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Going Solar Gets Cheaper

Shannon Mullen

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The volunteers form an assembly line
(Shannon Mullen)
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It's the kind of drizzly Saturday morning that's perfect for staying in bed or making pancakes. Instead, three-dozen New Hampshire residents don their rain gear for a day of manual labor in Kevin Frank's back yard in Holderness, N.H.

"We're putting up a solar collector array in the rain," Kevin says. "It'll provide radiant floor heat as well as domestic hot water."

By the end of the day, his new solar water heater will be helping save the planet, and he'll have saved thousands of dollars in installation costs by using volunteer labor instead of professional plumbers and contractors. It sounds like a great deal for Kevin, but there's payback in store for his workforce too.

"We're eventually probably going to be going to everyone's house that's here today and putting in a system," says Peter Adams, co-founder of a nonprofit called the Plymouth-Area Renewable Energy Initiative, or PAREI. The group's mission is to make solar more affordable for more homeowners by reducing the up-front investment necessary to buy a basic system, which can run well over $10,000.

On Saturdays, the members help install solar water heaters at one another's homes; they call these group efforts "Energy Raisers."

"We certainly kind of stole that saying from the Amish, with the whole concept of barn raising," says PAREI co-founder Sandra Jones.

Installing a system this way saves $2,500 in labor costs, which lowers the price for the average four-person household to about $2,000, after state and federal tax rebates.

"It definitely opens the door for solar for people where that much money makes a difference for them in their budget, and I have to say, that was my case too," Jones says.

Another case in point: volunteer Ted Stiles. He has a green conscience, but he also has a wife and two kids, and a public high-school teacher's salary. Ted's family uses a lot of hot water, so he says putting in a solar water heater could save hundreds of gallons of heating oil a year.

"With the price of oil being what it is, that means in two or three years, something like this would pay itself off on our house."

Stiles is no handy-man, and neither are most of PAREI's 250 members. But despite their lack of expertise, the group has done more than two-dozen energy raisers so far, with only a few minor snafus, mostly involving soldering irons. Sandra says working with solder seems to make the volunteers forget they're adults.

Around mid-day, Sandra issues a rallying call, "Time to put the tubes in, everybody!"

The volunteers are ready to attach 30 glass tubes to Kevin Frank's roof, the last piece in his solar heating system. As the sun beats down on the tubes, a vacuum inside acts like a coffee thermos to insulate the liquid warming up inside. Next, the heat is transferred to a basement water tank through a network of copper pipes.

"You guys look Amish up there, like you're on an old barn or something," Sandra shouts to the volunteers as they pass the tubes along an assembly line, up a series of ladders to the roof.

Some critics have questioned whether this concept would work elsewhere in the country, such as in large cities where people are not as close to the environment they're tying to takes steps to protect.

But while New Hampshire might have a higher per capita rate of carbon consciousness than other states, this group counters that Energy Raisers should be doable for anyone with a roof, some friends, and maybe some coffee and donuts to help entice them out of bed on a Saturday.

  • Music Bridge:
    Zing Zong
    Artist: Pink Skull
    CD: Zerppelin 3 (Free news)
More stories from our Sustainability series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Chris Staub

    From Ontario, NY, 08/01/2008

    Check out www.OntarioBarnFestival.com
    The Ontario Barn Festival promotes residential solar energy and a fun live music festival. Please join us!

    By Louise Middleton

    From Los Angeles, CA, 07/26/2008

    Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring story about the group efforts of the 'Energy Raisers' and your PAREI group in New Hampshire. I would love to start such a group in Los Angeles if none already exist. Do you have chapters or is your organization only local for volunteers in New Hampshire? Can I get more information about your group? This is a great idea.that helps raise more awareness, knowledge and help to individuals who want to convert part of their energy requirements to alternative systems.
    Hope to hear from you with further information on starting a "Energy Raiser" group in Los Angeles.
    Louise Middleton
    L.A., CA.

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