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Solar Twist on Old Story

April 2010

Solar Twist on Old Story

It's Spring in Ontario - Finally!! Birds are singing, the air is warm, and people are cleaning up their backyards after a (mild) Winter. Those with swimming pools are reflecting on last year's less-than-great swimming season caused by periods of rain and slightly cooler weather.

Last year, unless you had a pool heater of some kind, there was not a lot of swimming going on. Pool owners who had gas, propane or heat pump/electric pool heaters actually had to use their heaters to get their pools to a comfortable temperature. The cost of using their heaters has had them telling us at home shows this year that they spent more heating their pools last year than they spent heating their houses this past Winter! All of them except for those wise ones who heated their pools with a properly sized and installed solar pool heating system....:-)

As a result of last year's weather, we are seeing an increase in interest in solar pool heating this year, which brings me to the gist of this blog item. This year we are also seeing an increase in bad behaviour from solar companies; low-balling pricing by; cutting corners, not including necessary components, baiting and switching, over-promising performance and bad-mouthing competitors. By their behaviour you'd think the industry had sunk to the proverbial "used car salesman" school of ethical behaviour. ie - tell the customer whatever they want to hear to make the sale....

Perhaps my standards are unreasonably high, but I will not sell a solar pool heating system unless I feel confident that it will be capable of doing the job at least 90% of the time without the assistance of some other kind of pool heater. This means using the right amount of an efficient solar collector, properly installed on roof/structure facing the right direction, with an automatic solar controller.

The main motivator for people to buy a solar pool heating system is to save money. It is always possible to make a solar system less expensive by dropping components or cutting corners - but this is a false economy. For example, a common pitch by low-brow solar companies is to say that you don't really need an automatic solar controller. Patently false! Without an automatic controller, and relying upon a person to open and close a solar valve several times a day, the solar system will easily deliver 30% to 40% less heat a season than one operated by an automatic controller. (BTW, using a pool pump timer will only provide a portion of the contol an auotmatic solar controller will - ie: won't turn the solar system off if its raining, etc...) Another example of cutting costs is when companies use ABS pipe to plumb the solar system. (ABS is the black rigid pipe you find at hardware stores and is used only for drainage piping). ABS pipe is not designed for use outside, nor is it designed to take pressure, and it is also much more brittle than PVC pipe. ABS pipe, elbows and tee's will likely crack after a couple of years.

Solar cannot or should not always be done. There are many circumstances where it just does not make economic sense to install solar. Over the years I have had to tell many people that I do not recommend installing a solar system. Usually they have mixed emotions about not being able to have a solar system but are appreciative of the fact that I was honest and didn't sell them something that couldn't work they way they hoped it would.

What it boils down to is buyer beware. Use common sense, and avoid the temptation to go only for the lowest price. A solar system is something you are likely only going to purchase once in your life. A good product and installation should last at least 20 years. (you will likely own 3-5 cars in that period of time) Quality of product and installation are paramount. Customer service is important, but if you have a good installation with a good product, you won’t be needing service. (Offering a long service warranty (for example 5 years) is often used as a gimmick. If the company does poor installations, the chances are they won’t honour their service warranty.)

Remember a good quality solar installation will cost once, a poor quality solar installation will cost and cost and cost.