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Sunny-Side Up

RSWLiving - - Department­s - BY ED BROTAK

Florida is the Sun­shine State, af­ter all, and many Florida res­i­dents take that nick­name to heart by us­ing so­lar power in their homes. “There is no ques­tion that so­lar en­ergy can be a smart in­vest­ment de­ci­sion,” says Ja­son Szum­lan­ski, prin­ci­pal so­lar de­signer for the Florida So­lar De­sign Group. “We save with so­lar en­ergy,” com­pared with other en­ergy sources, he says. Peo­ple also elect to go with so­lar power be­cause of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. “To do the right thing” is how his clients ex­plain it to Szum­lan­ski, mean­ing they are us­ing a re­new­able en­ergy source, they are not burn­ing fos­sil fu­els, and they are not pol­lut­ing the air.

To be per­fectly ac­cu­rate, how­ever, the Sun­shine State re­ceives less sun­shine than Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­ico, notes Melissa L. Grif­fin, as­sis­tant state cli­ma­tol­o­gist for Florida, “be­cause of our greater cloud cover.” Even so, in South­west Florida the sun is still out about 70 per­cent of the time, pro­vid­ing ap­prox­i­mately 3,000 hours of sun­shine a year. Fur­ther­more, the south­ern lo­ca­tion means that “the rays hit the earth’s sur­face at a higher an­gle than any­where else in the U.S.,” Grif­fin ex­plains. In other words, the sun’s rays are stronger, and for so­lar power, this means more en­ergy is avail­able.

So­lar power is used in two pri­mary ways in the home: pro­duc­ing hot wa­ter and gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity. So­lar pool heaters have been around for 40 years, and, ac­cord­ing to Szum­lan­ski, “In so­lar pool heat­ing, we lead the na­tion, or are a close se­cond to Cal­i­for­nia. De­spite our beau­ti­ful cli­mate, pools of­ten re­quire heat­ing to be en­joyed, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the cooler months. Tra­di­tional heat­ing meth­ods like elec­tric heat pumps and gas heaters are ex­pen­sive to op­er­ate.”

Typ­i­cally, so­lar pool heaters con­sist of sev­eral so­lar pan­els, called flat-plate col­lec­tors, which are at­tached to the roof. The black pan­els are warmed by the sun’s rays. Wa­ter is pro­pelled by the pool pump through tub­ing em­bed­ded in the plate and is warmed by con­duc­tion. The heated wa­ter is then re­turned to the pool.

So­lar home wa­ter heaters work in a sim­i­lar man­ner, ex­cept the heated wa­ter is stored in a typ­i­cal hot-wa­ter tank. “These so­lar ther­mal col­lec­tors pro­duce am­ply hot wa­ter for most times of the year and are backed up with elec­tric or in­stant-on heaters for a re­li­able un­in­ter­rupted sup­ply of hot wa­ter for do­mes­tic use,” ac­cord­ing to Szum­lan­ski. He ad­vises home­own­ers to as­sess their own sit­u­a­tion. “If you feel you are con­sis­tently a

heavy user of hot wa­ter, your home may be a good can­di­date for so­lar wa­ter heat­ing,” he says.

So­lar elec­tric sys­tems can pro­vide an eco­nomic and green source of en­ergy for your home. Pho­to­voltaic pan­els con­vert sun­light into elec­tric­ity. So­lar pan­els made of sil­i­con can be at­tached to the roof or can stand alone in a sep­a­rate frame. The sys­tem can ei­ther serve as the sole elec­tric source (with a backup bat­tery when needed) or can be tied into the ex­ist­ing power grid. “This is an en­ergy source that is ex­pected to be on par or very close to the cost of util­ity elec­tric­ity when con­sid­er­ing the longterm na­ture of the in­vest­ment,” Szum­lan­ski says. In ad­di­tion, Florida has a net me­ter­ing rule that al­lows home­own­ers to get credit for ex­tra elec­tric­ity they gen­er­ate on their own.

The cost of home so­lar power units varies. “Since so­lar en­ergy sys­tems are gen­er­ally mod­u­lar, you can in­stall a lit­tle or a lot,” states Szum­lan­ski. He em­pha­sizes that ini­tial costs should be weighed against how much you can re­duce your elec­tric bill. Also keep in mind that there are var­i­ous tax in­cen­tive pro­grams for in­stalling so­lar power sys­tems in your home. Check fed­eral, state and lo­cal govern­ment web­sites for de­tails. Some util­ity com­pa­nies also of­fer fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives. “The in­vest­ment is vi­able even without in­cen­tives,” Szum­lan­ski adds.

As with any ma­jor pur­chase, do your home­work first. Check out the var­i­ous sup­pli­ers of so­lar heat­ing/power sys­tems. Get re­views ei­ther on­line or from friends or neigh­bors. A rep­utable dealer will al­ways of­fer a free con­sul­ta­tion.

Szum­lan­ski sums up the ben­e­fits of so­lar power this way: “The eco­nomic im­pact is huge be­cause so­lar pool heaters off­set gas and elec­tric that would be re­quired for other heat­ing op­tions. The pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of in­stalled so­lar pan­els is clear and very im­por­tant to many who be­lieve that we need to leave the world a bet­ter place.”

Free­lance writer Ed Brotak is a re­tired me­te­o­rol­ogy pro­fes­sor turned stay-at-home dad. He and his fam­ily live in western North Carolina but fre­quently va­ca­tion in Florida.

South­west Florida sees about 3,000 hours of sun­shine per year, mak­ing it an ideal lo­ca­tion for so­lar en­ergy use.

Pho­to­voltaic so­lar pan­els col­lect the sun’s rays from the rooftop of this Fort My­ers home, pro­vid­ing it with an eco­nomic and green al­ter­na­tive source of en­ergy.

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