Water heaters, pools get free heat from the sun

By Martha Shaw

This series spotlights Vineyard homeowners who are taking action to become less dependent upon — or even independent of — off-Island sources of energy.

The Hackney Family

The idea of building an environmentally sustainable house came to Melissa and Fain Hackney when they visited friends in Maine who had a fabulous house that was completely energy independent, more commonly known as “off the grid.”

Melissa began to research various forms of renewable energy, efficiency methods, sustainable building materials, windows, structure orientation, and solar systems specifically designed just for heating hot water. When the opportunity to build a home from scratch presented itself, Melissa and Fain were enthusiastic about using some of the new solar technology.

On the roof of the Hackneys’ new home in West Tisbury are two panels that heat water as it flows through solar collectors. The hot water is sent to a storage tank and then used for the dishwasher, laundry machine, sinks, baths, indoor and outdoor showers, and even a Jacuzzi. Once the system pays for itself in the next few years, it’s all free.

“We wanted to set a good example for the kids and show them that this is economical, and it’s not very hard,” says Fain. According to the Hackneys, it has peaked the interest of schoolmates too. Having the panels helps the family relate to the things they are all learning in school about finite resources, fossil fuel, the history of industrialization, pollution, oil politics, population growth, global energy needs, and even general physics and chemistry.

Paul Adler

Paul Adler installed solar collectors on a freestanding rack in his lawn to heat his swimming pool. Doing the work himself, it took him a week to install the system. The materials, which he ordered from Solar Innovations in Florida, cost approximately $3,500. Up to that point, the Adlers had been paying so much in propane to keep the pool warm, they had stopped heating it. That was when everyone stopped using it.

What most pool owners report is that if the pool isn’t heated, its ambient temperature is too cool and people don’t use it. The Adlers had been heating it for special events and then turning the heaters off.

“Before I turned it off, I was paying up to $6,000 sometimes between May and October. Now it’s

almost free. This is probably the fastest immediate payback in renewable energy out there,” says Paul. “The reason why more people don’t at least heat pools this way is because the word isn’t out.”

Their teenage daughter is particularly happy about the collectors. It means more pool parties but also feeling better about everything. “It’s like we aren’t destroying the planet,” she said.

Larry Schaeffer

Larry Schaeffer wanted to put in solar panels to heat his pool, but couldn’t find an installer on the Island. He found a distributor, Aquatherm, on the Internet. They lined him up with an installer at Cotuit Solar named Conrad Geiser, who came over with two people and installed the whole system in one day. They lined the south-facing roof of his pool house with panels of black tubular collectors. They used the existing pool pump and installed a regulator where he could set the temperature.

“I think if you have a pool without using solar energy, it’s a big waste not only for yourself but for the environment,” says Larry. “I was using 500 gallons of propane every three weeks between May and October, reaching a total of $5,000 per outdoor pool season. We’ve saved over 2,400 gallons of propane already this year with the solar collectors.”

The heat waves on the Island over the last few weeks brought the water in some swimming pool systems into the high 90’s and above. While one pool owner turned off the valve to the collectors, another enjoyed the effect of his entire pool becoming a hot tub.

Sustainability is becoming a household word on the Island as more homes find energy alternatives reduce their purchase of fossil fuel. To find out more about renewable energy, efficiency, and activities of the Vineyard Energy Project, visit www.vineyard-unplugged.com.

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.