The solar water heater industry was driven out of business in the 1940s, and now look at the mess we’re in. Eco-building consultant Laren Corrie explains.
In 1930s Florida, Solar energy totally dominated the water heating business (the same was true in southern California). Two thirds of water heaters sold in Florida in the 1930s were Solar water heaters, up on the roofs. When WWII began, copper, glass, and able bodies were in high demand to serve the national cause. Just as the auto industry in Detroit shut down, and we never saw any cars for a couple of auto years (1943-44 ?) the very successful Solar energy industry in Florida, also shut down for the war years. For rest of story, click on “more” below.
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After WWII ended, and the GIs were coming home, Florida became a major recipient of a huge influx of federal money, as it was decided that all of our brave veterans deserved to, among other things, own their own homes. I am sure you are very aware of the old joke about have ‘some swamp land in Florida to sell you.” There was a huge amount of federal money pumped into Florida to develop it, and change that negative impression. An important part of the program had to be to electrify any area that was going to have housing. The electrical utilities had a lot of freedom to spend that money.
One of the ways that the federal money was spent, was for the electrical utilities to buy electric water heater, then to simply GIVE them to the builders. The formerly dominant Solar industry, severely crippled after being totally shut down for four years, was all of a sudden facing having to compete, with the full power of the federal government, fully funding their annihilation. How could they possibly compete, with FREE water heaters, that were installed before they could even present the economics of FREE heat, as being better than a free heater, that cost you a bill every money. However, at that time, there was so much money being given to subsidize the electric utilities, that the electricity was also falsely cheap. The federal government was deliberately paying to get people hooked on electricity, so the utilities would survive.
Remember, at that time there was no air conditioning. Electricity, only power pumps, and lit lights. If the electric utilities could steal the water heating business, they would literally quadruple their customer’s electrical usage. Crushing the already severely weakened Solar industry was a key factor in their strategy. It worked. In the hands of the electric utilities, the billions of dollars of federal funds, turned the totally dominant Solar water heating industry from the owner of two thirds of the market (and growing) to literally 100% out of business, with the far more expensive electric water heater taking its place, to suck money from the pockets of its customers, forever.
Solar heating is not new, nor is having the federal government quash it. It happened twice in the last century. It happened in the late 1940s, and it happened again in the mid-1980s. However, at this time, the state of Florida, is still relatively supportive of the Solar water heating industry, being the “Sunshine State” and all. Especially, if you have a family, and use a ‘normal’ amount of hot water, then Solar water heating will be an excellent investment for you. The stock market has not returned a lot (on average) lately, but a Solar water heater, will give you plenty of hot water, twelve months a year, in Florida.
There are many types of Solar water heaters, from getting a hi-tech evacuated tube system, installed by pros, down to painting an old water heater tank black, and setting it out in the sun to pre-warm the water that is heading to you electric tank. You will need to evaluate your own balance of time, skill, money, tools, aesthetics, etc that will determine the type of system that is best for you.
Lastly, conservation provides many of your best opportunities to reduce your dependence on outside energy. Even before adding Solar water heating, you want to do what you can to reduce your hot water usage. Turn down the temperature. Use aerators. Wash clothes, cold. Address the other energy issues in your home, by shading your walls, venting on cooler nights, painting exterior surfaces to reflect sunlight. There are literally thousands of things you can do, which do not involve buying a new technology to produce more energy.
The key strategy in alternative energy is reducing energy usage, and still being comfortable.
Laren Corie– Integral Solar and Energy Efficient Building Designs and Consultation for Owner-Builders, Since 1975