A Solar Pioneer Looks Back
Everyone was in a panic. The energy crisis that was predicted in the mid-70s finally hit, and hit hard. Gas prices doubled almost overnight. Long lines formed at every gas pump. Interest rates were rising as fast as the gas prices, causing businesses to fail and construction to halt. It all started in 1978 and within four years, housing starts were down 50 percent. The media sounded the alarm that the sky was falling. It took more than 10 years for the home construction market to fully recover.
With foreign oil driving gas prices up, all the utilities followed suit. Natural gas, home heating oil, electricity and propane costs all rose dramatically as the utility companies went into a feeding frenzy. The cry went throughout the land, “Alternative energy will save us!” Washington felt it had to do something. Government could fix the situation; it could just throw enough money at the problem.
Thus the Energy Credits for Individuals was born in 1980. This law provided tax credits of 40 percent for the first $10,000 spent on solar, geothermal or wind-powered equipment. That included “a heat distribution method that releases radiant or convective heating from the storage mass to the living areas of the home.” An industry was born.
Suddenly, all those crazy “hippy” ideas of returning to the earth and looking to nature to solve our energy problems became mainstream. The hippy cult magazine, Mother Earth News, skyrocketed in readership. Yuppies and the over-30 crowd began talking about solar collectors, geodesic domes, super insulation, envelope homes and earth berming. Fine Home Building and Mechanics Illustrated filled their pages with energy-saving designs.
The Birth Of Solar RadiantIt was at that time that an unemployed commercial pilot/aircraft mechanic stumbled into a job selling insulation and window quilts. That led to a friendship with a home designer specializing in solar homes. I was that pilot, and I found that solar heating systems were a piece of cake compared to aircraft systems. Jim Chauncey and I became partners in Solar Works Inc., a company that designed energy-efficient solar homes and buildings.
Natural gas prices were forecast to triple from 1978 to 1988; by 1982, they were well on their way. Solar collector marketers had sprung up everywhere. The local siding salesman suddenly became the local solar expert. With almost half of the system paid for by Uncle Sam, more if you knew how to work the system, ugly black boxes where being tacked to rooftops all over America.
At first, Solar Works created building designs around air systems. The solar collectors were incorporated into roof structures and the solar-heated air ducted to storage bins for redistribution. We tried everything to store heat. Washed river rock was dusty and impossible to maintain even airflow or temperature throughout the storage bin. Bricks stacked evenly with their holes aligned or concrete blocks allowed even airflow but were also dusty and required large storage areas. Eutectic phase change salt trays stacked nicely, and stored a lot of heat in a much smaller space, but it was impossible to keep the salt contained. After a few months of operation, the storage bin often looked like the Carlsbad Caverns with stalactites and stalagmites of escaped salt.
No matter what we used for storage, the heated air was always tepid at best. 90-degree F air blown across bare skin feels cold. It would heat the house, but the occupants were not comfortable. They liked their heating bill, but hated their heating system.
One day I ran across an article about rubber tubing embedded in a concrete slab as a heat distribution system. The light went on. Hot water radiant heating solved the problem of a storage media, heat transport and comfort. It also took up far less space and was quiet. It was, as they say, a no-brainer. The question was, where to get information on this technology?
Bio-Energy Systems Inc. out of Ellenville, N.Y., had grown out of the solar pool-heating market. It had developed an EPDM rubber tubing that had a 1/4-inch ID and was extruded in mats of six tubes with webbing in between. The mats were manifolded together and laid out in the sun with pool water running through them. Someone had resurrected the radiant floor concept that had been popular in the 1940s and substituted this rubber tubing for copper pipe in the floor. Bio-Energy Systems picked up on the idea and began marketing its product for radiant floors. Strip away two tubes at a time from the mat and, voila, you had radiant heating tubing.
