Southeast residents heating their water with the sun


Every bright and sunny morning, Connie Sullivan knows she’s saving money. Sullivan, one of 19 participants in the Southeast Como Improvement Association’s Solar Pilot Project, had her solar-powered water heater installed two weeks ago and is the first person in the project to have a fully functional system.

Although Sullivan doesn’t completely understand the science of how her system works, she – like many other participants – said she knows it’s going to save money on her natural gas bill and is harmless to the environment.

Sullivan, who lives in the Southeast Como Neighborhood, said the city put up many speed bumps in the process, including requiring her roof to be reinforced to have the solar panels installed.

The reinforcement cost her $2,500, Sullivan said, but she’s making up for it.

Sullivan received a discount on her system as well as a $2,000 tax credit from the federal government for being part of the project.

The systems were purchased in bulk from Innovative Power Systems, and cost each participant $6,000.

“This hot water I get from this system is free, and when gas gets expensive I will still have hot water while other people will have to take lukewarm showers,” Sullivan said.

Justin Eibenholzl, Environmental Coordinator at Southeast Como Improvement Association, launched the project in August 2005 because of its benefits to the environment.

Eibenholz said the system is equivalent to planting 75 trees over a lifetime because of how cleanly the system runs.

In the system, the normal water heater becomes a backup to the solar-powered water heater, which is much bigger and stores 80 gallons of solar-heated water. The water is heated through the sun’s energy by using solar panels placed on the roof of the house.

Sullivan said her main attraction to the system was that it was environmentally friendly.

“I wanted to use less natural gas: The less I use, the better I feel,” she said.

Although no students participated in the project, Eibenholz said the systems could be very helpful for students in cutting down utility costs.

According to Rolf Lund, spokesman for CenterPoint Energy, natural gas prices are expected to be higher this winter than last.

Although last winter had warm temperatures, the prices were abnormally high because of the effects from Hurricane Katrina, he said.

He said the company expects people to use more gas for heating this winter, if the temperatures are that of a typical Minnesota winter.

Ralph Jacobson, CEO of Innovative Power Systems, said winter is the best time for solar water-heater owners to save money.

“Every winter the natural gas price goes up because it’s the tough time,” he said. “It is a matter of supply and demand and the prices are going to do nothing but rise.”

Jacobson said Minnesota is a great place to have the systems because of the weather and is beneficial to the owners.

He said not many students have $6,000 for a solar water-heater, but landlords do.

“These systems pay themselves off within 15 years,” Jacobson said.

Although he said there are financial benefits, the main point is the environment.

“How long do you think our civilization is going to last with the rate we’re going?” he said.

Jacobson said people should use solar energy and save natural gas so that we don’t run out of it, he said.

“We don’t see the negative impact because it just sort of dissipates into the atmosphere and affects the whole planet,” he said. “I mean, if we had something poking us in the butt every time we used (natural gas) we would get the instant feedback, but the fact is we don’t.”