Michael Morris is, to say the least, not your typical homeowner. A former carpenter and builder, and later Editor-in-Chief of a national home-improvement publication, he has published numerous books on home building and remodeling and is considered an expert in the field. So it’s no surprise that he tackled the job of installing skylights for natural light and passive ventilation, along with a solar thermal collector system for domestic hot water, on the home he built for himself 20 years earlier in Ossining, N.Y. The custom oak timber-frame house, including the roof area where the skylights and solar panels were installed, is entirely clad with foam-filled structural insulated panels (SIPs), which added a degree of complication to the project. Morris later described the installation process in a May 2010 feature article for The Journal of Light Construction.
The Products And/Or Systems
The VELUX solar system on the Morris home consists of three collector panels (model U12) installed in series on a south-facing rooftop and connected to an insulated 120-gallon hot water storage tank located in an interior utility room three stories below. Designed for all-season, year-round operation, the system includes a maintenance-free, microprocessor-controlled pump station that circulates a freezeproof propylene glycol heat-exchange fluid from the collectors to the storage tank via closed-loop tubing. The system, which requires virtually no homeowner maintenance or adjustment, supplements the home’s existing gas-fired hot water system. The venting skylights were installed in two separate pairs nearby on the same roof. One pair is positioned directly above a custom built-in window seat in the home’s second-floor master bedroom; the other pair is located in the ceiling of an adjoining master bath.
Challenges Faced/Problems Overcome/Solutions
Typically, SIPs are manufactured of insulating foam sandwiched between sheets of oriented strand board (OSB) or plywood. The roof panels on this home were made with 9 1/4-inch-thick polystyrene, and were installed over an exposed interior timber-frame structure with supporting rafters and purlins spaced several feet apart.
A detailed installation story, with images, describing the installation was written by the homeowner and published in the May 2010 issue of The Journal of Light Construction.
Morris comments on the economies of the system: "At one point I got together with my LP-gas (home/water heating fuel) supplier and figured out that my savings on domestic hot water use alone amounted to 35 to 50 percent compared to the amount of gas used before the system was installed. This savings does not include gas used for home water heating, which the Velux system is not designed or intended for. Because domestic water heating is a fraction of the total fuel-heated water we use, and because it varies day-to-day and according to the seasons, the payback on the initial cost of a solar thermal system usually takes several years (3 to 7 years is the typical range)."
"If this all sounds mysterious and confusing, don't blame me. The fuel calculations used to break out domestic hot water gas-use from home heating water gas-use are esoteric and somewhat inexact, but the fuel company says they are fairly reliable. Don't even ask how they do it. As for why the system does not contribute to my home’s hot-water heating, if I understand Velux representatives correctly my system would have to be much larger and designed in a different way to meet the output demand. What I do know is that the system as is contributes directly to domestic water heating by boosting the temperature of the water in my existing hot-water storage tank, which means I don’t have to expend as much energy (fuel) to heat the water to a consumption level."
"The solar collectors, each measuring approximately 4 ½ feet wide by 6 feet in length, weigh just 130 pounds apiece and have a very low profile. They are designed to lie flat against the roof, directly on the sheathing, so installed they look more like skylights than typical solar panels. An integral perimeter flange, similar to a nailing flange on windows, allows for easy attachment to the roof sheathing. The flashing process is also similar to that for skylights. All in all, the VELUX solar thermal system is well designed and simple to install," Morris says.
Residential Solar Water Heating System Approval Process Becoming Easier
Observations on Working with Home Owner Associations and Architectural Boards of Review
Homeowners who wish to use the free energy available from sunlight to heat their water won't face many objections in this era of green awareness and energy saving emphasis. The same goes for dealers and installers of solar water heating systems. The technology is viewed as a winning solution for all parties involved as well as for the environment.
While the advantages of solar water heating are obvious, their positioning on a rooftop and the visible aesthetics of some systems can be an issue when a homeowners association (HOA) or an architectural review board (ARB) becomes involved in the approval process.
The resulting situations can vary widely. At one end of the spectrum, homeowners have brought lawsuits against HOAs for placing onerous restrictions on solar panel location, thereby reducing operating efficiency. In other instances, HOAs have enthusiastically accommodated homeowners by easing placement or zoning restrictions in the interest of energy efficiency.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is not solar collector panels themselves, although some are much less obtrusive that others, but the location of the panels. Generally speaking, if panels are positioned on the rear-facing roof of the home, and not visible from the street, things seem to be manageable.
The trend is definitely toward more favorable consideration by HOAs and ABRs as more aesthetically acceptable solar collector panels have become available and as demand for energy efficient technologies and green building practices grows.
"It makes little sense not to use natural sunlight to supplement our energy needs," Morris observes. "The state of Hawaii now requires residential solar water heaters in order to reduce public energy demand. Other warm-weather areas blessed with abundant sunlight, such as Florida and the Southwest, have long provided incentives for homeowners to install solar thermal systems. A national incentive program supporting the sale and use of solar energy products would go a long way toward reducing our need to import foreign oil or rely on environmentally unsound energy production. Meanwhile, if you can take advantage of free sunlight to efficiently heat your home’s water, why pay the utility to do it – especially today, when energy costs just keep going higher. I'd much rather avoid the cost altogether, and be environmentally responsible at the same time. That's why I chose to install a solar system on my own home."