eyes are that good, the shadows of the small trees in the foreground. They indicate that the azimuth, or compass orientation, of the roof is exactly or nearly south-facing, and that no nearby features like trees or other building threaten to shade the panels any time during the solar day (popularly reckoned to be between 9 AM and 3 PM).

No nearby power lines appear in the photo, so it’s hard to be sure whether the panels feed directly out into the local utility wiring (or grid), or to a battery bank designed to power the house after sundown, or a combination of the two functions (bi-modal, it’s called). 

A tiled roof in the background, along with mountains, suggests either a western US or possibly European location, places where solar panels are considered more progressive than kooky, and where local governments subsidize and encourage responsible photovoltaic installations. The local power supplier, or utility, may be purchasing the panels’ output at its own retail rate (net metering is the industry term), or it may be paying a “feed-in tariff” of up to twice the retail value of the power, a practice widely used in Europe and Canada to encourage the installation of solar electric arrays.

The residents of this house (subtle signs indicate this may be a barn) may spend some time each day accommodating their routines to the flow of solar power. They might operate their heaviest electrical loads, i.e. water pumps, refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes dryers, water heaters etc. while solar output highest, using their own power rather than purchases kilowatt-hours. They might adjust their lifestyles subtly to decrease power usage in the evening, using only lights and small loads while only battery current or expensive utility power are available.

Or, if the system has no “backup,” they may go about their business with no thought of loads, since the grid power simply flows into the house at night the same way the solar power flowed out through the meter all day. The local availability of sunlight, or “insolation,” may be as little as 2 kilowatt hours per day per square meter, or as high as six kilowatt hours per day per square meter, depending upon latitiude, climate, compass orientation and shading. The panels themselves may be as little as 12% efficient in transforming uv radiation into electric power, or they may be as much as 20% efficient, according to the quality and cost of the equipment when purchased. The panels, by their appearance, are not homemade, or if they are, they are meticulously framed and sealed. The wiring that connects them to each other is high-grade silicone with a sunlight-resistant coating, and the “inverter,”  thedevice that transforms the panels’ DC output into AC power usable by house loads, also synchronizes that AC output to the grid power for resale.

This primer, with links, is meant to bring your thinking into the picture with solar PV and the role it may/will play in your life in the future. Next time you’re driving past a house with panels on its roof, picture yourself living in it. Solar power on the roof doesn’t mean less fun for people living under those panels; to the contrary, there’s something natural and comforting about being linked to this life-giving power source in a positive and profitable way. But you humans, if you go out there, use sunscreen.

Update at Our House– Solar Hot Water

blog-solar-kit This brief post will keep us close to home. I noted our new solar hot water system a few weeks ago, stressing our modest expectations for winter performance. I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

Today, December 6, the temperature in our town topped out in the 30s, we got three inches (up on this high hill, we get more) of wet, icy snow last night, and the winds were gusting to 15 miles or so as the day wore on. I checked the panel temp this morning after hearing the snow and ice avalanche off the collectors at 9 AM or so. 100 degrees on the return fluid thermometer.

Cutting to the jelly, I just ran hot water at 105 from my kitchen tap. One day of performance, 80 gallons of shower-ready water. Two 4×7 Stiebel Eltron flat plate panels (evacuated tubes are nice, but not necessary) two 40 gallon stainless holding tanks with heat exchanger coils for the solar fluid. One Caleffi (pricey, but very flexible) solar differential pump control. Very short connecting pipe (under ten feet total) between the panels and the tanks, located on my roof and in my attic, respectively.

As we near the solstice, and as temperatures drop into the teens and oughts, performance will certainly drop. But it won’t drop to zero. We’ll get pre-warmed water for the boiler to finish off on every sunny day from now until March equinox. I hope, after that, we’ll be getting near total solar hot water for some months.

So— a few thousand dollars (I, a seasoned solar contractor, did the installation myself) in equipment, a prime roof spot oriented within 15 degrees of south, a relatively un-obstructed morning horizon (the afternoon sun is hampered by some tall trees), a solar day extending from 9 AM to about 3 PM, and this is what we’re getting for an energy harvest. DEP figures concerning hot water as a proportion of total household energy are being revised upward, to a possible 25%. If that’s so, and I believe it in our case, I’ll look for a 25% drop in our fuel oil usage this winter. And, at nearly 60, I expect to bequeath this system to a future owner someday, still running, still harvesting that blessed free energy from God’s own fusion bomb, the sun.

Partial Sun no Problem for Solar Panels

blog-cloudy-solar-panelsI happened to be cleaning a boiler this morning at the home of one of my solar clients, and i checked the system over.  50 degrees out, cloudy enough so that I couldn’t tellwhere the sun was in the sky. The two Heliodyne panels were reading 95 degrees, the pump was cranking away, and the two 60 gallon storage tanks were being warmed. All in weather not normally seen as optimal for solar hot water systems. The oil fired boiler in this system only has to raise the water temperature to 130 degrees to serve the dishwasher, laundry and showers. Lots of energy was being saved by the solar equipment in that house.

I didn’t build the panels, or the heat exchanger, but I did design and install the system. It performs beyond expectations. The new optically selective coatings being used on flat plate panels will collect photons and transform them into heat much more efficiently than flat black paint or a bare surface.

This is a short post, an update on some things we’ve discussed lately. Don’t believe the dismissive comments about solar hot water being a three or four month blessing. Solar hot water, thoughtfully installed, will perform for you on sunny days twelve months a year in New England. Connected as a pre-heating treatment with an energy source configured to finish the water off to usable temperatures, solar panels can be working for you all winter long, even on cloudy days.

