Though it was generally agreed that what was good for the consumer was good for industry, there was uncertainty as to what specifically was good for the consumer and good for industry .
Statement from the Solar Energy Consumer Protection Workshop, May 1978, Atlanta, Ga.
ANSWER ALL of the following question correctly and you may consider yourself uniquely qualified to become the next Energy Czar.
1) True or false? Solar energy can be used to heat your home's hot water.
2) Of your family's total hot water needs, a solar hot water system will meet: a) 25 percent, b) 50 percent, c) 75 percent, d) 100 percent, e) none of the above.
3) A solar hot water system will last: a) all summer, b) five years, c) 10 years, d) 30 years, e) forever.
4) A solar hot water system pays for itself in: a) one year, b) eight years, c) 20 years, d) only after the second mortgage is paid, e) never.
5) People with solar systems are very brave because: a) they read a lot, b) they like dogs, c) they bought a solar system even though they couldn't find a dealer who passed this test.
The answer to the first question is true. You can heat your water with solar energy. People in the Middle East have known this for years. Solar collectors on the rooftops of Jerusalem are almost as common as television antennas. The use of solar energy in this country goes back to the turn of the century, before other fuels, such as natural gas, became cheap enough to waste.
Today there are at least 50,000 solar installations operating throughout the United States.If local dealers' estimates are true, more than 200 of these are heating water in Washington area homes.
Hot water from the tap in former U.S. Sen. William Brock's Northwest Washington home is provided by a Grumman solar system. Washington architect Winthrop Faulkner has designed three adjacent homes, in the $300,000 range, on the Faulkner Rosedale property in Cleveland Park. Two of those, including the Faulkner's home for seven, are equipped with solar hot water heaters. Architect Francis Donald Lethbridge has three collectors made by PPG Industries on the roof of his Kalorama house. Numerous other engineers, gadgeteers and visionaries have opted for the solar solution.
Russell Pandina is a wiry, quick-off-the-hip, ebullient sort of man. Two years ago he began designing and building solar collectors in his garage. He has since expanded into a small, but growing, plant in Marlow Heights, Md. Pandina says he has installed, nearly 100 of his Futuristic solar hot water systems locally. Futuristic is one of several collectors approved for use in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) solar demonstration program in Maryland.
"If we just had the capital to market the thing the way it should be marketed," says Pandina, gritting his teeth ever so slightly, "we could turn this into a $10 million business. Just in the Washington area."
One of Pandina's most recent installations is in the Clinton, Md., home of Luis and Verna Burch. Luis Burch did not jump into solar with both feet. He first checked out a stack of books on the subject from the library. '"That's the way he always does things," says Verna Burch.
Luis Burch was convinced. The family of four plunked down $2,500 for two Futuristic collectors, mounted on a portion of the roof facing south, a new hot water tank and sundry pumps and sensors. Whenever they have a chance, or happen to be in the basement laundry room, Verna or Luis Burch punch a series of buttons on an electric monitor that variously shows the temperature of the liquid going up to the collectors, the temperature returning and the water temperature in the tank. Each figure is meticulously recorded on a clipboard ledger.
On a sunny Wednesday at the end of May, the water temperature in the tank was less than 70 degrees in the morning. By two o'clock in the afternoon, it was nearly 130, without any help from the electric backup heating coil. No unusual noises. The water does not glow. It just . . . well, it just works.
Dealers of solar equipment are likely to ask themselves, on a slow day, why there aren't more people like the Burch family around. Why doesn't everyone buy solar? One reason is that the average American homeowner who has grown up with a gas, electric or oil hot water heater in his basement, has never even seen a solar collector. He probably doesn't have the least notion how it works.
Although solar has demonstrated that it works, even simple questions elicit answers that vary as much as the weather. Hard answers to some solar questions do not exist. Asked how he planned to field queries about the Raypack collectors he is marketing for the Hechinger company, Bruce Geoffrion said, "The people who buy it will be convinced before they even come in."
For the unacquainted, however, buying solar requires a leap in faith. And at $2,500 a shot for a hot water system, compared to around $250 for a conventional heater, solar is more than an appliance; it is an investment.
