Frustrating Dependency on Fossil Fuels in MASS
by Ted Sicker
My partner and I live on a south-facing slope in rural Shelburne, Massachusetts. Our house was built in the 1980s, and we renovated about 10 years ago. It has a south-by-southwest facing roof ideal for solar, and our garage also has a similar roof.
I’m an educational media producer, and much of my work has been about global climate change. It’s been frustrating to have to depend on fossil fuel sources, relying on propane for hot water and on electricity from the grid. Waiting for an all-out effort from the federal government has so far been futile, but by this past year, we saved up enough to consider solar options.
Working with Claire Chang and John Ward of the Solar Store of Greenfield, we found generous Massachusetts rebate programs and state and federal tax credits allowed us to afford both a photovoltaic and a hot water system.
The PV system was straightforward; they specified the largest array the garage roof could accommodate. To achieve 80% solar gain, we had to cut down some trees, but this also gave us a better view and more than a year’s worth of fuel for the wood stove. The PV system was installed in one day in July; waiting for inspectors to sign off so we could turn on the interconnect with the grid took another week. In August, we fed more electricity into the grid than we used from it, and got a rewarding small electric bill! Now, in mid-winter, with shorter, cloudier days and occasional snow buildup on the panels, the results are not as amazing, but bills are lower than in past years. A
clear day in winter generates about half of what we produced in the summer, so we’re looking forward to lengthening days,
The Solar Store hooked us up with Brandon Turner of “Renewed by the Son” to design and install the hot water system. We decided to design a domestic hot water system with an option for adding in a loop to heat our hot tub later. (Our propane-heated outdoor tub had become too expensive and wasteful to run.). We settled on a three-panel setup with a 100 gal. (q/c) tank, figured out how to run piping from the basement to the roof along our exposed posts and beams (through a first-floor laundry room and then boxing in a chase on the second floor), and decided to remove the existing domestic hot water tank and install an on-demand Rinnai heater for additional propane savings. Brandon began installation in October, having to work around the Halloween weekend blizzard and power outage, and with inspection delays, we were able to turn on the system by the 2nd week of November.
When the panels are hotter than the water in the tank, the antifreeze loop turns on, heating the water through a heat exchanger. If the tank’s temperature exceeds 1200, it feeds our hot water taps directly, with cold water
mixing in as needed to maintain that temperature. When it’s below 1200, it feeds a loop to the on-demand heater, which brings the water up to 1200.
In November, the tank did reach 1200. With colder, cloudier weather, we’re not often getting there, but the tank is generally between 70-1000, so our water is preheating, using less propane that with our old system.
We’re currently investigating ways to tie in and re-activate the hot tub, either with a heat exchanger from the Rinnai, or using a second heat exchanger loop from the solar tank.
We’d still like figure out how we can run off-grid during a power failure, as happened after the October storm. John and Claire are working on a way to add in a second inverter and a small battery array that can bypass the interconnect, to supply enough power to run the well pump , the hot water system, and some lighting.
The Solar Store staff and installers were a pleasure to work with. It will be several years before we can determine our financial payoff, but in the meantime, we’re happy to use less fossil fuel and do our part to combat global climate change.