SunVolt Energy Inc. Simplifies Solar Water Heating »
Posted On 6/27/2011
As Bud Sechrist, President and co-owner of SunVolt Energy, Inc. based in Winston-Salem, NC, watches oil prices go up and interest in solar rise with them, he remembers when he started out in the solar energy business back in the late 1970s and early 80s. There was a push for renewable energy with similar tax credits that exist today, but changes in administrations and government policy took those incentives away. In the 90s, Bud ventured into HVAC testing for hospitals and large corporations to make their systems more energy efficient with traditional energy sources. Then about six years ago, his interest in solar was renewed when a contractor friend hooked up a system of solar water heating panels for him that had been sitting around in a box in his basement.
"It was an experiment," said Bud. "It took a few weeks and ended up looking like a Christmas tree attached to my water heater—with pipes branching all over the place that were so narrow I knew they’d overheat. So I used my engineering background to re-design the entire system and did extensive research on solar water heating." What Bud came up with was a contained 12 X 24 inch system that fit in a box with pipes wide enough to prevent overheating. It set the stage for his new solar water heating business, which he initially launched online.
"The EC50K fit our needs to a tee and is already pre-packaged in a kit."
The system’s smaller footprint with all of the required components made it a no brainer to install, so he could market it to dealers, their contractors and even skilled DIYers online as a solar water heating kit. It’s offered an attractive value proposition; with potential annual savings for customers averaging 50 - 80% on the water heating portion of an energy bill with a 30% Federal tax credit and another approximate 35% from states. Caps on the credit amount vary by state. Even better, commercial customers get 35% from Federal and 35% from the state with a $3500 cap.
Bud and SunVolt were on the road to the success as they dangled the carrot of savings on water heating costs and made the system easier to install. But there was still one kink in the line so to speak that had them reaching out to tried and true pump technology. SunVolt needed a way to flush and fill their water heating system that wasn’t so time consuming and inefficient. Air in the line was another problem that could interrupt operation of the system. Bud again did his homework and found that Blue Angel Pumps had the perfect solution for both filling and flushing the system with their EC50K Transfer Pump. Blue Angel is a leading manufacturer of sump pumps, sewage, effluent and well pumps for the professional plumbing market.
"Our Solar Transfer Module (STM) is a closed loop system that requires propylene glycol to be infused so it doesn’t freeze," said Bud. "We needed to find a transfer pump that is affordable, sturdy and could run at the right pressure to force the air out of the line," he said. "The EC50K fit our needs to a tee and is already pre-packaged in a kit." He said it became the perfect add-on accessory to his boxed solar water heating system.
"When we tested the Blue Angel transfer pump, it pumped our glycol-water mixture into our system with just the right amount of pressure." He noted the system was adequately pressurized without using too much water at about 15 – 20 psi. And, the solar water heating system was filled fast enough to get the air out of the system, which is very important to its consistent operation. Prior to filling, the Blue Angel EC50K transfer pump was also able to flush out any residue leftover from the manufacturing process from things like soldering and coatings.
Bud explained that SunVolt tried using hand pumps and smaller transfer pumps for the fill and flush process, but none worked as well as the Blue Angel. "We can easily sell this as the perfect companion to our solar water heating system, he said. "We just add two 6 ft. washing machine hoses for the glycol and the fill valve on our STM. Now the process can be done in only an hour, which greatly speeds up the installation."
Using pump technology and integrating solutions like the Blue Angel pump will help accelerate the solar water heating industry, according to Bud. SunVolt now provides a complete package to plumbing wholesalers and their contractor customers, while the solar panels are made by another company. "We manufacture either the complete kit or components to dealers and they can modify it," said Bud. " Most importantly we’ve simplified it to the point where it cuts installation time and is affordable for everyone." SunVolt even has a solution for mobile homes, with vacuum tube solar collectors mounted on a pole in the yard.
As SunVolt’s business grows and expands, it seems that solar water heating is a lucrative way to get residential and commercial customers to dip their big toe into solar without getting overwhelmed by costs and expectations. "Consumers do not have to go all or nothing on solar and try to heat their entire home," explained Bud. "They can start slowly with solar water heating or pool heating and get a much quicker payback on a smaller investment." The payback on solar water heating is 4 – 7 years for residential depending on square footage and family size and 3 ½ years for commercial. Because of the lower cost and ease of a pool pump system, the payback is only one year. And, with the tax credits it becomes even a sweeter deal for the end user.
Looking ahead in the solar water heating industry, Bud sees great opportunity for plumbing manufacturers and professionals. "Beyond hot water pumps and pool pumps, I envision solar as an option for submersible sump pump backup systems," he said. "Very often in a flood, there are power outages, so having a backup system with collected solar energy makes perfect sense." He explained that even though solar operates on DC voltage and sump pumps on AC, an inverter could be installed for backup. SunVolt is also providing solar energy as a way for farms to power irrigation pumps and outbuildings such as sheds and green houses, all of which can be converted to AC voltage.
SunVolt Energy is moving in the direction of marketing this type of photovoltaic technology for plumbers and offers HVAC training, which is not a huge learning curve. "We feel that trained HVAC contractors can capitalize on these solar upgrades to water heating and for backup systems in case of power loss." And he observes, as the combined efficiencies of solar and pump technology continue to solidify and acceptance of solar hot water gains ground nationally, it is likely the beginning of a very fruitful partnership.
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