Solar power seems less like an 'alternative' form of energy these days.

In the year since we first published a supplement on solar thermal energy called the "Solar Installer," we’ve read more articles about the subject, heard more interest from our readers and seen more solar energy products on display.

While solar energy to heat hot water still falls under the category of “alternative energy,” we think that with all the press the sun has received lately, this is the year solar energy is beginning to feel more mainstream. This is our first edition of the year of what we’ve renamed theSolar Heating Report. We’ll follow this with two more reports in July and November.

Here are a couple different ways contractors are capitalizing on the interest in tapping the sun for heat in the commercial and residential markets.

Dollars And Sense

“Building owners aren’t looking at just up-front costs for a heating system any longer, but at the total cost of operation,” says Craig Ouimette, service manager at Cardinal Heating, Sun Prairie, Wis.

A good place to start may be energy-efficient boilers, such as the condensing models Ouimette used on a new 40-bed, 26,000-square-foot assisted-living facility. But from there, Ouimette was able to sell the builder on the benefits of pairing the boilers with solar thermal panels on the very next nursing home he was called on to do.

For the first home (Pine Ridge Assisted Living, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.), Ouimette recommended in-floor radiant heating for all the common areas of the building. There was talk early on about powering the radiant with “mid-efficiency” boilers with ratings of 78 percent to 82 percent. However, the lower-priced boilers would have required more money spent on a large masonry chimney to vent the gases. While the two Munchkin boilers cost more, Ouimette knew that he could vent the units through the roof with Schedule 40 PVC pipe.

The advantages of the high-efficiency boilers extended well past the venting. “By upgrading to a high-efficiency, condensing and modulating boiler system to run a low-temperature application like radiant,” Ouimette adds, “a building owner can cut 30 percent to 40 percent off the fuel bills compared with a conventional system.”

Shortly after the Wisconsin Rapids home opened, Cardinal Heating started work on another facility in Colby, Wis., of similar size.

Ouimette says Cardinal, a 25-year-old family business, started installing solar just a few years ago. In fact, Ouimette got interested in solar by way of a friend who works at Hot Water Products, a Milwaukee rep firm specializing in solar and other renewable energy products,which we featured in last year’sSolar Installer.

One of Cardinal’s first solar jobs was installing thermal panels for the hot water used at its shop, which employs 10. Ouimette figures that first job cut the business’ own hot water bills by a third.

While working on the Colby nursing home, Ouimette raised the issue of including solar with Fred Miller, owner of Miller Construction, which was hired to build both facilities.

“The solar thermal systems we’re installing will last 30 to 40 years,” Ouimette adds. “We told Fred he should be able to recoup about 50 percent of the up-front costs through state and federal tax credits.”

Miller asked for a site assessment, covering system size, total cost, rebate and payback. Ouimette pegged the system cost at $57,600. Tax incentives shrunk the number down to $27,720. Over the next five years, the building owner would also be able to depreciate $17,000 of the $27,700 net investment.

“So it came down from $57,000 to almost $10,000 in up-front costs to install the solar thermal system,” Ouimette says.

The Colby home uses 16 4-foot by 10-foot thermal panels as a backup to the condensing boiler system. The last time we spoke to Ouimette, he told us there was some discussion about installing thermal panels on the other nursing home.

Show Me

We first heard about David Glover, Glover Plumbing Heating Service, Barrington, N.H., after the PHCC newsletter included a few profiles almost two years ago of contractors who were green “before it was cool.”

In the article, Glover related how he received a call out of the blue in the late 1990s from a customer who wanted him to install a geothermal heating system. One thing led to another and Glover found himself the area’s newly minted energy-efficiency expert, conducting energy audits and installing such products as on-demand water heaters to squeeze every penny of energy the average homeowner uses.

More recently, Glover installed his first solar heating system in 2007, around the time that the PHCC article came out.

“Clients have to understand the life-cycle cost for less efficient systems compared to the cost of operation for a solar or geothermal system,” Glover said in the article. “It is up to the professionals to educate them and give them options.”

Last year, Glover partnered with a few like-minded business colleagues and ratcheted up the notion of education and options. The end result is Seacoast Energy Alternatives Inc., also known as the SEA Solar Store in Dover, N.H.

The retail store offers plenty of items, such as compact fluorescent lights, wind-up radios and other smaller items that customers can easily purchase and walk out the door with. But the 800-square foot building also carries Energy Star-rated appliances, Marathon, Stiebel Eltron and Rinnai water heaters, not to mention solar thermal panels that require more professional installation - which, of course, is where Glover and his company come in.

When energy prices rose sharply last year, Glover told us he couldn’t keep up with the request from consumers asking about solar hot water systems. Even now, with energy prices a bit more down to earth, Glover says going on 10 site visits a month isn’t unusual.

“Using solar for hot water offers the biggest payback for residential and commercial customers,” Glover told us. “I think it’s the ‘greenest’ contribution most everyone can do to change energy use.”

Glover says that around a third of every home’s fuel bill goes to heating water. Solar thermal can provide 80 percent of the load. “Most residential solar hot water systems will pay for themselves in five to six years,” Glover adds. He figures that the system can expect to perform for 30 years.

“The way we see it,” says Jack Bingham, one of the owners who runs the store’s daily activities, “you can either continue to pay the electric or oil companies on a monthly basis or you can pay up front for a five-year block of hot water and then get 25 years for free.”