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Solar Hot Water Fairies

»Monday, September 7,2009

Evacuated Tube PanelsYou mean the water does really get hot? asked one of my neighbours as I turned on the tap and the steam rose into the air. I added the washing-up liquid and smiled.


Yep, the water really is hot and it’s a cold January day. Solar powered washing up! was her comment with a kind of ‘I’m impressed look’ only another woman would have been able to detect.

Well, go on how does it work? I know its got something to do with the tubes on your roof and then what? Do the hot water fairies make the magic happen? And another thing, it can’t be solar washing-up, its cold out and my feet are freezing so how can it be. Plus if my immersion heater is working overtime then you must have one of them hidden somewhere! With this speech over she sat down, eyed me with suspicion and said “and you’ve still not put the kettle on”.

With the kettle situation swiftly resolved, mugs of steaming tea in hand and a look of ‘well then’, on Jeanies face, where to begin? To be fair all of our neighbours are now used to the mad Carr family, what with ninja chickens hell bent on escape, my ever expanding veg plot and to say nothing of Andys attempts at chip fat fuel... sorry bio-diesel. But to Jeanie, solar was something new, a bit high-tech mixed with memories of seeing solar panels on the roofs of houses as she holidayed in the med and to her untrained eye, the houses were half built (true) and solar was a means to an end until the electric was connected (not so).

We, in the civilised west, are a bit slow at cottoning on to what our Southern European cousins have known about for years..... use what you have to hand! Sunshine equals hot water, power and light and that adds up to energy wealth.

Jeanie put her cup down with a look of got you! “It’s not sunny today, its freezing cold and my fingers and toes are turning blue.”
Very true its bitterly cold, one of those days where the cold hangs in the air and seeps into your bones, yet should you have looked up you would have seen an aqua blue sky with cotton wool clouds, the sun was up and doing its best to warm up this planet that we call home. To be fair, I had not bothered to look, but when Jeanie and I did it was quite splendid.

The magic happens when the daylight hits the evacuated tube panel.  Its gentle life giving heat first warms and then heats a sealed copper pipe in the glass tube until a liquid in the inner workings of the copper pipe boils, transferring it as steam to a manifold at the top of the panel. Water is then pumped through the manifold and into the coils within the hot water tank which in turn transfers the heat into the water that we use. Meanwhile back on the roof now that the heat has been transferred to the water the steam has cooled down returning back to liquid and dribbled back down to the bottom of the pipe ready to start again.

You mean that’s it? Steam?

Yes more or less there is a bit of modern high tech computer thingy me bobs in managing the systems but yes just steam.
So how come if it’s that easy why is not on every roof?

Well the answer is complicated, solar has been used in this country for over thirty years its early adopters where, how to put it nicely, a bit you know…. different, shall we say. You mean tree huggers said Jeanie.

I prefer different, yet they have done a sterling job in ironing out the wrinkles. It was the early pioneers of solar in the UK that realised that transplanting southern European systems straight in to our more variable northern climate was a waste of time and resources and that we needed to invest in understanding the best way in which to harvest this valuable commodity.

But Susan, if you are right and the research has been done and the techno geeks have come up with gizmos and gadgets that mean we can now wring every last drop out of the sun why is it not on everybodys house? I mean, I know that you have it, but you are a bit of a greenie, what with your chickens, veg beds, composting and all things renewable, no offence Susan but really!

Well, it is on more and more houses, it maybe small scale now with in the UK but its a growth area with more and more planning authorities insisting that new builds and extensions have some form of renewables. So solar is becoming mainstream and now that people are no longer buying houses just to make a quick profit but are actually planning to live there for a period of time retro-fitting solar panels makes economic sense.  If you take a look at Germany and the Scandinavian countries which have traditionally colder climates than us they are heavily investing in renewables. It makes sense use what you have without stealing from your childrens grandchildren.


Coal, gas and oil are all ‘use it up and wear it out’ resources and we have precious little of them left. How many UK coal fields are working and as for natural gas, that was going to last generations and it’s already on its last legs.
We were promised energy independence in the 70s but thirty years on we are importing more of our energy than ever. That’s why your gas and electric bills are going up .... “because imported energy costs more right?” pipes up Jeanie. Yep, it costs more at wholesale prices and the corporates pass it on to you and me the customers. Not only that but when the price drops.... well they don’t pass it back as quickly as they put it up - if at all. A nice bit of profiteering me thinks!

So solar means cheaper bills?.... Yes, we don’t pay to heat the majority our water, its free - well the sun is anyway.  The cost of the kit and the gadgets and gizmos are an upfront cost however a solar system is a long term investment in the house and to be fair, one we will recoup should we ever sell, unlike a bog standard boiler that is an ongoing expense. Remember when yours broke down just before Christmas? What a nightmare that was, cold, miserable and wrapped up like something from a dickens novel only to be told “Sorry madam your are not a priority. It will be three days before an engineer can come out.”  You lacked a certain Christmas spirit let me tell you!

Ok, I get it. I was miserable. Have you any idea what it’s like to have no hot water to wash in or do the pots? Until it’s not there you do not realize how much you take it for granted.

Precisely the point.  Just how much longer is it going to be there for? Even when you get around to changing you old boiler for a shiny new one that’s mega efficient, its shelf life is ten years tops and then you need another shiny new one, and then another and so on. You are also tied to the price of gas – all the suppliers in the UK buy from the same wholesale cartel and they have the ability to dictate the cost and availability of supply. Ask yourself if this is energy freedom or a form of enforced corporate energy slavery. The solar panel on our roof will be up there for thirty years and it’s practically bomb proof. With no moving mechanical parts there is not a lot to go wrong and should it ever dare to, Andy is the techno geek so he gets to sort it out (and boringly enough nowt has gone wrong). “So for about the cost of a shiny new boiler I could have a set of magic hot water fairy tubes?” enquires Jeanie.

Yes our system cost about £3500 installed for our three bedroom house and that’s about the average price of the systems that we install. So unless you live in a mansion, any quote over £6000 is a rip off. So as Jeanie drank the last of her tea and got up, she looked over at the kitchen sink smiled and said “Well, when are you sending Andy over I need some of that solar magic.”


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