With not much sun and freezing-cold winters, the Adirondack Park isn't the easiest area in which to use solar energy.
But some people are trying. Tupper Laker Wayne Davison is installing the first residential evacuated-tube solar collectors in the North Country.
Recently, Davison, along with partner David Fortino, decided to form an offshoot of their construction company, D&D Artisans, that would concentrate on solar energy. They are calling it Northern Solar. While there are several other solar and alternative-energy companies operating in the North Country-area with offices nearby, Northern Solar is the only one based in the Tri-Lakes.
Wayne Davison, of Northern Solar, checks the copper transfer area at the top of a set of solar-collecting vacuum tubes he installed recently at a Bloomingdale home.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Davison said he and his partner first got interested in renewable energy while building houses. They were in general contracting for 13 years and found they were constantly looking for ways to make homes more energy efficient, trying to improve efficiency with every house they built.
"The more we did it, the more we got interested in it," Davison said.
In 2008, The Wild Center held a green building conference, which inspired Davison to take a solar hot-water class in Rhode Island and a solar electric class in Binghamton.
Davison said he's concerned about the U.S.'s reliance on fossil fuels and the impacts of fossil fuel use on climate change. He said that some smaller solar projects, while they might not have a big impact on the owner's financial savings or quality of life, are the right thing to do.
"Every little bit helps," Davison said. "And people need to start looking past how it affects my personal pocketbook and look at society as a whole."
This summer, Davison installed an evacuated-tube solar hot water system at the Bloomingdale home of Susan Nolde and David Filsinger, which Davison believes is the first of its kind on a home in the North Country.
Filsinger and Nolde said they were interested in moving to solar energy because, as Filsinger puts it, "We're fairly crunchy people."
With parents who grew up in the Great Depression, their household is chock full of reused and repurposed items. Replacing their leaky, old oil boiler with 20 evacuated-tube solar collectors that have a propane-fired back-up boiler is just the next step on the road to shrinking their carbon footprint.
"This is kind of common sense. It shouldn't be a political issue," Filsinger said. Plus, "It is a really cool experience to take a shower and know it came from the sun."
Nolde and Filsinger call themselves guinea pigs, since Davison plans to install the same system with 10 more tubes on his own house in the next few weeks. Davison will also use excess energy from the system to heat his home using radiant heat.
This week, he started installing an array of 30 vacuum tubes for a couple in their 80s who live in Vermontville, and he's been making proposals to municipalities, including Tupper Lake, to install solar energy systems for their facilities.
Often the reason people are hesitant to install solar energy systems is because they involve large up-front costs. Normally a 20-tube system with a full water tank runs about $12,000.
But state and federal incentives are now available for individuals that will pay for 55 percent of the costs, dropping that price to less than $6,000.
That means the installer is paid back for the system in just five to seven years. After that, the user gets free energy.
Across the five counties of the North Country, 168 solar projects have been undertaken since 2004 that have taken advantage of $3.5 million in subsidies, according to Jeffrey Gordon, spokesman for the state Energy Research and Development Authority.
Davison said he hopes Congress decides to extend the federal tax incentives, which are set to expire at the end of 2010.
The system Davison installed for Nolde and Filsinger consists of the solar array, which is outside the house, and a water tank inside the house.
In the solar array are 20 wide glass tubes. Each tube has another, much thinner glass tube inside it containing a small amount of a solution of alcohol and water, which boils at a very low temperature. Also in the tube is a strip of flat, ridged copper that is covered with titanium paint and attracts more sunlight.
When the sun shines on the tubes, the alcohol-water solution boils, creating steam that rises through the tube and condenses inside a copper holder at the top.
"And it's just a constant cycle of that, evaporating and condensing and evaporating, just the same way a refrigerator works," Davison said.
That process transfers the sun's heat to another liquid solution, this one made up partly of antifreeze so it stays liquid even when there are freezing temperatures outside, in piping that runs into the house.
When it gets inside, the warmed antifreeze solution passes into a copper coil within the water tank. The coil is a closed system, so it goes into and out of the tank, heating the water inside, but never letting the antifreeze touch the water.
Thermometers at the bottom, where the domestic water flows into the tank, and the top, where the warmed water flows out, keep track of when the water gets too warm, at which point it flows into the second water tank for storage.
It also tracks when it gets too cold. At that point, if it's warmer outside, the system will bring in more warmed antifreeze. But if it's cooler outside, the system will kick on the backup propane boiler. (Propane is a byproduct of refining oil, so Davison said its better to use the market to force that to be used rather than burning it off, as many oil companies do.)
Nolde and Filsinger have been keeping detailed records of their system's performance, regularly writing down the array temperature, the collector temperature, the weather and cloud cover, and the time and date it was recorded. They said they've been pleased with its performance so far. The boiler hasn't been on much and the temperatures have remained high even on cloudy days.
One of the positive features of this system is that the heat transfer from the vacuum tubes to the antifreeze piping is a dry transfer, which isn't the case in some systems that flow liquid straight from the tubes into the piping.
"The great thing about that is, let's say, heaven forbid, relatives are visiting here and they have an 8-year-old boy who likes to hit baseballs," Davison said. "When he hits a baseball into these and he breaks one of them, this system doesn't need to be drained or shut down. You can pull one tube out. The system keeps running, you don't have to drain it. You buy a new tube and you put it in."
Each tube also turns white when it stops working, so if it does, they can know when to replace it. The tubes come with a 10-year warranty and a 25-year life expectancy.
Davison uses equipment from Viessmann, a German company that has been in business since 1916. The vacuum tube technology has been in use in Europe since the early 1980s. The company's 96 percent efficient boilers took three years to be approved for sale in the U.S.
"The boilers are so efficient and so reliable, the day that I turned it on here, I turned it on at like 4 o'clock and went home," Davison said. "And with an oil-fired, American-made boiler, I would never do that. I'd sit there and babysit for three hours to make sure everything is running right."
Solar thermal versus PV
Concentrating the sun's heat to use it as energy, called solar thermal energy, is only one way it can be harnessed to cut down on fossil fuel use. Sunlight can also be turned into electricity through the use of photovoltaic solar converters.
A debate is ongoing in the scientific community over whether solar thermal or photovoltaic energy is the best, but at the moment, solar thermal is more affordable and more efficient.
"Solar thermal today seems to be the much more cost-effective way to go," said Chris Rdzanek, director of facilities at The Wild Center. "More bang for the buck, if you will."
He said it's likely the price of photovoltaics will come down over time, though.
Either way, Rdzanek said that concerns about using solar energy in the Adirondacks are slowly melting away, as he says they should.
"People for some reason seem to be a little bit concerned with having to deal with water passing outdoors in an environment that's not insulated," he said. "But if you use antifreeze, and have it engineered properly and maintain it properly, there really is minimal reason to be concerned."
The museum has several different types of solar arrays, including a photovoltaic array on its Bio Building that turns the sun into electricity that provides about 10 percent of the museum's power on a sunny day. It also has a hybrid array with both types of solar thermal collectors - evacuated tube, like the ones Nolde and Filsinger have, and flat panel that contribute to heating the facility.
Museum employees are in the process of installing interpretive signs that explain to guests how each type works. Rdzanek said it would be a good idea for people considering switching to solar energy to come to the museum and learn more about it.
Rdzanek and his staff have been tracking the output of the solar collectors, and have found that flat panel collectors work best during peak hours of the day when the sun is directly overhead, but evacuated tube collectors perform better when the sun is at an angle or there is cloud cover, which is the reason many people think they are the way to go in a place like the Adirondacks.
Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.