Installers of hot-water systems heat up 'solar wave' forecast

Pressured by steadily rising energy costs, more and more people are taking a hard look at solar systems to heat water and stay warm. In fact, inducements to look to the sun for answer to ever-higher energy costs are compelling. After all, the federal government pays for 40 percent of the cost of installing a solar hot-water system, notes Jeffrey Mead of Alternate Energy Industries Corporation here. Many states also provide tax relief for such work. Rhode Island, for example, allows another 10 percent credit on gross , with an additional aggregate benefit of 17.6 percent.

Altogether, a 57.6 percent savings is a big incentive.

"The tax credits are going to be in place till 1985," notes Mr. Mead," and people are foolish not to use them. In Rhode Island we have to charge a sales tax, but the state gives it back. In Massachusetts there is no sales tax on such as installation."

Customers, in fact, are not alone in swarming into the market. So are the alternative-energy companies that are springing up all over the United States. While it was one of the first to establish a base in Rhode Island in 1978, Alternate energy Industries now is among some 30 companies vying for business in the area.

"There's enough business in the state for five or six companies to do well," according to Mead, who shakes his head in disbelief at the number of firms that have gone into business in the last several years.

"It takes a good 50 systems to really get the installing down," he reports, adding that his company now has some 100 systems to its credit in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and as far south as New Jersey.

Homeowners are often confused by the profusion of absorber plates and storage tanks now on the market shelf. Alternate Energy uses a microcomputer to predict the saving to a family over a six-year period, based on a family's variables and assumed fuel-inflation rates.

There is a thing about solar systems so that not many people understand them at all," Mead acknowledges with a smile.

Essentially, it's getting the heat from the roof to the basement," he asserts. Yet it may not pay for everyone.

"Occasionally, you'll find those rare cases where a solar hot-water system isn't advisable because it wouldn't pay in the long run. But 90 percent of the homes can benefit. Where can you find an appliance that returns money to you?"

The present oil glut might lure some homeowners into a false sense of security, according to Mead, who says that the summer months are when most people especially profit from solar hot water.

"In New England many homes have tankless coils and an oil-fired furnace," he goes on. "You don't need space heating in the summer, but you have to run the furnace in order to get hot water, which is ridiculous."

Despite the abundance of equipment, differences from company to company are often minor and relate more to quality than anything else. The installation time for a solar hot-water system can run from two to four days, he reports.

Gordon Priess, the solar engineer responsible for putting solar hot-water equipment at the White House, heads Solar Processes Inc. of Mystic, Conn., which fabricates Alternate Energy's system from an assortment of components. While most companies use propylene glycol as a fluid, where its success depends on owner maintenance, Mr. Pries says he prefers nontoxic silicone which neither freezes nor boils.

"Propylene glycol become alkaline and corrosive," Mr. Mead says. "And you can predict that the liquid will have to be changed at least several times in the lifetime of the system."

The cost of all the hot-water systems is about the same.

Jeffrey Mead predicts that solar hot-water heaters will become as popular as dishwashers someday, to be followed by add-on greenhouses and sun spaces.

"The solar wave is coming," he declares. "It isn't here yet, but it's coming."

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