The Future Looks Bright

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If you told your customers that you could eliminate 10 years worth of heating bills, do you think that would bring them into your store. Solar pool heating does just that and it has other appealing attributes as well: It displaces the use of dwindling fossil fuel resources, it's 100 percent pollution-free and reliably delivers a high rate of customer satisfaction.

Yet many pool professionals steer clear of solar, citing a host of reasons why they haven't basked in the warmth of free heat. Some of the most often-heard objections include: "It's too complicated," "I don't want to get on the roof," "I don't know how it works," "It doesn't really work well," "It requires special training" and "My customers don't want it."

Manufacturers are well aware of these objections, and they've done a lot of work to help make it easy for retailers and builders to sell solar products in the way that's just right for their businesses. From cash-and-carry DIY kits to wholesale installed prices on solar systems, there are more options than ever for dealers who want to expand their product mixes to include solar.

Free And Friendly

Perhaps the best selling point for solar pool heating is that it's free. The average installed solar pool heating system will pay for itself in fuel cost savings in about two years — sooner than that in places where fuel costs are higher than average. "Once the initial cost is out of the equation, it's free heat for many years," says Dan Takahashi, vice president of operations for Enersol. "We've been in business for 25 years and our systems are still in operation. That's 25 years of free heat." While 25 years for a system is probably a best-case scenario, a warranty of 10 to 12 years is the norm for installed systems. Kit-type systems, which are considerably less costly and are usually used on above-ground pools, generally offer shorter warrantees. But with the high cost of fuel, free heat is a pretty big carrot, whether the system lasts five, 10 or 25 years.

Another solar selling point is its impact — or more accurately, its lack of impact — on the environment. "Both the U.S. and Canadian governments have done studies on solar pool heating," says Takahashi. "And the overall reduction of greenhouse gases is phenomenal." "When you look at solar heating of any form," adds Charles Grignon, marketing manager of Aquatherm, "solar heating of pools is the most widely used of any solar energy right now."

As with any product, solar pool heaters won't solve every heating challenge. "The disadvantage is it's slower, it doesn't respond as rapidly," says Grignon. Another consideration is that although solar systems will raise the water temperature 10 to 12 degrees, they won't raise it much above the ambient air temperature. For example, if the water is 70 degrees, and the air is 75 degrees, a solar heater can raise the water temperature to 75 or 77 degrees. Whereas if the water temperature is 70 and the air temperature is 90, the system can raise the water temperature to 80 or 82 degrees. Still, 10 or 12 degrees adds a lot of time onto the season. "You can extend and really stabilize the swim season and get more use out of your pool," says Grignon. In the colder parts of the country, customers can expect a five- to six-month season. "Which is a long swim season for Wisconsin! In Florida, though, you will double it," says Grignon. "You can keep the pool open year-round."

Saving money, saving finite resources and saving the environment all add up to positive public relations. "We don't really have any dissatisfied customers," says Takahashi. "Most of the customers who get into solar pool heating are ecstatic about it." And solar-heated pools offer the same benefits that any warm pool offers: a longer season, more enjoyment for the customer, and more sales of toys, accessories and chemicals for the dealer.

Roof Resistance

Perhaps the single most prevalent obstacle to selling solar pool heating systems is the dreaded roof. The collectors — which lay flat and are quite unobtrusive — are most often placed atop the home, garage or other building near the pool. "Most pool people don't like to go on roofs," says Takahashi. Roy Heine, president of Suntrek, agrees: "It's rare for pool builders to want to get up on a roof themselves, except in markets where they don't have a local solar company to support them," he says. "Often the builder will do the pool equipment side of things, run the plumbing to the side of the house, and then hire a roofer to do the solar system up on the roof."

So subcontracting the installation is one option. Alternately, companies like Suntrek have crews that will do the installation, and the builder still makes a margin — although not as much as if he or she did the installation themselves. And Heine says that's not unusual. "Many companies provide the pool builders with wholesale pricing installed."

But for pool professionals who don't mind working at a higher elevation than they're used to, most of them already have the skills they need to set up a solar system. "This is a plumbing job," says Heine. "So if someone is familiar with cutting and gluing PVC pipe, and is familiar with pool equipment, they will be very comfortable installing a solar system."

Panel Placement

Solar pool heating is remarkably uncomplicated. Black tubing collects heat from the rays of the sun and transfers that energy to the pool water. "It's so doggone simple in its concept," says Takahashi. "It's one of the simplest sciences going." Solar design may seem a little intimidating to the uninitiated; however, there are just a few key concepts to keep in mind. Whether a dealer wants to go up on the roof himself or not, sizing, orientation and drainage are the primary considerations when planning a solar pool-heater installation.

"Sizing is the most important," says Grignon. "We help the dealer size them the first couple of times they do a pool." Most experts recommend using solar panels that equal 50 to 100 percent of the pool's surface area, with 50 percent being a bare minimum and 80 percent the norm. Heine counsels erring on the side of excess: "Make sure the customer gets more than what they need. This way you'll always have a happy customer."

