Is Now the Time for a Solar Hot Water System

The number of solar electricity-producing homeowners in the District of Columbia now reach close to one thousand.  The main reason DC residents have flocked to solar electric was the rebate program that has been available through the DC Department of the Environment.  While solar electric installations have become commonplace and widely discussed, you don’t hear too much about solar hot water – until now.  Earlier this year, DC changed the rules of its solar rebate program to include a solar hot water rebate equal to 20% of the system’s cost.  Because there are no guarantees this rebate will last beyond 2012, many homeowners are taking a crash course in the basics of solar hot water — trying to decide whether to get in on the rebate before it disappears.  On June 25th, several Capitol Hill neighbors along with two solar hot water installers put on a city-wide public meeting about solar hot water technology, installation costs and available subsidies.  The meeting marked the first effort by DC Solar United Neighborhoods (DCSUN) to negotiate price discounts for solar hot water installations.  Materials from the meeting are now available at www.dcsun.org.  Below are some highlights, but much more information is available on the website.

To kick off the meeting, I provided some photos of the new solar hot water system that I had installed in May 2012.  Like most solar enthusiasts in the District, I started out with solar electric.  However, I made sure that my contractor left enough room for later installation of solar hot water panels.  I was able to save some money on the solar hot water installation because the mounting supports for my solar electric were pre-designed to also support the solar hot water panels.  I can now check my new (very large) solar hot water tank to see how well the sun is doing — it has been reading at about 120-140 degrees depending on the time of day.  Goodbye cold showers!  My family loves the new system because I’m not bugging them about saving enough hot water for everyone to shower.  My old (and small) gas powered water tank is still intact as a back-up, but especially in the summer, we won’t need to fire that up at all.

Resident Capitol Hill solar guru, Andy Kerr, also had a solar hot water system installed earlier this year.  He has developed a nice presentation explaining the initial cost of his system, the rebates that he was eligible for (the DC rebate, a 30% Federal tax credit and the sale of solar renewable energy credits), and the return on investment that he expects from his system.  Because solar hot water systems need to be sized to the hot water needs you may have, Andy has also developed aspreadsheet allowing you to punch in your own numbers to calculate the economics of solar hot water.  In his case, he paid about $8,500, but with the three rebates, his cost dropped to about $3,000 — which works out to an 8 year simple payback, and a 7.7% return on investment over 20 years.

Andy’s calculations will now get slightly better because DC SUN has developed a partnership with two vendors, Solar Energy Services and Clean Currents.  Both companies are offering additional discounts of between $100 and $400 for homeowners affiliated with DC SUN or local co-op chapters.  For each contract signed with DC SUN members, both companies have generously offered to donate to DC SUN’s EmPowerment Fund that helps provide solar grants to low-income families.

Please take a look at the materials on the website and decide for yourself whether solar hot water will be in your future.  As we advised with solar electric installations, it is always good to get multiple bids before jumping into a purchase.  If you are on the fence and need more time, we recommend you put your name on the list for a DC rebate while you are making your decision.  Lastly, please join our listserve from the DC SUN webpage, where you can post questions and help us start a new dialogue on solar thermal.