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Branching Out into Solar


It’s the sunny season, and some fuel oil dealers’ efforts may be turning to the business of installing solar thermal systems ‘ especially if they already offer HVAC installation and service. That’s because HVAC personnel, accustomed as they are to installing complete systems, can be as adept as plumbing contractors when it comes to installing solar equipment, manufacturers said.



‘We think HVAC is an ideal channel to go to market with solar water-heating,” said Alan Cape of Rheem Manufacturing’s specialty products division, which recently introduced a solar water-heating system.



Moreover, there are incentives for homeowners who invest in solar energy systems, a benefit that installers can highlight in marketing to potential customers. The federal stimulus package includes a provision to pay 30 percent of the installed cost of solar thermal systems, with no cap, through 2016, Cape said. That could be combined with any state incentives or incentives offered by local utilities to reduce substantially the installed cost. For more information about such incentives, see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (dsireusa.org) which, despite its name, includes summaries of federal incentives.



The market for solar energy systems in ‘oilheat nation” may be modest today, but it has potential, manufacturers said.



Rheem has fielded a number of inquiries about its solar thermal system from distributors in Canada’s Maritime provinces. And some commercial enterprises and government/public entities are committing to solar thermal installations, according to Rod Hyatt, national solar product manager for Heat Transfer Products. Hyatt said Heat Transfer Products is supplying a system for a recreation center in southern Colorado, where it will be used to help heat three swimming pools, and for radiant heating in the floors of three 3,000-square-foot houses in Utah.



There are other manufacturers that have recently introduced equipment or systems for the market. Energy Kinetics introduced Smart Solar, a water heating appliance with two collectors, each measuring four-foot by eight-foot; R.W. Beckett Corp. is offering a solar thermal system called SolarHot; and Taco, Inc. has expanded its all-in-one X-Pump Block for solar thermal applications.



To grow the market, some manufacturers are emphasizing education and training for distributors and contractor-installers. Rheem Specialty Products holds one-day, in-house training sessions on solar technology theory, and on its offerings specifically, at its facility in Montgomery, Ala.



‘It’s important to bring training and information to the market as well as to homeowners,” Cape said.



Rheem introduced its solar thermal system, SolPak, this spring. It is a solar water-heating system comprising heat exchanger tank, collector panels, a controller, multi-speed pump, thermal expansion tank and other items. ‘Contractors or integrators can go to one source, order a single SKU and get the complete package,” said Cape, manager of growth markets for Rheem Specialty Products. He noted that Rheem sources some of its system components from other manufacturers.



Besides an overview of the solar market, and how solar water heating works, the training course in Montgomery gives contractors the opportunity to have a hands-on experience of plumbing a solar collector to a solar water heater, activating the pump system and charging the system with glycol, said Jeff Mahoney, alternative energy market manager for Rheem Specialty Products.



Rheem has also taken the training class on tour, visiting more than 200 contractors in the past three or four months. The hands-on portion of the class is usually omitted from these sessions on the road because the instructors don’t travel with the collectors, but all other aspects are covered, including how to evaluate the suitability of a site for a solar thermal system: whether a roof can support the weight of collectors; factoring in the direction the roof faces; and judging whether trees would prevent solar energy from reaching the collectors.



Heat Transfer’s Hyatt agreed that education and training are vital to building the market. Hyatt said he instructs manufacturers’ representatives, who sell to wholesale plumbing houses, who in turn sell to heating and plumbing contractors. The distributors often work closely with plumbing and heating companies to support them on their first solar installation job or jobs, Hyatt added. He said that fuel oil dealers that have trained HVAC personnel would be good candidates to do such installations.



Hyatt said that the technical training he provides is on ‘the full theory and application” of solar powered products, rather than on Heat Transfer Products devices exclusively. He said he takes a ‘train the trainer” approach.


There is a payoff for installers who take the trouble to master the subject, Hyatt emphasized. ‘A lot of times they get the [contract],” he said, ‘because they’re more knowledgeable. They come up with accurate estimates and ROI.”


Homeowners often have to be educated in the realities, Hyatt observed, which naturally include geographic and climactic considerations. A potential customer who lives in Virginia and wants the same solar-energy system as his brother in Arizona would be courting trouble, he said.


Heat Transfer supplies systems that use solar power in conjunction with other energy sources to help heat water, residences and larger buildings. Its products include a 30-vacuum tube solar collector capable of delivering up to 39,000 Btu per panel per day, depending on available sunlight. Each panel assembly consists of 30, twin-glass, evacuated tubes to absorb solar energy for heating water. They are shipped with a ready-to-assemble, stainless-steel frame for rooftop mounting. Another product, the Phoenix Solar, is a solar water heater that combines domestic hot-water storage with a gas-fired backup ‘ all in one unit ‘ to meet hot-water demands of residential and commercial solar thermal systems. It is designed to deliver both space heating and domestic hot water.



While many of the solar energy systems being marketed are for domestic applications, such as heating water or heating swimming pool water, as well as some space heating, there are companies with other types of large-scale systems designed for use in commercial and industrial settings.



DuCool, an Israeli company just venturing into the North American market, announced in May that it is launching DuHybrid, an air-conditioning system powered by solar thermal energy or electricity. It is designed to reduce the energy required for cooling by up to 60 percent compared to standard air conditioning. The system combines desiccant dehumidification with evaporative or geothermal cooling to eliminate the need for conventional mechanical cooling. It utilizes solar thermal energy when available and automatically switches to electric power when needed.



The DuHybrid system can also be integrated with a cogeneration system and can be powered by other renewable energy sources or waste heat. The system operates in one of two modes.  The renewable energy mode is the default mode of operation. Based on the application, in this mode the unit can generate over 20 tons of refrigeration of cooling and dehumidification using renewable energy sources such as solar thermal and geothermal water. In the electric mode of operation an embedded compressor is activated to enable efficient cooling and dehumidification by utilizing the waste heat of the compressor as an internal energy source. The DuHybrid system is designed to cover a broad range of commercial and industrial needs for air conditioning and dehumidification.



Mooki Talby, vice president of business development for DuCool, said that while a mechanical contractor would typically install the DuHybrid system, HVAC personnel could also do the job.



‘In terms of the basic skill set, they could definitely do that,” Talby said. ‘It’s not a complex installation. It’s fairly easy to put in.”



DuCool intends to conduct training seminars for installers in North America, Talby added.                                                           

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