Yet the solar industry, including manufacturers, dealers and installers, government agencies - federal, state and local - standards organization and consumer groups have yet to assemble the mechanisms necessary to build consumer confidence in the solar idea. Standards, labeling, installer training and licensing, and other consumer protection measures important in a competitive marketplace, are still being developed for solar products. Says Robert D. Dikkers, head of the solar standards program at the National Bureau of Standards, "They really haven't got their act together yet."
For instance, what makes a good collector? "It's difficult to build a bad solar collector," said Gene Zerlaut, president of Desert Sunshine Exposure Test, Inc., one of the country's largest outdoor testing facilities. "You really have to work at it." Yet the industry has experienced problems and continues to make improvements.
Solar collectors are exposed to intense ultra-violet radiation. At one time, manufacturers believed collectors could be painted black to better absorb the sun's rays. Black paint, they found, can eventually peel away. Some companies continue to use black paints. Others, such as KTA Solar Corp. in Rockville, are now using "black chrome" plating.
The HUD program has experienced a few failures, Dikkers said, caused by collector "gas out." Before they are put in operation, collectors sometimes sit on a roof for several days. During this "stagnation" period, they can attain temperature of 300 degrees or more. If the collectors are built with insulation containing organic binders, or glues, these can melt and condense on the underside of the collector glass. The collector becomes useless.
Makers of fiberglass have since developed insulation, without binders, especially for solar collectors.
Ask the dealer how much of your hot water the solar collector will dliver and he will probably tell you "about 50 percent." He does not really know. Nor does anyone else - for sure. Solar collectors are not air conditioners that suck up a certain amount of electricity and deliver so many BTUs in cooling power. David Moore, head of HUD's solar program, expects solar collectors will one day carry a label, similar to those found on air conditioners, telling how many BTUs can be expected under certain conditions. Even then, however, it will be an educated guess, not a guarantee.
Solar collectors are designed for no one particular area of the country. But solar energy falls with different intensity from place to place. States such as Florida, where collectors are certified to work under local conditions, are the exception rather than the rule.
For some reason, everyone wants to know when their solar system will pay for itself. Few people ask, "When will my television set pay for itself?" or "What's the payback period on my furnace?" But solar, perhaps because it is advertised as "free energy," must meet this test. It is one point on which hardly anyone can agree. Those with interests slightly opposed to those of solar advocates say 25-30 years (and you can't expect a system to last that long anyway). Those eager to sell say five or six years. Still others say 13 to 15.
The estimates vary according to the amount and type of fuel you are accustomed to using. Electricity is the most expensive. A solar system added to an electric one can pay for itself in kilowatt hour savings in six to 10 years. The Energy Store in Columbia, Md., uses one of several computer programs developed by universities around the country to determine system payback. "Most of the paybacks," says owner George Hunter, "seem to be around seven to nine years."
Compared to oil, the solar payback period extends to 12 years; to natural gas, 15. That's if energy prices continue to inflate at their current rate. VEPCO has just asked for a 9 percent rate increase. Oil prices are rising almost logrithmically and natural gas at a rate of 14 percent or more per year. Solar, authorities say, may not pay for itself immediately, but it is one sure hedge against inflation and shortages of other energy supplies.
Federal and local tax benefits enhance the economics of buying solar. The federal tax credit on a typical hot water system can amount to $700 or more, enough to pay a year's worth of utility bills. In Harford County, Md., and in Alexandria, Fairfax County and Falls Church, properly installed systems are exempted from property taxes.
Authorities say the majority of solar system failures are caused by poor installation. Before buying one, check out the dealer. "The installer should have some kind of track record," says Ken Kauffman at the Franklin Research Institute in Philadelphia. Ask for a list of clients who will show you their system and tell you how well it has performed. Insist he apply for a building permit.
Be sure the dealer not only installs his systems, but services them as well.Many warranties are modeled after HUD requirements. Typically, these include: 1) A one-year parts and labor warranty by the installer against defects in materials and workmanship; 2) A five-year warranty from the collector manufacturer against defects in materials or manufacture, including parts and labor; 3) A five-year warranty against corrosion failure.
Beware of lifetime guarantees. More than likely, the dealer doesn't expect to be around long enough to honor them. CAPTION: Picture, no caption; Illustration, The Solar House, By Robin Jareaux - The Washington Post