Right now, "we're getting back to it," he added. "Fuel prices are high enough -- and they're only going to go up. West Virginia in the last year has had a 19 percent increase in electricity prices -- and AEP is asking for more."
America is playing catch up when it comes to solar water heaters, with Hawaii leading the way. A law that took effect Jan. 1, 2010, requires all new single-family homes to be equipped with solar water heaters, making Hawaii the first state in the nation to approve a solar water mandate.
Israeli rooftops have long been dotted with solar water heaters, first installed when a fuel supply crisis struck in the early 1950s, according to a July 2008 article by Justin Thomas in the blog "Metaefficient: A Guide to Highly Efficient Things":
"The government responded by severely restricting the times when water could be heated. Israelis in turn responded by purchasing huge quantities of solar water heaters. ... A law was eventually passed requiring the installation of solar water heaters. In 2005, Spain became the second country to require solar water heaters."
Nowadays, Thomas writes, 90 percent of Israeli homes use solar water and "viewed from above, Jerusalem often glitters with the shine of the thousands of solar heaters that adorn rooftops."Courtesy of the sun
Richards looked at other designs for heating water via the sun. A "split system" puts the solar collectors on the roof and the tank in the basement. Glycol is used as a heat-transfer fluid and a pump circulates it.
But such units can cost about $8,000, whereas a 40-gallon Sunbank costs $1,499, with an extra several hundred dollars for the cost of installation and materials -- and even less, for do-it-yourselfers. (The cost of a Sunbank will go up in 2012, Richards noted.)
The return on investment is much quicker with such a unit. It can pay for itself in several years, after which you're saving money with the sun pre-heating your water, he said.
As an experiment, the prototype unit on his South Hills roof handled all the house's hot water usage in June for three people, he said. "And we just got back our electricity bill which was like a treasure trove for me.
"I compared June of this year to June of last year and we used about 34 percent less electricity. That saved $35 in June off the electricity bill. So, if you extrapolate that to 12 months that's a pretty significant savings."
But flipping off the current water heater in your business or home is not how Richards advocates using the Sunbank unit best. Instead, the rooftop unit is plumbed into your existing water heater.
"It'll feed your existing water heater with hot water and your water heater won't turn on because it has a thermostat inside of it and it registers what the temperature of the water is. And it just passes it through to the house."
So, water just as hot as before comes out your shower or faucet, but it has been pre-heated on the roof. Your electricity bill goes down because the water heater doesn't kick on since the water coming into it is already hot enough, he said.
"Your water heater's still there and ready to operate. It'll just augment whatever's left. Even in cloudy weather, by the way, those evacuated tubes absorb sunlight and do work."
As the sun shines
Sunbank units are suitable for any residence and would be especially apt for people in rural locales who live off the grid or away from power lines, he said.
But Richards' main marketing thrust will be to attract businesses that use a lot of hot water. Sunbanks can handle increased loads as each 40-gallon tank can be hooked with other units -- making, for instance, an 80-, 120-gallon or more system.
A second of his prototypes is now being used by a restaurant and inn, the Grist Mill in Warm Springs, Va.
"So, think Laundromats, hospitals, hotels, restaurants. There are a lot of businesses that are really hot-water intensive. The average home uses 20 to 30 percent of their energy to heat water. But some businesses use way over 50 percent -- breweries, agriculture. There are a lot of examples."
Homeowners can run the numbers themselves, he said. "Residential, it's the best investment you can make, bar none. It's guaranteed as long as the sun shines -- and if it doesn't shine, we're all in the same boat."
"Solar water" also is a hedge against ever-rising fuel costs for people looking with dismay at their fuel bills and wondering about renewable energy, said Richards.
An article on "The Economics of a Solar Water Heater" at the U.S. Department of Energy website, is more specific as to savings: "On average, if you install a solar water heater, your water heating bills should drop 50 to 80 percent. Also, because the sun is free, you're protected from future fuel shortages and price hikes. "
And while it took a trip to China to jump-start Sunbank, if customers warm to the idea of solar water heaters in enough numbers, Richards sees no reason why the parts that constitute the Sunbank couldn't be fabricated in the Mountain State.
"I would like ultimately to set up a factory in the U.S. And West Virginia would be a great place to do that. We have all the necessary components to build these. We have the ability to make glass -- we have expert glassmakers in Milton at Blenko. We have metal works up in the Northern Panhandle where we make the copper heat pipes. Other than that, it's stainless steel, which is also up in the Northern Panhandle.
"It's just a matter of having this technology catch on first so it's a viable business," he said. "From there, manufacturing it at home would be great."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.