The sun, says Tom Moriarty with emphasis, "is free." That's one reason the Tarrytown, N.Y., aircraft technician installed a solar hot- water system in his home in August 1978. He also likes the fact that it is "clean and quiet, that there are no pollution and no maintenance problems." By his calculations the sun is saving him some 360 gallons of oil a year.

Another solar hot-water user, Mrs. David White of Goffstown, N.H., expresses her sentiments this way: "Other fuels won't be here forever, but the sun will always shine." In effect she is saying that whatever the dollar savings are now, they will become even more impressive as fossil-fuel costs rise, possibly to prohibitive levels in the event of some major future shortage.

Because of expected increases in energy costs (in recent years they have risen considerably faster than general inflation), oceanographer Clement Griscom of Westerly, R.I., believes his three-panel solar hot- water system will have paid for itself in nine years. After that, it's money in the bank, so to speak. Even on a cold winter day Mr. Griscom often finds the temperature in his storage tank is between 115 and 120 degrees F., a sight that still brings a smile of satisfaction to his face.

Ed Charbonneau of Milton, Vt., recalls a day when "the outside temperature was 25 below zero, and the water in the holding tank stood at 125 degrees F." That's how effective solar heat can be. Mr. Charbonneau estimates monthly oil savings of $15 a month in winter and $25 a month in summer. A Wilmington, Mass. , couple, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Moore, calculate average monthly savings from their system at $25 a month.

And so the tales go. Those who have made the decision and taken the plunge all appear satisfied with their investment in solar hot water.

Solar water heaters are not new. They go back a hundred years or more. According to the Northeast Solar Energy Center of Cambridge, Mass., there are some 25,000 solar water heaters in use in southern California during the 1950s and 1930s. And as recently as 1941 there were more than 60,000 in use in Florida. But for the ultra-cheap fossil fuels available from the end of World War II until the early part of this decade, solar energy-trapping technology would have continued its steady advance without interruption.

What makes solar hot water a sound present-day investment is the fact that between 20 and 30 percent of a family's now costly annual fuel bills can be traced to the hot water used for bathing, laundry, and dish washing. According to the Northeast Solar Energy Center in Cambridge, Mass., more energy is required to heat this water than to light the home, refrigerate the food, and dry clothes combined. A typical solar heater can cut the average family's hot water bill in half, says the center.

Because energy costs are projected to rise at an annual rate of 15 percent a year for oil and 10 percent for electricity, solar hot- water systems are expected to pay for themselves in reduced fuel bills in seven to nine years.

Currently, solar hot-water systems cost, installed, between $2,000 and $3,600 depending on type and size (less in states such as Florida where precautions against freezing are unnecessary). But because of federal tax breaks these systems wind up costing the consumer a whole lot less. The purchaser pays the full amount, but at the end of the year receives the refund from the government as a tax credit. The 1978 National Energy Act provides for a 30 percent tax credit on the first $2,000 of a solar system and 20 percent on any additional costs up to a maximum of $10,000. So as $2,000 system would end up costing the home owner $1,400; a $2,800 system would end up at $2,040; and a $3,600 system at $2,680.

In additional individual states now are passing tax credits of their own, which would further reduce the cost, and many are prohibiting local communities from taxing such installations for at least the first 10 to 20 years.

Some other pluses for a solar system: As energy costs continue to rise, a home with a system gathering free energy every day becomes more attractive to home buyers. Thus it adds to the resale value of the home. For the same reason , it can be seen as a hedge against inflation. The system is also a cushion against a sudden vote by a distant oil cartel to dramatically raise the price of crude. Finally, a solar hot- water system is a contribution toward a better environment. The less conventional energy your home uses, the less pollution-producing fossil fuel has to be burned.

A solar hot-water system works this way: Heat from the sun is absorbed by collector panels and is trapped inside the insulated panels. A collector fluid, generally an anti- freeze solution, is pumped through the panels, absorbs the heat, and carries it to the water-storage tank where it releases its heat directly into the water. In warm areas such as Florida and domestic water itself can be pumped through the collector panels. As a result, such systems are less costly to install.

Siting solar panels is all-important. For maximum efficiency they should face within 20 degrees of true south (check with a compass) and be tilted at an angle equal to your latitude plus or minus 10 degrees. In other words, the farther north you live, the more vertical your panels; the farther south, the more horizontal.

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