Solar Energy's New Place In The Sun

Solar energy is making a comeback. After a brief heyday in the energy-starved 1970s, solar's prospects dimmed in the past decade as the U. S. loosened restrictions on foreign oil and energy prices dropped. But the gulf war reminded Americans of their dependence on foreign oil and their own limited supply of fossil fuels. The result: Solar is hot again.

MORE RELIABLE. Much of the credit goes to improved technologies that have made solar equipment for existing homes more affordable and reliable than ever before. Solar can be used for everything from illuminating your deck to heating your water, says Scott Sklar, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Assn. and co-author of Consumer Guide to Solar Energy (table).

Solar is often as economical as it is good for the environment. Aside from lower utility bills, almost half of the states offer tax breaks and other financial incentives for using solar power. And many overburdened local utilities will kick in onetime rebates when you install solar equipment.

Solar water heaters are by far the most popular solar-powered home appliances. Roughly 1.5 million homes use them, and it's easy to see why. A quarter of the energy costs for a typical single-family home go toward heating water. Solar water-heating systems, by contrast, pay for themselves in about five years. After that, heating water is free for the life of the system--usually about 15 more years. Expect to pay $2,200 to $4,000 to equip a typical four-person household.For maximum efficiency, solar collectors should face south in an area that receives direct sunlight from 9:00 a.m to 3:00 p.m. on clear days. If your roof is shady, collectors can be installed near your house on a patch of ground that gets ample sunlight.

Today's water systems offer bigger, better-insulated tanks with several days' worth of capacity, so even people in northern states can make the most of their limited winter sunlight. But water that runs through solar collectors can freeze, so you must be sure your system has adequate drainage or other antifreeze systems. And check with your insurance company to make sure you're covered for damage from freezing.

Solar water-heater dealers, listed in the yellow pages, can tell you which system is right for your house. Before you buy, make sure the equipment has been rated for efficiency and quality by the nonprofit Solar Rating & Certification Corp. Also, check that the equipment has been tested in your area. An efficient system in Texas may not work well in Maine.

AUTUMN SWIM. If you have a pool, a solar water heater can extend your swimming season for months. For the average pool, installation runs about $4,000. While this is far greater than the $300 to $2,000 you'd pay for a conventional swimming-pool heater, the savings you'll see on your energy bills should recoup the cost in three years.

You can also use the sun to generate electricity. Photovoltaic cells, first used in space in the 1950s, have come down to earth in both applications and price. These thin silicon wafers turn the sun's rays into electrons, which are then converted into electric current.

The most common home use is for outdoor lighting on decks, walkways, and house numbers. Many solar outdoor lights contain cells on top of each unit. Stake the light into the ground where sunlight hits during the day, and you will have hours of light at night. More elaborate deck-and-patio systems use a main collector to power a group of lights. Outdoor lighting systems range in price from about $120 for a security lamp to $500 for a four-light deck system.

Going completely solar is still out of the question for most existing homes. But the next time your water heater goes on the blink or you decide you'd like to see the backyard at night, it may pay to harness the most powerful energy source around: the sun.



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