The Solar Equation

Scott Webb Headshot

Aq 505 67pg 0001

It's nice, feeling green. When customers buy solar pool heaters, part of their motivation is a conviction that they're doing their bit for cleaner, healthier air. Perhaps alongside that is the justifiably superior feeling of helping to reduce our nation's dependence on the vagaries of the Middle East.

But the determining factor is almost always the monetary one, just as it is for builders considering adding solar heaters to their pool packages. For both, having solar-powered equipment — either for use or sale — must leave them with more than just a green feeling. They need the feeling of green paper money, in hand.

The financial incentive for dealers and customers to go solar has become much stronger in recent years due to a rapid rise in energy costs.

Electric rates are up. Natural gas rates are up. At the writing of this article, Pennsylvania light sweet crude oil was selling for $52 a barrel, near its historic high, and as Nir Eyal, Long Island distributor for Heliocol Solar Pool Heating, Clearwater, Fla., notes, "Nobody thinks it's coming down anytime soon. And that helps [the solar pool heating industry]," he adds, "because solar is free."

The Best Things In Life

Indeed, the sun's warming energy is one of the great blessings in life, like smiles and the thrill of nailing your brother with a snowball, which remain free of charge. And that price break makes a compelling argument for pool owners who like to swim in warm water.

"Solar pool heating — that's the best deal going as far as payback for the consumer," says John Harrison, senior research analyst at the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), a large research facility located on the University of Central Florida campus in Cocoa, Fla.

Not only is solar pool heating the most economically viable application of solar energy, he says, but it starts making money for users faster than just about anything else.

According to research at FSEC, there are approximately 800,000 swimming pools (including above-ground) in Florida, and most of these must be heated during the cooler months to maintain comfortable swimming conditions. (Left unheated, a pool will stay generally at about the average outdoor temperature, which may be as low as 53 degrees in northern Florida in winter.) The average yearly cost for heating a residential pool in Florida is $1,420 using propane, $500 (at $0.09/kWh) using an electric heat pump and $580 using natural gas.

Most states pay more than that. In California, for instance, where PG&E's customers currently pay a 45 percent higher benchmark rate of $0.13/kWh, the heat pump cost would be $725. These are conservative figures, as customers using higher amounts of electricity can be bumped to a higher rate, as much as $0.25/kWh.

Ken Pisano is the owner of Design Concepts in Fort Myers, Fla., a full-line pool builder with 25 years' experience. He brings these numbers down to earth.

"I just sold two solar heaters last week," he says. "The customers both had existing heat pumps." Pisano designs his systems with ample solar panels and guarantees at least 80-degree water all year round. But for these customers, who like the water even warmer, his solar system is plumbed in just upstream of their existing heat pump. The two work in tandem.

"If they want to bring it up to 88 degrees, they just click on their heat pump, which bumps it up to 88. It runs for a short time, and then clicks off.

"They said they'd been running an extra $100 a month in electric bills just for their pools — trying to maintain their pool temperature electrically. They asked me if they went with solar, would it knock their electric bill down. And I said 'Yes, definitely.'"

Pisano's story illustrates that even for pool owners with existing heaters, payback can be sweet.

A typical in-ground-pool solar heating system costs anywhere from $2,000 to $4,500, installed. Using the FSEC's assumptions for pool size and season, compared with natural gas heating at $1.39/therm, a solar pool heater offers a payback time of 15 to 33 months. For propane it's even shorter.

These savings are attractive to pool owners who either have a heater but can't afford to run it, or are considering a heater for the first time to extend their swimming season and get more use from the pool.

That feeling — greater freedom of use of one's pool — is a powerful lure. Solar heaters offer a practical, affordable way for customers in the North to get a coveted, comfortable swim in May and June and for southerners to get one in January.

In essence, a full-size solar pool heater doubles the pool season, and offers the choice of swimming temperature. And since it's free, the owner can leave the heater on indefinitely, and return at will to pre-heated water.

Builder Perspective

The dealer/builder perspective on solar is related, but different. You can talk about customer satisfaction and market opportunity, but here the focus is on margin versus time and effort.

In the competitive South, where the solar industry is booming — in Arizona, Florida and California sales of solar have increased by 26 percent annually for past three years, according to Eyal — margins are tighter than they used to be. Even so, a dealer/builder can still simply take the order, call the solar installation company, and add several hundred dollars to the till.

More can be made if the pool business installs the solar unit itself, but for the inexperienced that may involve some difficulty. And in some states, including Florida, you need a license.

In the Northeast and Midwest, however, the field is wide open.

Eyal began working the Long Island solar market three years ago. "When I started with the company, they were selling about five systems a year total on Long Island, but the opportunity turned out to be a lot bigger than we thought it was," he says.

According to Eyal, in-ground pool builders in the Northeast can now frequently get a premium price for a solar heater. He's had customers with 20-by-40-foot pools who were paying $2,500 annually to heat them with gas. When a builder sells one of them a $4,500 solar heater (embracing a $2,000 margin) that will pay for itself in two years, he says, then everybody's happy.

With no metal parts to react with the chlorine, solar heaters usually last between 10 to 20 years. That extra working life figures into Eyal's solar equation as well.

"With double the [typical fossil-fuel heater] lifespan and warranty, and zero operating expenses, it should cost more. That gives you tremendous amount of room to get a good margin, and the customer still gets a great deal."

Eyal is adamant, however, that the builder's margin should be built on what the market will pay, not in minimizing builder cost by cutting corners (see sidebar, left).

The Sunny North?

