County residents take advantage of solar water initiative

ADDISON COUNTY — Almost 100 Addison County residents have hooked their homes up to a solar hot water system in large part due to Solar Addison County, a program launched last summer by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).
By organizing tax incentives and teaming up with Sunward, the solar hot water division of Vergennes-based Country Home Products, VPIRG was able to offer Addison County residents Sunward hot water systems for around $5,000, or half of face value. In addition, VSECU Credit Union offered fixed-rate, low-interest financing through the program.
The market responded by purchasing 95 systems between July 12 and Dec. 23. In total, VPIRG’s program, which mirrored a program in Washington County last March, has led to the installation of roughly 160 Sunward solar hot water systems.
“The eventual goal is to get everywhere,” said Dan Conant, VPIRG solar coordinator. He said the program would continue in other regions of the state this year.
Moving ahead, Sunward’s main dealer and installer in Addison County, Bristol Electronics, plans to offer pricing that’s competitive with the VPIRG program.
“Even though VPIRG’s done with their discounts, people can go through us and get a very similar price structure,” said Chris Marion, saleswoman and accountant for Bristol Electronics. Due to the increased demand from the VPIRG program — installing 78 of the 95 systems — Marion said the company needed to hire two new technicians this past year.
“That’s exciting because it meant two new jobs in Addison County,” she said.
Most people the Independent spoke to about the Sunward system and VPIRG program were ecstatic.
“Oh God, we love it,” said New Haven resident Geoff Davis. “Even though we got it toward the end of summer — the solar heating season — you could notice a difference right away in how often the furnace turned on. And it continues to work all through though winter, even though it’s cold.”
He was also pleased with the economics of the VPIRG program.
“I thought the VPIRG program was great because it made it affordable for us. It’s usually a $10,000 system, so in these times it’s a lot for people to swallow.”
Bob McNary, who is the town of Ferrisburgh’s energy coordinator, has had a Sunward system for almost a year, so he missed the boat on this VPIRG program. But he is still really pleased with the product’s performance. Keeping thorough records of his energy consumption over the past decade, McNary estimates that he saved 200-250 gallons of fuel this past year, and he believes 80 percent of his hot water comes from solar.
“It’s been great,” he said. “We’re saving a significant amount on fuel oil and I know we’re saving electricity because we’re not running the furnace as much as we used to. We have more hot water longer than we used to. As far as maintenance, it’s been superb. No problems whatsoever.”
But not everybody has had the same experience as Davis and McNary.
Donna and Peter Fournier of New Haven installed a Sunward system last summer before the VPIRG program began, and they’re not happy with it.
After the system was put in, the Fourniers discovered they lost 50 percent of their water pressure. After a month, they said the problem was fixed by a Sunward technician. Tom Hughes, sales director at Sunward, said the company identified the issue as a design defect, which didn’t show up during product testing.
“We made an adjustment in the solar manifold and went to a different design,” said Hughes. “Our testing didn’t find an issue that cropped up in some people’s homes, which was that the heat traps (a valve-like mechanism) reduced the flow of water in some situations. Once we found that out we went and removed the gaskets and the systems seem to be working very well.”
After this issue, however, the Fourniers say they continued to experience problems with their system. When the system wasn’t heating up their water properly, a technician had to come back and add glycol — the material in the unit that absorbs heat from the sun.
Even with this addition, the Fourniers still aren’t thrilled, as they say they’re still running their furnace more than they’d like to.
“It’s a lot of money for what we’re getting,” said Donna Fournier, who said she and her husband paid $10,000 for their system, which was not installed by Bristol Electronics but another installer she didn’t want to publicly mention. “If I had any advice to give, you should ask a lot of questions about what expectations you have. What is this really going to do for me? Will this provide 10 percent of my hot water or all of it?”
McNary said “it’s not a silver bullet” because the system’s efficiency and installation varies from home to home. Hughes agreed with this notion.
“Every home is different, and some of the homes we’re going into were put in this century and some predate World War II,” he said. “We’re committed to making sure every system works as best as it possibly can. There are certainly systems where we have to go in and make adjustments. The system is designed to preheat the water and save the customer money, and we’re committed to making sure the systems do that.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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