Sunbathing, Once Removed – Solar Hot Water and You

blog-solar-water-heaterThe device at left is a self-contained solar hot water heater, featuring panels, mounting frame, and tank at the top. it requires no power for pumps or controls. Water from the tank circulates through the collector plates by convection as the sun heats it, filling the tank with water at whatever temperature the sun can warm it. The tank remains at house pressure, waiting for a demand. At night the tank cools slowly, delivering hot water until the tank is cooled completely.

You can’t take a shower at midnight with this rig, unless no one else has used water that evening. You can’t store more water than can be held in the tank. You can’t rely upon the supply first thing in the morning, or later in the morning, unless the outside temp is so high that the tank doesn’t cool much. You can’t install this system in a climate where winter temps drop to freezing or below; or, you can’t use the system more than five months a year in New England where I live, and it must be drained for the winter when hot water is supplied by another system.  You can’t supply the hot water needs of an American family of  four unless they’re all atuned to the daily cycles of water heating and time their use of hot water in zen-like harmonious balance with the (i’m singing now, in a sloppy baritone) “Cirrrrrcle of Liiiiiiffffe.” No audio available on that one….

You get the picture? The system shown is not acceptable for Americans. No system I know of is acceptable to Americans, with the exception of aging hippies with dearly held beliefs on the subject. I installed a system several years ago for clients with those dearly held beliefs about energy and independence, but the system nevertheless had to be carefully integrated with a seamless backup, sized to provide hot water for every possible demand including house guests, and separated from the house water supply by a closed-loop heat exchanger filled with antifreeze to prevent freezing. Sporting those features, it cost a small bundle, which federal and state incentives defrayed by over half  (here in CT, at the time, state rebates were generous; since then, with a huge budget deficit, those rebates have withered). But it supplies “tempered” (pre-heated)  water to their oil-fired backup system on any sunny day in any month of the year, and supplies all of their hot water needs for about six months out of twelve.

That’s what Americans require: seamless integration of alternative energy systems into an American lifestyle which forfeits no convenience to the idea of sustainable energy technology. I could sell a lot of the systems shown in the picture; they would supply the hot water needs of a couple for at least the three warmest months of the NewEngland year, saving 25% of the energy costs in a category (domestic hot water) that accounts for at least 30% of an American family’s energy bill. Yes; that’s 8% of the household’s energy costs, defrayed by a system that must be lived with a state of awareness and harmony. No, I won’t sing again. The payback period of the system would be about eight years, and it has a life cycle of perhaps 30 years. But all the caveats listed above still apply. You have to live with what the system can do, and what it can’t do. How many of my clients are willing to make those lifestyle adjustments? Hands up? I don’t see any hands. Guess what? My hand’s not up, and I’m an energy-conscious aging hippie and heating/cooling contractor committed to renewables. I’m an American, and I want my hot water without compromise.

There are other solar hot water systems, other designs that contribute to a home’s hot water needs in a more American way. This USDE site gives an overview. Costs range from 8 to 25 thousand dollars US to install, and they pay back your investment over periods ranging from ten to 25 years. Do you know how fast they’re selling in Connecticut? Not fast at all, especially as the rebates recede and the federal tax incentives age toward 2015, when they will either be renewed or not.

I always plump for low technology, low cost, modest gain energy strategies in this blog and in my business, but I haven’t found a way to put solar hot water within the reach of  average homeowners yet. The renewables train is coming slowly around the bend, and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing among homeowners who’d rather replace windows and siding than invest in solar technology, because that’s what’s being hawked on the telly. I’m a very modest salesman, with a conscience I wear upon my sleeve, and I can’t promise more than the numbers tell me when I talk up renewables. The number are still tough, but they work in the long haul. We need a national, cultural sea change, a tipping point. If it’s not on the infomercials, it’s not hot. Al Gore can’t sell this one: I can’t sell this one. The renewables movement is waiting for someone to sell it to America; perhaps only Tom Hanks is up to the job.

The Inalienable Right– Hot Water

children-bathing-blog

Whether by means of a furnace coil, electric tank, gas fired tank, tankless (see last post) heater, or other device, every American home is expected to supply enough hot water to: bathe every member of the household at least once a day to his/her satisfaction, run two loads of laundry through an automatic washer, operate the dishwasher at least one cycle, and supply hot water at each tap for the washing of hands/dishes/faces/toothbrushes.

Hot water needs run from 15 to 30 gallons per day per person, accounting for about 30% of a household’s energy consumption. Other major energy factors include heat, appliances and lighting. Few other developed countries require as much hot water per person as we do. Daily hot water usage in the UK is app. 11 gallons. The only country that uses more hot water, indeed more energy, per capita is the United Arab Emirates.

Energy is also still deceptively cheap in the USA. Most Europeans pay two to three times our cost for transportation and home convenience fuel. And we, resistant to new technologies like solar hot water, point-of-use hot water heaters, and heat-recovery of waste water, are using rather primitive equipment to heat up our precious showers.

But federal and state tax credits, depending upon where you live, can defray more than half the cost of new, more efficient equipment. The missing factor is our motivation to move forward technologically, embrace conservation until it becomes chic, and face up to the realpolitik of energy. It’s never been more cost-effective and patriotic to pursue alternative and renewable energy sources and equipment, but you do have to take the long view. The last solar hot water system I installed is calculated to pay the owners back in 10-12 years. Not many Americans are willing to wait that long to begin saving money on energy. Indeed, most of us don’t expect to be living in our present homes in ten years.

A feature of your home life that consumes 30% of your total energy budget deserves a second and then a third look. We’ll chew on this some more when next we meet. Until then, time your showers…….