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"My original vision was to make the world a better place for my children, even before I had them," says Al Rich, solar thermal innovation leader (and founder of SolarRoofs.com). "I joined Green America in the mid-1980s because of our mutual concern to better humankind and its environment through economic action."
We asked Al what sparked his interest in solar power, what's kept him energized for nearly 30 years, and how you can reduce your dependence on fossil fuels with a solar water heater at home.
Skip to reader questions»
Green America: What does your business do?
Al Rich: SolarRoofs.com manufactures attractive, light-weight solar water heating systems and collectors.
What makes your company green?
Al: The mass use of solar water heaters is the nation’s quickest and lowest-cost method of reducing fossil-fuel dependence and environmental pollution. Solar water-heating is the solar industry’s greenest "low-hanging fruit " — easy to use, easy to install, and not terribly expensive, and with four to five times the power density of solar electric photovoltaic (PV) panels, which means they generate much more power relative to their size.
Catching some rays.
“Macro” use of a “micro” power technology like solar water heating not only reduces energy demand and pollution, but also when millions of them are installed to supplement gas water heaters, this frees up large amounts of natural gas for creating electricity or for use in transportation.
Thus, indirectly, solar water heating can be used to create very significant quantities of electricity while greatly cutting pollution, producing an average of 10kWh of energy per day, either by displacing energy or gas use. This is about the same amount of energy produced by a 2 kW solar PV system. Solar water heating is the perfect complement to a PV system because it can double the energy output of an average 1 to 4kW system at a fraction of the cost.
In our manufacturing, SolarRoofs uses recyclable materials wherever possible and our product is more than 90 percent recyclable. We use high-efficiency lighting and have a recycling program for all recyclable waste products.
What do you think of the current state of the solar energy market?
Bright idea: Commercial-
scale solar collectors.
Al: I got started in solar under the Carter administration in 1979 and it was very exciting. Back then, solar was all about solar water-heating and PV was a long way off. In the early 1980s, I was running the top-producing district for Sears/American Solar King in Herndon, Virginia. We were installing more than ten systems per week in 1983, ’84, and ‘85. When the bottom dropped out because the federal tax credit for solar went away in 1986, that company went out of business. I reactivated my company AC-Rich and Sun and was among the very few to survive and stay in the solar business until now. I went through two decades of what I call the "nobody cares" era. Unfortunately, it takes crisis and incentives to move Americans to take action. Right now business is good. Tax credits are an important part of this, although on a truly level playing field solar water heating would be way on top.
What motivated you to start your own business?
Al: My solar interest started 29 years ago when I learned about a solar pool-heating system being installed at a camp in Buena Vista, Colorado. There I helped install an early "trickle down" pool heater at a camp in 1977, and I was bitten by the "solar bug" — a bug that never let go. From there I went on to study solar, methane gasification, composting, and water rams at New Life Farm, in Drury, Missouri, and I installed solar air-heating panels at my college in Elsah, Illinois in 1978. I graduated from Principia College in 1979 with a degree in Political Science and Research Processes. The research required for this special studies degree was the underpinning of the critical thinking I used for successful inductive leaps, and invention in the solar field. Opportunity results from preparation.
Can you tell us more about your solar collectors?
Al: Our collectors are far easier and safer to install than traditional collectors, and are available in 26 architectural colors as well. The 19- and 38-pound "Skyline" collectors are rated by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC),which ranks systems’ performance, and ensures buyers can participate in tax credit programs, and by the Florida Solar Energy Center. The SRCC collector rating is called OG100. Our popular, 100%-run-by-the-sun, PV-pumped, open-loop system 3, and closed-loop system 5, are also SRCC system rated. Their SRCC system rating is called OG300. Our ratings are listed under our parent company name, ACR Solar International.
Do you have solar water heating at home?
Al C. Rich and Sun.
Al: Right after my wife Susan and I bought our first home in 1985, which was a townhouse in Reston, Virginia, we installed a solar water heater. We have had solar water heating ever since. The systems have paid for themselves very quickly and, like many customers, we wonder why everyone doesn't have one. In California our faithful "Skylite" water heater is in its fourteenth year without any problems. I have all kinds of solar toys, flashlights, and kits. My favorite toy is a two-foot-tall, gold-plated, solar-powered oil derrick I bought in the late 80s, which basically makes fun of oil.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Al: My toughest choice was to stay in the field through the two decades when nobody cared. Even "environmentalists" weren't buying solar's-low hanging fruit so there were very tough times for my family and me. Getting investors for solar water-heating manufacturing has been, and still is, brutally difficult. I knew it was the right thing to do and my passion for it very strong, so my motto is simply, "never give up."
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Al: The inductive leaps when an idea comes together are exciting, especially the patentable ones. Getting a patent is a thrill, and I have four of them, with plans for at least four more. The great turnaround in thinking that has occurred in the past few years has been like coming out of thick clouds of apathy.
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Al: I continue to see unending opportunity to do good and contribute to reducing global warming. Al Gore inspires me and it is great to see his message taken to heart, though he needs to talk more about solar water-heating!
