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Solar hot water days

by Camelia Browne
Eco haven blog

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Solar hot water days

We’ve had a sudden change this week in how we talk about the weather. Since Monday we’ve been saying ‘Pumping solar day!”, “great solar day! Or – to put it in the colloquial – “crap solar day!”.

Even today though – pretty much a crap solar day – the merest glimmer of lemony light has required a trip to the laundry, where the solar hot water sensor is, to check out the action. Not much today, with a thick blanket of cloud after a sleety rainy night, and we have kept the power on, but it is after all August in the southern hemisphere, one of the colder months of the year. Snow on the hills and temperatures down to freezing during the week.

Record for the first week
For the rest of the week though, the other four days, its been 1 x pumping solar day, 2 x “not a bad solar day, and 1 x “not a great solar day, but its ok”. And even on that not great but OK day we only turned the power on at night.

Inaugural solar hot water day
Monday morning just after 9am we were standing in the laundry on our inaugural solar hot

The solar hot water sensor showing (from left) the hot water temperature, the frost record, the temperature in the solar panels and the temperature at the bottom of the cylindar.

water day, awaiting the moment the sun hit our roof. The early part of the morning, the sun was hidden by thick cloud, but just after nine the first rays came through and within minutes, we could see the number measuring the temperature inside the solar panel start to rise, about a degree every three seconds or thereabouts.

We began to get very excited! Some people love there sports cars, we love our solar panels!

And we’ve bought local – these ones are made by Thermocell in Christchurch which has been installing them for 20-odd years. They can be used in our harsher weather conditions, coping with frosts, for instance.

Tracking the temperatures
Ben drew me a diagram explaining what the various figures on the sensor meant and how they all connected to the solar panels and the hot water cylinder. The HWC temperature measures the bottom of the water cylinder, which is different on a solar hot water cylinder. The water stratifies, with cooler water at the bottom. When the temperature in the panels is hot enough, the cooler water from the bottom is pumped through the panels and returned to the top of the cylinder.

We watched the solar panel temperature going up, and with it our excitement rose - only 9.30am in the morning in a cold winter month, and our solar hot water was about to kick in. We got three and a half year old Jake, lifted him up and showed him the sensor, trying in his simple language to tell him the fun was all about the hot water for his bath, and the panels daddy had been putting on the roof – the ladder to which Jake had spent a good deal of time trying to climb the minute our backs were turned.

We watched as the temperature in the panels rose – it had to be 12 degrees higher than the 28 deg. in the bottom of the cylinder – 36… 37… 38… 39… 40!!!!
The pump light came on – we couldn’t hear it working at all, which suited me fine – and our cylinder received its first injection of sun-warmed water. We cheered, and took Jake outside to show him where the panels were, and to admire them ourselves.

Zen hot water
I told Ben I bet the water would feel different, it would have a different vibration from the mains electricity, but he looked at me skeptically. He hasn’t had the experience of a 10 day Vipassana meditation course - that’s not talking for 10 days, 13 hours a day in meditation - so I can’t expect him to be aware of the subtler energies of life!

The temperature in the panels continued to rise until by lunchtime they were at 58 deg and the HWC temperature was not far behind. Ben proudly declared it would be a really good solar set up – having put a few in now, he knows that some locations are better than others.

To call the day “pumping” was a measure of our excitement, because when the midday *summer* sun hits the roof, we will look back at our first day as excited novices and will really know what the word “pumping” means.

Our previous house was in a breezy, harbour-side location where gardening was in many ways more challenging, with clay soil and cooler air temperatures from the Easterly. In those days, I decided I would need to manifest a more sheltered garden with better soil.

Sheltered location means hot solar
Low and behold, we find ourselves in the middle of a city, but with a garden which, had you been here before the city was, would have gently meandered down to a native filled gully.

The original natives are gone, but you can dig five foot down at the end of the garden before you hit the clay. All the good stuff has washed off the hills and into our gully.

Essentially we have traded views for fertile soil and shelter. The back yard is so sheltered, sitting in a basin, that it barely registers the wind – you don’t know there’s a bitter Easterly until you step out the front door onto the street.

In the middle of summer, it’s incredibly hot at the back door. The temperature on the black door post in the porch gets up to 60 deg in the middle of summer.

This is why Ben may well be justly proud of our solar set up. Furthermore, the 1918 villa we live in has one of those roofs with a V down the middle – painted a black shade of grey – and this is where the panels are. So they are sitting in a heat trap, soaking up the sun’s rays.

We have some friends who are so solar powered they have an impressive solar electricity array in their back yard – for those still learning how it all works, solar hot water panels are of a different design to solar electric panels of the kind that provide all your electrical needs and can be connected to the grid in preparation for the day when we all sell our excess solar power back to the power companies.

These friends were suitably impressed by our first day lunch time temperatures.

All this means that now we are looking at the house differently.

Creating an eco haven
It’s a beautiful old villa in need of TLC as they say. You wouldn’t have bought it in the

A view of the solar panels from the rear of the villa, showing all you can see of them from the ground.

condition it was in unless you were really keen or a romantic fool, or the husband of a romantic fool. Not that he doesn’t stop pointing out all the foibles of an old house, such as dry rot and where it’s been roughly bogged up by the previous owner to hoodwink future buyers, things which seem to be in my blindspot.

What all this is leading to is that, although the house can be cold and dark, and although it is in not what I would call an ideal location for raising a family - there are all kinds of goings on in the adjacent block of flats, most of it involving revving cars and rowdy late night revelries (in real estate terms, however, it’s an inner city cul de sac with potential), and although I couldn’t for the life of me imagine us spending the rest of our days here, we now feel a new commitment to the old chook, because how can we leave our solar panels behind?

Ben says it’s not always economical to retro fit houses, unless they need the water cylinder replaced. But there are of course other reasons to do so – for instance, if you are planning to stay there long term. And solar panels will add value to your house.

Our place is becoming not a bad little eco-haven, with our plans for it including energy efficiency, with a garden that has been planted out in natives, and with a large organic garden.

Five years to pay dirt
For the record, it takes only five years for a solar hot water system to pay for itself. We have been lucky enough to get solar hot water before we imagined it would be possible because we are in partnership with our solar electric friends in a renewable energies business. So now we eagerly await our next electricity bill, knowing we will be saving money right away, and because that’s one of the fun parts.

The other fun part is having a shower, knowing it’s sun warmed water cascading over you. Cascading is no small part of the story as with the HWC now in the ceiling, the water is crashing out of the shower head. This flow will have to be reduced, not least of all because the resident teenage daughter managed to drain the tank in one session when we were not here to bang on the door. On the upside, she was washing her hair with a luxurious French brand of organic shampoo, courtesy of her mother who recently opened an organic/natural products shop. It’s nice to know we’re constantly increasing our ability to invest our dollars in environmentally friendly and deliciously healthy businesses. What better way to circulate good money.

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic