“If there is magic on this planet,” wrote anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley in 1957, “it is contained in water.”
If Eiseley were still alive, he would surely applaud the fact that more and more people in today’s society are waking up to the importance of conserving our water supplies. Yet he would doubtlessly point out that the magic of water includes even more than its life-giving properties.
Water: the magical transporter
Part of what makes water so essential to life is its ability to be a carrier for other things. Called the “universal solvent” in scientific circles, water can readily transport nutrients and wastes in, through, and out of living systems. Yet one of the most important things water is capable of holding and carrying is not a substance at all. It is heated. Our vast oceans of water absorb and hold the sun’s energy, regulating temperatures and weather on our planet.
Were you aware that there is a way to benefit even more from that magical ability of water to retain heat? It’s true — and you can do it right in your home, by installing a solar water heater.
The “other” kind of solar energy
The solar water heater is a solar energy system that uses the sun to heat your domestic hot water. Just like a solar electric system, it uses panels to collect solar energy. However, these panels contain a water-based fluid that carries the sun’s heat down to your hot water tank.
Without mixing the fluids, the system transfers the sun’s heat into your hot water supply using a device called a heat exchanger. The cooled fluid returns to the panels to pick up more heat — and you have emission-free hot water you can use to shower, do laundry and wash your dishes.
Benefits of solar hot water
While a solar water heater won’t directly reduce your water consumption, it does carry with it many benefits. Here are just a few:
1. Fighting climate change.
Water heating accounts for 17 percent of a typical home’s energy use. Many North American homes heat water with natural gas or other fossil fuels. That’s many tons of carbon going into the atmosphere. Switching to solar hot water is a great way to reduce carbon and other greenhouse emissions and protect our climate.
2. Protecting air quality.
Many additional homes use electricity to heat their water. Over one-third of U.S. electric power comes from burning coal. Particulates and other byproducts of burning coal pollute our air and contribute to a number of negative environmental and health effects. When you heat with solar hot water, you become a part of the solution to these public health problems.
3. Protecting water quality.
Carbon and particulates aren’t the only byproducts of burning fossil fuels. The Natural Resources Defense Council has identified power plants as the primary source of mercury and other toxic heavy metals being released into the environment each year. These substances are a major threat to the health of our rivers, streams, and lakes — and to human health as well. Solar water heating is one practical step we can take to put a stop to mercury contamination of our watersheds.
4. Monthly savings.
A solar water heater can provide up to 80 percent of your hot water needs, even in temperate climates. This translates to major utility bill savings, month after month. In fact, a solar hot water system typically pays for itself in just four to eight years and can be expected to last for 40 years or more. That’s a lot of free energy and a lot of savings.
5. Increased home value.
Studies show that homes with solar sell faster and at higher prices than those without. Thus, adding solar hot water to your home is an investment that will pay back whether you stay or sell.
The magical side benefit of solar hot water
Of course, the sun doesn’t shine all day, every day. Solar water heaters typically have a backup gas or electric water heater that kicks in during periods of little sun. However, many solar water heater owners prefer to use backup heating as little as possible. Instead, they make a game out of using their hot water when it’s most readily available. Small habit changes such as doing laundry on sunny days can add up to even bigger environmental and financial savings.
Does the side benefit? Many of these homeowners say that paying attention to their hot water use has made them more aware of how they use all their resources. Even though their solar water heater doesn’t save water directly, they find they are using less water — and saving even more — overall. Thanks to the power of water!
One final note
Some utility companies offer rebates for installing solar water heaters. Contact your service provider to find out if they have a rebate program and how to qualify.