Thursday, October 16, 2008

5 cheap ways to go solar

You don't have to cover your roof with expensive solar panels to reap the benefits of the sun. Cheap alternatives are available that will light your home indoors and out — and modestly reduce your electric bill.
By Sonya Stinson,

Thinking of going solar?

If the price tag of a whole-house photovoltaic, or PV, panel system makes getting off the grid a green dream you can't quite bankroll yet, consider starting smaller when you switch to sun power.

"People are craving solar," says Michael Strong, the Houston-based vice president of Brothers Strong Inc., a remodeling company, and GreenHaus Builders. "There is just a huge amount of interest in it. But for the most part, people have an overinflated sense of how much of that utility bill it's going to cover."

For example, Strong says a "baseline" PV system in Texas would cost $25,000 to $35,000, depending on the installation costs and the location and orientation of the house, and it would generate about three kilowatts of electricity.

"In a very well-built 3,000-square-foot home, let's say, that type of power capacity will produce anywhere from 10 (percent) to 20 percent of their electricity," Strong says.

In light of that reality check, here are five less ambitious — and much more modestly priced — solar power devices to try.

1. Tubular skylights

Tubular skylights — also known as solar tubes and tubular daylighting devices — are ideal for lighting small spaces. They typically come in 10- and 12-inch diameter models, with prices ranging from about $150 to more than $600, according to the National Association of Home Builders' ToolBase Services site.

Tubular skylights must be installed in areas that get several hours of direct sunlight per day. Installation is a fairly clear-cut DIY project, unless your home has a metal or tiled roof, making cutting the hole a trickier prospect that may require calling in the pros.

A light collector is mounted on the roof, allowing sunlight to pass through a reflective tube into a diffuser lens that is mounted on the ceiling. Unlike conventional skylights, tubular skylights don't require additional framing, and they look like regular light fixtures from the inside.

Three years ago, John Avenson installed three tubular skylights in a Westminster, Colo., house already outfitted with PV panels. He put one in the "deep end" of his home office that had no windows, one as a replacement for an old bathroom light and fan fixture, and one to swap out a ceiling fixture in the hallway near his bedroom. Adding a few optional features and using the manufacturer's buy-two-get-one-free deal, he estimates he spent about $1,500 for the whole package.

2. Solar outdoor lights
For another inexpensive path to solar, how about using sun power to light up your garden at night or make your entryways more secure? You can find solar path lights for less than $10 apiece. Accent lights, such as hanging lanterns and post lights, start at less than $100 each. Solar floodlight kits start at around $20.

"Rather than having to hire an electrician and, in some cases, do major construction to dig a trench and lay electrical wires down ... you can avoid those significant installation costs by just powering your lights from the sun," says Neal Lurie, marketing director for the American Solar Energy Society.

Before you buy, make sure that what you are getting can actually illuminate the landscape the way you want. Last November, George Van Dyke installed solar landscape lights and solar floodlights around his new home in Towson, Md., with mixed results.

"The landscaping lights are a bit tricky in that they can collect water easily on the lighting surface," Van Dyke says.

He discovered that the lights had to be pointed downward or sideways in order to avoid this problem, which was a bit disappointing because he had wanted to use them as up lights.

On the other hand, he loves the floodlights. "I have even gone so far as to suggest them to certain clients that have taken an interest in alternative energy products for their homes," says Van Dyke, who has a financial consulting business.

3. Unglazed solar pool collectors
If your swimming pool is for warm-weather use only, you can take advantage of these inexpensive heaters that later roll up like beach mats for winter storage. Here's how they work: Thin panels made of heavy-duty rubber or plastic absorb the sun's heat, while the pool's existing pump circulates water through these collectors and back into the pool. The panels can be set up on the ground, on the roof or in a rack.

Leah Ingram of New Hope, Pa., who writes about her family's adventures in green living and other cost-saving practices in her blog, "The Lean Green Family," says she and her husband, Bill Behre, paid less than $400 for a kit to heat their pool.

"It's helped us to keep our pool at about 80 degrees despite some 65-degree nights, and to have a heated pool without paying for extra electricity in the process," Ingram says.

A recent Internet search turned up a $480 kit containing two 2-foot-by-20-foot panels and a set of valves for turning the system on and off. Another vendor sells a similar kit for about $280.

These products are different than the solar pool heaters that use glazed sunlight collectors, which can be more complicated and expensive to install. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy consumer guide, unglazed collector panels are adequate for pools that will be used only when temperatures are above freezing. Glazed collectors, which have a glass covering, are more efficient in cold weather.

4. Solar-powered attic fans
With prices ranging from about $300 to $700, solar attic fans ventilate attics and help keep them cooler. Depending on the size of your attic, you may need more than one fan to get the cooling effect.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, these devices use a 10- to 20-watt solar panel to power a direct-current motor. The fans are installed with intake vents that are usually mounted near the ridge of the roof. As with tubular skylights, the panels for solar attic fans panels must be installed in an area that receives direct sunlight.

If you are handy with tools and unafraid of heights, you can install one yourself. Otherwise, call in a roofing contractor for the job. One major caveat: Make sure that the space between your home's conditioned space and the attic is properly sealed and that there is enough intake air flowing through the attic itself. You want to avoid any potential problems with moisture in the attic or backdrafting, which is when the exhaust fan blows fumes from fuel-burning appliances back into your living space.

Strong has been using solar-powered vent fans in his clients' building and remodeling projects for about four years.

"What they like about them is that they have been maintenance-free," he says.

The energy savings are hard to pinpoint. "Most homes today are not calibrated, and they don't have the electrical dashboards to be able to tell how much (the fans) are actually saving them," Strong says.

Home energy experts say you'll get the best results when you combine installing a solar attic fan with beefing up the insulation in your attic.

5. Solar-powered chargers
You're going off on a long wilderness hike to become one with nature, but you figure you'd better take along a working cell phone to stay connected to civilization. Strap on a solar backpack, embedded with light-collecting panels that convert sunlight into energy for recharging the phone's batteries, and you're good to go.

Solar battery chargers, also available as hand-held portable devices, foldable panels and stationary units, can be used to charge all kinds of small electronic devices including laptops, digital cameras, PDAs, MP3 players and CD players. Some will even power up the batteries in your car, boat or lawn mower. There are multipurpose chargers as well as those designed for specific types of products and specific brands.

Some of the latest models give the option of either storing the power in an internal on-board battery for later use or charging your gizmo directly from the sun.

Prices vary greatly according to the manufacturer, usage, style and power capacity. You might spend less than $20 for a 1.8-watt vehicle battery charger, $35 for a multi-use charger that produces up to 2 watts of power and more than $200 for a solar backpack that produces enough electricity for a laptop.

Trying out relatively inexpensive solar products like these is a good way for consumers to become comfortable with the technology, Strong says, until "they get ready to pull the trigger on that solar PV" when it becomes more affordable.

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