Solar Water Heating

BY DOUG REYNOLDS, NOTO EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

When I talk to operators about renewable energy, virtually everybody thinks only of electricity generation. That’s too bad, because some of the easiest and fastest payback opportunities are in other areas of energy use. Probably the best opportunity of them all is the use of solar energy to heat water.

Everybody uses hot water, but because propane fired water heaters are relatively inexpensive and reliable, few tourist operators see the savings possible with solar water heating. When I suggest this technology, the usual answer I get is “I don’t use all that much propane, so there is no real saving to be had”.

A quick look at the numbers will quickly dispel that conclusion. Even a small outpost camp will probably use at least a couple of 100 lb propane tanks per season. Add the cost of transportation and it can quickly add up.

If you look at charts of energy savings, most will show solar-thermal savings of around 40 to 45 percent for northern Ontario, but these figures are based on year round use. Because we are looking at seasonal operations that are open during the warmest time of the year, 60 to 80 percent savings are likely.

There are several types of solar water heating systems in use. Those used in year-round installations typically circulate non-toxic food grade anti-freeze and use a heat exchanger inside the building to transfer the heat to the water. However, there are also simpler systems which heat the water directly, which must be drained before freezing weather. These systems are typically much lower in cost, and will often be perfectly suitable for a seasonal operation.

Virtually all systems are designed to leave your existing propane fired system in place, and simply pre-heat the water going into the water heater. This insures a steady supply of hot water, even in cold, dark weather. If the sun shines, the propane heater operates very little, if at all.

Of course every operation is different, but the only way to know if this kind of installation is right for you is to crunch the numbers. Look at your annual propane cost, including transportation and weigh that against the cost of a solar-thermal system. Don’t be surprised if you find a remarkably short payback time for the upgrade, since these systems can be surprisingly inexpensive.


This article was taken from page 9 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Fall 2006 Issue

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