Most panel manufacturers offer training and assistance to their customers, and several offer Web sites that will help professional installers or homeowners determine the size of the solar collectors they'll need.

"On the Web site if someone's doing a DIY project, they provide us with dimensions and we custom-build the collector for the customer," says Heine. Other manufacturers sell standard-sized panels that are easily combined to create the needed coverage.

The Right Slant

The panels can face any direction except north, but southwest is the most effective orientation to the sun. Of course, the collectors must be unshaded. If the sun's rays don't reach the panels, the system can't work, even on a sunny day.

The other detail to consider when designing a solar heating system is drainage. "You want the water that's up in the solar collectors to drain back to the swimming pool, so you're not leaving stagnant water in the solar system," says Heine. "If it's in a winter climate, the system could freeze, if it's in a warm climate the water could boil, and neither of those things is good for the product." Heine says this is easily accomplished. "It's just a question of having a vacuum-relief valve up on the top and no severe high points in your plumbing, so the water will gravity-drain back to the pool," he says.

As simple as installation is, some businesses just don't want to get involved with that type of work. But they can still offer solar products to their customers. For them, and for dealers who need a significantly lower price point (one that's compatible with aboveground pools, for example) there are a variety of "sun-in-a-box" type kits that are sold as cash-and-carry items. Manufacturers of these types of systems know that merchants probably don't have the resources to provide a lot of customer service for the product, so many of them have extensive Web sites or customer service operations to make sure end-users are happy with their purchases.

"Our approach has been to encourage pool owners to deal directly with us," says Richard Holstein of SmartPool. "Generally, we can get any problems straightened out without any returns or anything else. But if there's a problem, we're not afraid to spend money to keep a customer happy."

And customer service and support are important, too. "You want to have a manufacturer's warranty; a pool builder doesn't want to have to warrant a product," advises Grignon.

"We've invested a lot of money in customer service people and software and hardware and phone systems," he adds. "So we can do a professional job of handling people. That's how we have geared ourselves. We've also relieved the retail trade the burden of being caught in the middle."

Which Is Best?

Because the technology is so uncomplicated, nearly all reputable manufacturers produce collectors that absorb heat comparably. Most collector panels generate about 1,000 Btu per square foot per day. The area where roof-mounted collectors start to differentiate themselves is in how they are attached to the roof. "There have been some innovations, mostly in the hardware and in the mounting systems," says Grignon. Some systems are glued to the roof, others are bolted and strapped. Most are monolithic with water routed through piping encased in a solid panel, while some are composed of series of tubes that allow wind and rainwater to pass through.

So with a basic understanding of a "technology" that's as old as, well, the solar system itself, many retailers and builders will be asking which solar systems to carry, not whether to carry them. "There are so many benefits of a warm pool, and so many more benefits of a solar-heated warm pool," says Takahashi. "It's free energy. Most roofs are just sitting there getting hot anyway, and most pools are just sitting there having a hard time getting hot by themselves. So you marry the two and you have a win-win-win situation. The customer's happy, the retailers made good margins and we're happy. The environment's happy, too."

Solar Resources

American Solar Energy Society • 303/443-3130

ASES is a national organization dedicated to advancing the use of solar energy for the benefit of U.S. citizens and the global environment.

Dept. of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy hc_water_heating.html

This site is a portal to renewable energy information with several areas dealing with solar pool heating. The site includes fact sheets on energy efficiency and renewable energy for homes and businesses. The "Conserving Energy and Heating Your Swimming Pool with Solar Energy" fact sheet may be of particular interest.

Florida Solar Energy Center • 407/6328-7745

FSEC is the largest and most active state-supported renewable energy and energy-efficiency research, training, testing and certification institute in the United States. This site provides extensive information on how to install and maintain solar pool heaters. It also includes information on solar pool economics, how solar pool heaters are certified, thermal performance ratings, answers to frequently asked questions, links to other solar energy organizations and online publications.

Although written for Florida residents, much of the information is appropriate for consumers across the country.

North Carolina Solar Center

NCSC provides detailed information about solar technologies (including solar pool heaters). Of particular interest are the online publications and the list of organizations providing additional information on energy efficiency and renewable energy topics. Although written for North Carolina residents, much of the information is appropriate for consumers across the country.

Reduce Swimming Pool Energy Costs

RSPEC was a program initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy's Institutional Conservation Program (ICP). The RSPEC program is no longer funded and there are no staff to support the program, but in an effort to keep the intent of the program alive, the materials produced under the program are still available at this Web site. The site includes several online fact sheets, downloadable software to help analyze the economics of energy conservation measures and solar poolheating systems, and links to other Web sites.

Solar Energy Industries Association • 202/678-7745

SEIA is the national trade association of solar energy manufacturers, dealers, distributors, contractors, installers, architects, consultants and marketers concerned with expanding the use of solar technologies in the global marketplace. This site includes a state-by-state directory of solar installers, retailers and contractors; news releases; and contact information for state SEIAs.

Solar Rating & Certification Corporation • 407/638-1537

The SRCC administers a certification, rating and labeling program for solar collectors and a similar program for complete solar water and swimming pool heating systems.

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