Kentucky homeowners are beginning to look at solar to lower their energy costs.

Financing options and a Kentucky residential tax credit of $500 helps alleviate homeowner concerns about the costs of installing a solar thermal system. (Photo credits: Ron Hoffman.)


Five years ago, when Ron Hoffman received a call from his friend Thomas Blake, he didn’t know he would be part of a solar revolution in Kentucky. Hoffman is president of Lexington, Ky.-based Golfwood Services, which supplies hardwood products to furniture, cabinet, store fixture, craft and moulding manufacturers. Blake and his company, Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Our Country Home, designed and supplied high-quality retail store fixtures - and was Hoffman’s best customer.

Blake was excited about a new venture he was starting - Solar Usage Now (www.solarusagenow.com), based in Hamilton, Ind. - and he wanted Hoffman’s help. “He explained about the solar energy industry and how it was growing rapidly,” Hoffman recalls. “He was going to become a solar products distributor. Thom is the kind of person you can’t say ‘no’ to, so I said I would help.

“At that point, I thought my involvement would be to provide names and phone numbers of some prominent mechanical, plumbing and HVAC contractors in the state of Kentucky. But before that process occurred, I received an email from Thom appointing me as his associate distributor for Kentucky.”

In its most recent “U.S. Solar Market Insight” report for the second quarter of 2011, the Solar Energy Industries Association (www.seia.org) notes the domestic solar water- and space-heating market has grown on an annual basis since 2004. Incentives such as tax cuts and rebates are still driving demand in major markets.

In 2010, solar-thermal installations increased 6 percent, reports the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (www.irecusa.org) in its “U.S. Solar Market Trends 2010.” The IREC report also says increased installations come about with increased incentives.

“The solar water-heating markets respond when federal incentives are increased but, unlike photovoltaic installations, market demand does not sustain high growth rates,” the report states. Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin all provided rebates for more than 100 systems in 2010.

Surface-mounted collectors, such as these installed on Ron Hoffman's Lexington, Ky., townhouse, look like skylights and are more aesthetically pleasing than tilt-up units.

In coal states such as Kentucky that still have low electricity rates, it can be even more difficult to convert consumers to renewable energy.

“In Kentucky, we have 6 or 7 cents per kWh electric rates, so it’s somewhat challenging to introduce any new technology that may be seen as a threat to the coal industry here,” Hoffman says. “People are a little more resistant to trying something new.”

Yet solar is making small inroads into Kentucky energy. While more prevalent in commercial and institutional projects such as schools, Kentucky homeowners are beginning to look to solar thermal and other renewables to help lower their energy costs. Financing options available from installers and a state residential tax credit of $500 help alleviate homeowner concerns about the costs of installing a solar thermal system.

In addition, the Kentucky Solar Partnership (www.kysolar.org) and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (www.maced.org) offer flexible loans for the installation of solar water heaters in eastern Kentucky. Loans cover the full equipment and installation cost.

“Slowly the technologies are improving,” Hoffman explains. “The new solar products are more efficient, which allows most installations to be done on a surface-mount base rather than the traditional tilt-up units. Homeowners associations in metropolitan areas have banned solar panels tilted skyward. With these new installs, you can show people they actually look like skylight installations. They’re very efficient in most instances without having that unsightly rack tilt-up mechanism.”

Consumer education on how solar thermal systems work, as well as financing options and tax incentives/rebates, is still a big part of the sales strategy.

“A few customers are asking for solar thermal systems, but a lot of our business is still education,” says Matt Partymiller of Solar Energy Solutions, a solar installation firm based in Lexington (www.solar-energy-solutions.com).

However, roughly 20 percent of Solar Energy Solutions’ business comes from residential jobs. “We have seen great reception from customers in the commmercial/institutional space,” he says. “Solar thermal is capable of meeting a larger percentage of hot water demand in certain applications when appropriately designed.”

The firm recently completed one of the largest solar thermal installations in the United States - about 170 solar thermal units at Locust Trace Agriscience Farm, an agricultural school located in Lexington.

The SUN mini Equinox drainback solar thermal system provides 100 percent of the water-heating and space-heating needs for Ron Hoffman's 2,500-square-foot townhome.

A customer, too

Hoffman not only distributes solar thermal systems, he has one installed on his townhome. In 2008, Solar Usage Now became a distributor for the SUN Equinox heating and hot water system. The system is pre-assembled and shipped to the jobsite, reducing the cost of installation.

Hoffman had the first residential installation of the Equinox system in the United States.

“I’m kind of a maverick,” he says. “If there is a new product or technology, I want to be the first in line to try it. I knew very little about the solar energy industry when Thom approached me, but I’m intrigued by it. I’m trying to learn more about it every day.”

The drainback solar thermal system provides 100 percent of the water-heating and space-heating needs for Hoffman’s 2,500-square-foot townhome. Installed in the home is the mini Equinox, which has an unpressurized, atmospheric 80-gallon storage tank made of impact-resistant plastic. The tank is filled only once with tap water (without additives), which is used for heat transfer. Domestic water is heated in the stainless-steel heat exchangers by the storage tank water.

Apricus evacuated-tube solar collectors were installed on Hoffman’s home; customers also may choose SolarHot flat-plate collectors to be installed with the Equinox system. Other system equipment includes a Quietside tankless water heater, two 115-volt nonsubmersible Grundfos pumps and a SolaStat GDF programmable controller.

For space heating, the Equinox system is connected to two First Co. 3-ton AquaTherm hydronic air handlers - one in the attic and one in the crawlspace. It also is connected to Hoffman’s existing air-conditioning system.

As the temperature in the residence falls below the setpoint, the thermostat calls for heat. The pump comes on and water flows from the Equinox tank to the hydronic furnace. The variable-speed, high-efficiency fan within the furnace turns on and provides heat.

Significant energy savings

Hoffman kept detailed records for the 12-month period after installation of his solar thermal system. During that period, he recorded an 18 percent reduction in his electricity draw and about a 38.9 percent reduction in his natural gas usage. He does admit those savings also include other energy conservation measures he undertook at the time of the solar installation.

“Whenever an installation like this is undertaken, we recommend a thorough energy audit to take care of other energy conservation issues,” he explains. “As a part of this program, I did augment my insulation values throughout my townhome. While a significant portion of the savings is in the new system, I have to recognize that a part of those savings was due to the improvements in the conservation area.”

Because of the significant energy savings it provides, Hoffman is proud of his solar thermal energy system. And while those coal lobbyists work in the state legislature to make sure that coal is king, Blake, Hoffman and Partymiller will continue to spread the solar energy message.

“Solar is becoming increasingly prevalent but is still a long way from developing critical mass in our Midwest markets,” Partymiller says.