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.