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RISMEDIA, Feb. 7, 2008- (MCT)-Q: Several of my neighbors have had solar water heaters installed and they’re very happy with them, even though we live in the Midwest in an area that doesn’t always seem very sunny. I’m disappointed that they’re still so much more expensive than non-solar systems, and wonder if they’re really worth that higher price. Can you give me some facts on this?

A: Glad to. First of all, you’re absolutely correct that they are higher-priced to buy than an electric or gas water heater. If your current electric water tank breaks, for example, you could probably replace it with a similar tank for around $300 or $400. But if you want get a new solar system installed, it would likely cost somewhere between $2,500 and $4,000, depending on where you live. So let’s be clear that the upfront purchase cost of a solar water heater is a lot bigger then a non-solar system.

Here’s where the facts cast a different view of this price difference, though. You ought to think about this like the car-buying process. Sure, you might get a car for around $12,000 that meets all your needs and gets average gas mileage, but for a few thousand dollars more you could get a car you also like that gets twice the miles-per-gallon of the other one. Keep the car for a few years and that gas savings over time will make that purchase price difference pretty insignificant. The same kind of life-cycle cost thinking makes a solar water heater cost-competitive today with fossil-fuel systems.

Depending on the size system you buy (and the right size is dependent on the size of your family, lifestyle factors involved in water use, your local climate, the size and type of solar system, and a few other things), you’ll be able to enjoy all the hot water you want with minimal to no need for electric or gas back-up. This means that your monthly costs for hot water will drop considerably and probably even be eliminated in many months of the year. And since the average family of four spends somewhere between 15 and 25% of their monthly utility bill on water heating, we’re talking big savings here.

Now is the best time in many years to consider buying a solar water heater. There are federal tax credits in place through at least the end of 2008 that will pay 30% (up to $2,000) of the cost of a new solar water heater. About half the states have additional credits of as high as 35% that can be added to these savings. Many utility companies in various parts of the country have their own financial incentives for their customers as well. Check out www.dsireusa.org for a complete list of all current incentives, and you’ll find these as well as others such as property tax and sales tax exemptions and other benefits for buyers of solar water heaters.

You also need to think about some of the non-economic benefits of these systems. They include environmental savings (depending on the fuel you use now to heat your water, replacing your system with solar can offset the equivalent of 40% to as much as 100% of the carbon dioxide emissions of an automobile), as well as a nice feeling of energy independence you get from producing your own energy to heat your home’s water. I can remember when we lived in an area that had frequent brown-outs and total electrical outages during the hot summer months, and neighbors often came to our house to enjoy our solar-heated water.

Another great Website is www.findsolar.com . It gives the facts and figures on solar water heating and also will refer you to contractors in your area who sell and install these systems. It also has a wonderful solar estimator that will give you an idea of price, savings and system size in your area.

© 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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