The idea of solar energy in the North is not intuitive to most people. However, a properly sized solar pool heater will create a warm, inviting vessel of water there, too — as long as the ambient temperature is comfortable for swimming.

That's an important caveat. For solar heater users and dealers alike, the shorter northern pool season is the dominant consideration.

That short season is an intense time for builders, a brief period in which they must make the lion's share of their profits for the year. Until recent events made solar power more attractive, Eyal points out, the time and effort required to learn about solar, develop a relationship with an installer, and sell the product had been prohibitive. "The builder is really busy during the short pool season. So he wants to focus on high-cost products like the pool itself. He doesn't want to sell small products," he says.

And if there's no solar installer handy, that same builder or dealer may not want to go up on the roof, the most likely location for solar panels, due to safety and even employee insurance considerations.

"And so," says Eyal, "the thinking for a lot of guys has been: 'Put the pool in, drop the gas heater in, and I'm gone.'" At the same time, for pool owners in the North, the shorter season and exorbitant cost has made people reluctant to spend on heat. Without a heater, however, a pool doesn't really warm up until July, which makes the season of comfortable swimming even shorter. That's the problem solar pool heater manufacturers hope to raise — and solve — with pool owners.

Solar heating manufacturers are hoping that a customer who has spent $30,000 to $40,000 on an in-ground pool could be talked into an extra 10 percent in order to swim comfortably in May, June and September.

It's a big selling point; something of a visceral understanding for anyone who's ever gone swimming on Memorial Day north of the MasonDixon line. Solar heating takes the stress out of the first few weeks of the pool season — provided there's fairly good sun.

Clouds? What Clouds?

Did you catch that little qualifier at the end? Yes, a solar pool heating system does require sun. And in the North at least, the sun is a less reliable partner in energy generation.

The system makes warm water on cloudy days, too, just not very fast.

Of course there are downsides to solar:

  • It is not as fast or dependable as fossil fuel in heating a pool.
  • Not every homeowner wants several hundred square feet of black paneling lying around their property or on their roof, or can give these panels full sun. Indeed, solar is not for everyone, says Pisano. For that matter, pool heat itself is not for everyone. The vast majority of pools in the United States are not heated, and many owners seem to like them just fine.

And currently, when heat is included in a package, it is most often a fossilfuel heater. "That's just what builders have always done," says Eyal. "It's quick and easy. They know how to do it. They just sell the tried and true."

That thinking is changing, though, just as it is in every industry, to confront the reality of continually rising energy costs. It's a simple matter of economic expedience.

Eyal puts it simply: "Solar is going mainstream, more and more.

"People think solar is new, but it's not. The improvements are new, they've made the product more durable, made it easier to install, but the concept has not changed in a long time.

"The main reason to sell solar is that the customers are just much, much happier. When you're talking about spending $1,000 to $2,500 a year for heating a pool, and that goes down to zero with a solar pool heating system, it's a no-brainer."

Sizing Right

A problem for the industry and the future of solar heating arises in the sizing of the solar heating system. The power — and to a large extent, the cost — of a solar heater comes from its panels. With more panels, the system is better able to heat pool water, but this also raises the builder's cost.

Therein lies the temptation for the builder to skimp on the panels, says Ken Pisano, owner of Design Concepts in Fort Myers, Fla. "As a consumer, they tell you, 'We're going to solar heat your pool.' You don't know the first thing about it, so you say, 'OK.'

"You have no idea how much panel surface area coverage you need; you don't even know the questions to ask. All you know is your pool is going to be solar heated." At this point, everybody is happy. The builder has made a nice profit and the customer has "a solar pool heater."

But as the system fails to perform to full expectation — is slow to respond and fails to reach the desired temperature — the result is a sense of dissatisfaction. Customers often feel that perhaps the sun's energy itself is simply insufficient to heat their pool, which is far from the truth but can dampen future solar heater sales for all builders.

"That's where a lot of people are getting hurt, and that's when you get people writing you back, saying, 'It doesn't do all the things you said it is supposed to do,'" says Pisano.

There's enough money to be made in solar pool heating, Pisano argues, without skimping on the panels and leaving the system underpowered. "We only make about $400 to $500 profit on a system, which is not a lot of money, but I look at it like: 'I didn't have to put my hands on the system, so that's good enough.' I'm not going to be a hog about it," he says.


Simplicity Itself

A number of misconceptions about solar energy persist among potential consumers, particularly about the two types of "solar."

Solar energy is used to make both electricity and hot water.

When it generates electricity, photovoltaic solar cells take in photons of light and produce current. These cells are indeed complicated, very expensive and tricky to work with. This process comes to mind for many people when the word "solar" is used.

Solar water heating is completely different. Solar pool heating is no more complicated than water warming up in a garden hose that's been left in the sun in your backyard.

This simple, effective use of the sun has been far more successful, economically speaking, than any other application of solar energy. According to John Harrison of the Florida Solar Energy Center, "Pool heating is about 95 percent of the solar market here in Florida." (You can offer up that quote the next time someone bashes the pool and spa industry as an energy hog.)

Solar pool heaters circulate water through black panels containing polypropylene plastic tubes, which heat up in the sun. When the pool reaches the desired temperature, the system shuts off.

The panels may be either self-contained or have individual pipes running lengthwise. Most plastic collectors manufactured for swimming-pool use contain ultraviolet screening materials called inhibitors to protect them from damage. The actual mix of the inhibitors is generally a manufacturer's secret, but properly protected collectors should last at least 10 to 20 years.


Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library
Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide