Going Solar in Cloudy, Cold New England

Since the 1970s, when I first became aware of renewable energy, I wanted to watch my electric meter spin backward as it sold home-generated power back to the power company. When we visited Israel in 1986, I noticed that practically every house was using solar to heat its water. I wanted the United States to join the party. Certainly in the Southwestern deserts, solar would be feasible. But what about in the cold, often-cloudy Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, where we live?

We would eventually find out for ourselves by applying solar to a home we purchased in 1998 – the same home we currently live in. Built in 1743 (the same year Thomas Jefferson was born), it had no good southern exposure, but the east side of the house faced slightly south and overlooked a beautiful open field where our neighbors grow corn and hay for their dairy cows. The first time we walked into the sunroom on that side of the house and experienced its beautiful warm sunshine, we knew we’d found a home. We said to each other, if there are three decent bedrooms upstairs, we would make an offer. There were four, so we bought this ancient house.

In 2001, we learned of some grants for solar hot water systems, and we installed a three-panel system. It cost about $7000, but immediately knocked $100 a month off our electric bill (it replaced an old, un-insulated electric water heater). And our water was HOT! We started warning guests not to turn it up all the way if they didn’t want to get scalded.

About six weeks in, after three cloudy days in a row, we became aware that the on-grid backup system wasn’t working. Fortunately, it was of course still under warranty, and worked perfectly after the repair. It worked so well that when a grant became available to pay half the cost of a very small (1 kilowatt) photovoltaic (PV) system in 2004, we jumped at the chance. At last, my meter would spin backward!

However, the PV system has been disappointing. I suspect it was installed too low on the roof (since the top was already full with the hot water system and four skylights took up the middle) and gets shaded too early in the day by the mountain behind our neighbors’ cornfield. We do sell some power back to the power company, but most months, it’s only about 10% of what we buy from them. In the summer, though, we usually have a couple of months with wonderfully low electric bills. And in the last couple of years, inexplicably, we seem to be selling more back to the power company all of a sudden (still not as much as we’d hoped)–maybe because we’ve replaced some of our appliances with more efficient ones.

The hot water system worked flawlessly for us, and with steady rises in the cost of electricity, probably paid for itself after about five years. But we hit a snag in the fall of 2009. At that point, we started getting estimates to replace our circa-1982 roof, and of course, that involved dealing with the solar systems. We discovered that even though it was only eight years old, our water tank was corroded and beginning to leak. The tank warranty was only six years, and the company that had installed it was out of business. I think of a water heater as a purchase that should last 20 years or more. Unfortunately no one had told us that solar tanks tend to wear out much faster because of the huge fluctuations in temperature of the incoming water. Big bummer!

We also discovered that neither of our solar systems had collectors with hinges. Therefore, in order to replace the roof, we would have to pay $4000 extra to remove and reinstall all the solar panels. Add in the cost of the Energy Star roof itself and the replacement water tank, and 2010 has been a big “OUCH!” year for house maintenance.

The roof was done this summer and since that time our hot water system has not been performing as well as it should be. Lately we’ve had to turn it to full heat to get a decent shower. We’re still trying to figure out why. We just had the water heater serviced and are hoping to get it back to its scalding self soon.

Would I do it again? Yes, but I’d change a few things:

  1. I’d replace the roof before putting in the solar
  2. I’d investigate other different water heater designs
  3. I’d have a larger PV array and install it farther up the roof

Shel Horowitz is author of the e-book, Painless Green: 111 Tips to Help the Environment, Lower Your Carbon Footprint, Cut Your Budget, and Improve Your Quality of Life-With No Negative Impact on Your Lifestyle and primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet. He writes a monthly syndicated column, “Green And Profitable” from his farmhouse in Hadley, Massachusetts

In this picture, you can see the 3-panel solar hot water system we installed in 2001, which works fabulously, and a 4-panel 1K photovoltaic system (which is much too small for our needs but does sell a small amount back to the power company on sunny days). The water panels are the higher ones. There’s also a tiny PV panel to the right of the hot water panels, which powers the water system’s heat exchange pump.

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