Solar Power: “Makeover” Home Features State-of-the-Art Heating System
By James Straub
Courtesy The Ellsworth American

Originally published March2008

Ron Smith and Brittany Ray's new “Extreme Makeover” house in Milbridge features the latest in solar technology used in water-heating systems.

Ray Plumbing & Heating of Ellsworth installed the solar hot-water system. The system utilizes high-efficiency evacuated tubes to cash in on the sun�s energy.

"A total rebate of $4,500 cuts the price in half; so, you get a three-year payback on saved energy costs."" – DANNY RAY,

Co-owner Danny Ray says advanced technology, better affordability and government rebates have made using solar energy for your home's hot water supply more appealing than ever.

Ray said a standard 6-foot-by-6-foot solar panel with 30 individual evacuated tubes is sufficient to serve the hot water needs for a family of four.

A typical system installed costs about $7,200 to $8,500, but Maine homeowners can cut the price in half by taking advantage of rebates from the state and federal governments.

Through Efficiency Maine, a program of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, consumers receive a check for $2,500 after installing solar hot-water systems. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service offers another $2,000 in tax credit.

The solar energy rebate program, part of Governor John Baldacci's Soar Initiative, was signed into law in June 2005. The rebate program applies to solar systems bought after July 1, 2005. The program, which is funded by money raised through a small charge applied to Maine's electricity consumers, originally had a sunset date of Dec. 31, 2008. The Legislature extended the program to Dec. 31, 2010, during the first session of the 123rd Legislature.

"A total rebate of $4,500 cuts the price in half; so, you get a three-year payback on saved energy costs,"" Ray said.

Richard Fortier, Solar Program manager for Efficiency Maine, said he isn't certain whether it's the improved technology or an increase in the number of dealers carrying solar water heating systems, but the use of solar to heat water in Maine is gaining in popularity.

He said the Maine PUC restructured its incentive levels, starting in January. The rebate for installing residential solar hot-water systems doubled from $1,250 to $2,500, and for the first time, the state is offering a $10,500 rebate for the installation of commercial solar hot-water systems.

As of Jan. 1, the state has sent rebates to 244 households that have installed solar hot-water systems since July 2005. Fortier says the rebate program is rapidly gaining in popularity.

"In January, we had 76 reservations, which exceeded any month since the program's inception." he said.

Ray explained that a typical system, such as the one installed at the house in Milbridge, includes two water tanks. Solar tubes heat water in one tank, which functions to preheat water in the tank that supplies the house with hot water.

The system is designed to provide hot water exclusively from solar energy for 80 to 85 percent of the time year-round. Solar energy supplies 100 percent of hot-water needs in the summer months.

At colder times of the year, the additional energy needed to heat water comes from electricity or other traditional energy sources.

Ray said the design of evacuated tubes, which are made in Australia, enhances efficiency in solar collection. Because they are round, unlike the earlier flat panel solar collectors, the sun hits them from any angle, providing near 100 percent effectiveness in capturing solar energy.

Solar energy output is immediate when the sun comes up and continues all day long until about 30 minutes after sundown, Ray said.

The tubes are more efficient in another way.

The design features a glass tube inside another glass tube. The evacuation of air from the tubes creates a surface with the same effect as thermo-pane windows. The inside of the tubes is coated with a substance that works like a two-way mirror, attracting sunlight then reflecting it back and forth inside the tube. The trapped sunlight focuses more energy on the tube's copper heat pipe.

Use of the technology is growing in Hancock County.

Ray said his company installed seven systems last fall, two in new houses and five in older houses being remodeled. The houses are in Lamoine, Castine, Hancock, Aurora and Milbridge.

"We have four designed to go this spring," Ray said.

Plumbing and heating wholesalers in the Ellsworth area are now supplying the equipment needed to install the type of system used in the Ray-Smiths' house, but they didn't just a year ago, Ray said.

The solar controller box used in the Ray-Smith house was donated by Purist Energy, a manufacturer in Kennebunkport. The solar panels were donated by Maine Green Building Supply in Portland.