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Al: When I started, I had no idea of what I would go through in the next 28 years. I think the Phoenix from mythology is a kindred spirit as I had to rise from ashes many times. Remember dear entrepreneur, that unlike the hardening of steel by fire, trials by fire in business and life are valuable if they make you grow and be wiser without hardening.
What are you most excited about for the future?
Al: There is tremendous need for our product, and I am working on finally achieving the funding needed to move forward as a leader and innovator in this very exciting field.
What green product can you not live without?
Al: I am excited about the coming LED lighting revolution that will be many times more energy-efficient than fluorescent lighting.
Al's ironic toy.
Q: My 135-unit apartment building in Brooklyn had an energy audit last year, and a solar water heater was included in the scope of work; however the relatively high investment and long payback time has prevented us from moving on this idea. When will solar water heating technology become affordable for large multi-family buildings? — Anne
Al: It is cost effective now. With an unlimited 30 percent federal solar commercial tax credit, accelerated depreciation, and an increased cap rate (value increase to commercial property due to reduced operating costs), paybacks in less than four years are possible by heating your water with solar. We are doing many commercial jobs due to this cost effectiveness.
Q: How does a person find a company in their area that is reputable to install a solar hot water heater? We would like to install a solar hot water heater with an electric hot water heater backup, since our old gas hot water heater is shot, and since we bought a multigrain stove to heat the house last year, the only thing we use gas for in the house is hot water. With a solar hot water heater and electric backup, we could tell Missouri Gas Energy good bye! For us, that would be the most cost effective choice, since there are service charges with both gas and electric, which evens out the cost (even though gas is cheaper in our area). We pay $14 or $15 a month just to have gas hooked up, which we could eliminate.— Carol
Al: Contact us or go to findsolar.com to find a dealer. For installation, there are four ways to install solar water heating:
1)The homeowner 100% installs the system by themselves or with a helper by reading the installment manual.
2) If adding a tank, the homeowner has a plumber set the tank which requires some soldering and then the homeowner does the no-solder solar loop installation themselves.
3) The homeowner has a plumber set the tank and has a handyman read the manual and install the solar loop, or
4) The homeowner has a professional solar contractor install it. Contractors usually charge anywhere from $800 to $1,600 to install, as they have to cover higher workers' compensation, labor, and insurance costs as well as warranties their work.
Q: How well do your water heaters work in the north? I am in Minnesota, would this work for me? As well as if I was in Hawaii? — Steve
Al: Solar water heaters work well almost everywhere, and there are many installed and working well in Minnesota. During summer, they work as well there as in Hawaii, but in winter the cold weather and heavy clouds reduce their operating efficiency. For a family of 4 in Minnesota, a 60-square-foot, closed-loop, freeze-protected system may cover 55 to 65 percent, while in Hawaii a 60-square-foot, open-loop, non-freeze-protected system may cover 75 to 85 percent of the family's hot water needs.
Q: Can solar water heaters be cost effective in northern New England? — Michelle
Al: Absolutely. Twenty-eight years ago I started my company in Wolfeboro, NH.
Q: I live in Chicago and would like to install solar panels for electricity. I wonder if the advantages as great in our climate. Would I really be able to trap enough solar power to make a difference? — Michelle
Al: I understand the Chicago area has good incentives to make solar electricity cost-effective. We do not work in the solar electric PV area so please check your state's incentives available from this site. [Editor's note: Our summer 2004 Green America Quarterly reported on Chicago's leadership in promoting solar energy, and Co-op Amreica's recent Chicago Green Festival included many local solar innovators who all testify that solar is very doable in Chicago.]
Q: It seems like I only ever read about homeowners who choose to add a solar water heater later or who replace their old water heater with a new one. Are there any developers building new homes fitted with technology already? Have you looked into partnering with contractors to sell your Skylights right into new houses? — Madison
Al: Yes, there are some developers using solar water heaters and we need to work with all builders to get the word out as it is usually a positive cash flow for the new homeowner, day one.
Q: What recommendations would you suggest for lowering electic bills from the $250-$300 range and fuel bills (oil) at $900-$1000? We (two of us) have dressed warmer, kept the heat at 68 degrees; switched out light bulbs to the new flourscent type, we're well insulated, and I feel fairly consciencous of our energy use! I have looked into solar PV but would need to cut down trees including my neighbors in order to take maximum advantage. Our home is nicely oriented north-to-south and from March through October, the sun travels directly over the top of our home, and in the winter with the leaves off of the trees our sun room is very warm and comfortable. Can you Help? — John
Al: Conservation and heating equipment efficiency is always your first defense in keeping your bills down. Air infiltration through cracks and spaces in your homes soleplate, walls, windows, doors, vents, duct system and so on can greatly increase your energy bill. Along with excellent insulation, attack these energy robbers first.Our focus here at SolarRoofs.com is on solar water heating, “solar energy’s low hanging fruit.” Space heating is all custom so if you want help on solar space heating, please read our introduction to it (PDF).
To give you the best advice, we would need to know your location, how you currently heat your water (oil?) and your fuel costs. You already know you need a clear, completely unobstructed south facing roof, or an east or west roof where a south facing tilt kit can be installed. To learn more, please see the "going solar" section of our Web site, as well as the ordering section for complete solar water heating information. Also, our "technical section" has lots of information, as well as the "questions and answers" section. I hope this helps.