Article by Nan Sterman, as appeared in Angie’s List magazine
Gov. Jerry Brown recently set a goal for state utility companies to derive 33 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Here in the land of sunshine, it just makes sense for homeowners to get a head start on the energy companies by finding opportunities to use solar energy now, especially outdoors.
Solar outdoor lights appeared on the market several years ago, offering "free lighting" that's a cinch to install. Simply put them in a sunny location, and they do their thing. No cords, no trenching, no inverters. And if you pick the wrong spot or find you need more light in a different location, just pick them up and move them.
Sounds perfect, and they would be if only they produced a quality light and had a long battery life. "There are no solar [lights] that are worth the dirt they are staked into," says Mark McAnelly, owner of highly rated Southwest Landscape in San Diego. McAnelly says the current generation of outdoor solar lights acts more like markers to illuminate a driveway like a runway.
On the other hand, solar pool heaters are impressive, says Steve Jacobs of highly rated Nature Designs Landscaping in Vista, Calif. These simple systems pump water from the pool into solar panels, where the sun heats the water before it circulates back into the pool.
Jacobs likes Heliocol solar systems because of their reliability and low maintenance. The solar panels are best mounted on a south-facing roof or slope at ground level, providing there are no trees or nearby buildings to shade them.
As a rule of thumb, solar panels cover roughly the same square footage as the pool, though in cooler coastal areas, they might be 25 to 50 percent larger; in desert areas, 25 percent smaller.
Heating also determines the size. In Southern California, systems are typically designed to heat water to 85 degrees in summer, 65 degrees in winter. Warmer water requires more panels. Whatever the size, Jacobs says, they commonly install solar panels on roofs because of space. Most lots aren't big enough to put them at ground level. Weight isn't usually a problem for the roof, as a small volume of water moves through the panel at a time.
Tod Ellington, director of marketing at UMA Solar, Heliocol's parent company, says his systems can double the swim season. "In Southern California, you can get an additional six or seven months."
Solar heaters cost two or three times more than natural gas or propane with the average sized system priced around $5,000, but recouping the investment can take less than five years. "Some people can spend $800 a month trying to heat their pools with gas," Jacobs says. "At that rate, payback would only be only a year or two."
The longevity of solar systems is also impressive. Heliocol's warranty is 12 years, including labor, mounting hardware and panel connections with some systems working well past 20 years, according to Ellington.
Nan Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She's a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her yard.