By Lisa Capone-Condon

We had our heart set on investing in a solar roof but the surrounding trees just don’t allow enough sunlight to make it feasible. For those of us who want to utilize renewable energy, however, there is an alternative: solar hot water. This type of system requires only two or three panels – making it a great choice for a roof like ours that’s sunny a lot of the time but not enough to justify a full-scale PV array.

Like most communities across Massachusetts, Melrose is active in the Commonwealth’s solar revolution. Stroll through virtually any neighborhood, and it’s easy to spot solar panels atop houses large and small, old and new.  Rapid expansion of solar power in Massachusetts began about a decade ago with passage of a suite of legislation designed to bring down the cost and boost installation of solar PV.  During the early years of the state’s transition to a clean energy economy, I was working at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and was eager to be a part of it with a solar PV system on my own roof.

Fast forward a few years, however, and that enthusiasm was replaced with frustration, as not one, not two, but three separate solar companies took a look at our house and concluded that the towering oak trees around our modest lot cast enough shade to render solar power uneconomical. We could have put up the panels anyway, I guess (I know people who have, just for the curb appeal!), but that seemed to defeat the purpose of proving the cost effectiveness of renewable power. Instead, we looked for other ways to green our house. Last year, my husband and I landed on a clean energy solution that enabled us to go solar in a different way.

Following a MassSave energy assessment in March 2018, we began the process for installing a solar hot water system. The technology behind solar hot water is different. Rather than collecting solar energy and converting it to electricity, solar hot water systems capture sunlight’s heat and circulate the thermal energy through a fluid (glycol) to a specialized water tank. According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) solar hot water systems can reduce usage of traditional heating fuels (in our case, oil) and water heating costs (as well as greenhouse gas emissions) by up to 80 percent.

Our system wasn’t online until mid-June, so the jury is still out on our annual fuel savings. However, we were able to turn our oil burner completely off for all but a couple of days in July, August, and September – saving 100 gallons of oil compared with the previous year when we were using the oil burner to heat water. Basically, we didn’t use any oil at all until we turned on the burner to heat the house when cool weather arrived in October. That was our goal with installing the system, and we weren’t disappointed. In addition to saving oil, keeping the oil burner off during the summer and early fall also kept our basement significantly cooler – making it more comfortable and reducing the need for air conditioning on hot summer days.

Even on cloudy, cold days – winter or summer, the panels usually collect enough solar energy to provide ample hot water for bathing, cooking, laundry, cleaning, etc. On the rare occasion it doesn’t (such as after a series of several rainy days), the oil-fired water heater automatically clicks on, so there’s no risk of a cold shower!

The system is also quite affordable, thanks to several incentives and financing options available to most Massachusetts homeowners (there are incentives for businesses, as well). In our case, we took advantage of a MassCEC incentive of over $4,000, which was immediately subtracted from the approximately $12,000 total cost. We are paying the remainder through the MassSave HEAT Loan Program, which offers 0 percent financing over seven years for eligible energy improvements such as attic, wall and basement insulation; high efficiency heating and cooling equipment; and high efficiency water heaters. Nearly 90 banks and credit unions across Massachusetts participate in The HEAT Loan Program, which will finance projects up to $25,000. In addition, several months after installation, we received a check totaling nearly $1,700, the value of Alternative Energy Certificates available through the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard program. The system also qualifies for 30 percent federal and 15 percent state tax credits, which will continue to diminish our final cost.

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