Solar Works jumped in with both feet. Our solar systems went from the clunky, inefficient air systems to slim-and-trim water systems. We quickly adopted drainback for the solar side. After trying several brands of solar collectors, we designed and manufactured our own for flush-mounting on the roof. We never installed a collector on racks except on buildings with flat roofs where the collectors were hidden from view. All of our systems were dormered to match the existing structure. We built storage tanks with EPDM liners, welded up polypropylene tanks and found roto-molded tanks.
EPDM rubber tubing was easy to handle, but it was not reinforced and had a very low burst pressure. Quality control was also a problem and thin-wall blowouts were common. Shell Chemical Co. developed a low-cost plastic polybutylene pipe that could handle the temperatures and pressures required by plumbing and mechanical codes. They began promoting radiant floor heating and put on seminars, taught by Davis Energy Group, all around the country. By the mid-1980s, everything we did was in polybutylene.
Our pumps and controls were all mounted in a specially designed cabinet that hung on the wall. All piping, where possible, was routed inside the wall so little was visible. We wanted the homeowners to be unaware of the mechanical system while enjoying the comfort and energy savings.
Solar Works developed the SunTerra Home. A well-insulated, active and passive solar-heated radiant home in many designs. Our house plans, mainly the work of Jim Chauncey, were put into a plan book and built all over the country. We manufactured mechanical equipment, including solar collectors, control modules and the radiant systems. We installed complete heating systems for the price others were charging for a couple of domestic water heating collectors on the roof.
But, it wasn’t to last. By 1985, gas prices had fallen back to the 1978 levels, utility costs had reversed their double-digit climb and were falling as fast as they had risen. Once people felt the crisis had passed, the government pulled the financing of the energy-saving black boxes. Life returned to normal.
Saving energy fell out of fashion since it was no longer a strain on the pocketbook and there was no free money available. People are willing to pay a little to save the environment, but not a lot. What was once viewed as the industry that would save the country disappeared as fast as it had appeared, with only a few remnants remaining.
One technology that held on as the solar craze dimmed was radiant floor heating. It had a benefit that solar didn’t. It added comfort to living, and Americans love their comfort. I saw radiant floor heating as a way to provide true comfort at a reasonable price and save energy at the same time. We had proven it could be done. Using simply elegant radiant systems incorporated into the building design, we were able to install radiant heating systems at competitive prices.
Jim and I parted company in 1985. He pursed his career in home design and I followed the radiant floor heating path. I wanted to bring this revived technology to the world, to the home of every man. In my new position of developing a radiant system for a floor underlayment company, we coined the marketing slogan, “Changing the way America heats its homes.”
Unfortunately, the burgeoning radiant industry that spun off of the solar revolution had different ideas. Radiant heating became another symbol of affluence. It acquired all kinds of bells and whistles in the form of an overabundance of pricey controls, high-tech boilers and accessories. Serving the wealthy made good profits. A niche market was carved. One that we are realizing has limited the industry’s growth. The goal of providing simple, clean, comfortable and energy-efficient heat has not yet been attained. The industry was sidetracked by the allure of technology for the wealthy.
That strategy may be changing. There is a movement afoot toward simplicity in radiant heating once again. It began before the current energy and economic crises arose. My hope is that the industry will not be lured into hitching all its wagons to the alternative energy frenzy. It will undoubtedly produce short-term sales, but the real long-term opportunity lies in creating systems that everyone can use and afford.
If we can learn anything from the 1980s, it is that government programs are only temporary fixes at best. True change with staying power comes from free-market initiatives. Artificially propped-up industry is only a problem in hiding. Technology - whether it be solar, geothermal or radiant heating - will thrive only if it is cost-effective and affordable. Only when the benefits justify the real expense will an industry succeed.
Solar energy technology is a fascinating and exciting subject. It will, no doubt, benefit with this current round of interest, but radiant heating is “green” with or without solar. It is the most energy-efficient and natural way to distribute heat from all heat sources. My passion for solar will remain, but radiant heating and cooling offers the world far more potential for saving energy and improving life as we know it, at least for the next several decades.