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Sugar Hill solar-raising a success

June 17, 2011


SUGAR HILL—Summer is for soaking up the rays, and that is exactly what a dedicated group of Solar Up North Renewable Energy Initiative (SUNREI) volunteers intend to do, spending their weekends retrofitting local homes for solar water heating systems. Last weekend, SUNREI was in Sugar Hill, throwing a solar-raising at the home of Woody and Holly Miller.

"It looks like we are going to be spending every Saturday going to people's houses or doing visits," said Melissa Elander, one of the four founders of SUNREI, modeled after a similar group based in Plymouth. This summer, SUNREI has plans for solar-raisings in Bethlehem, Sugar Hill, Easton, and Littleton.

Based on the traditional barn-raisings that used to bring community members together to assemble a barn for one of their neighbors, solar-raisings have neighbors helping to neighbors to make each other's homes more energy efficient. The process begins with a site visit during which homeowners learn about the process, and the different options they may have. Many factors, such as where the solar collectors should be placed and what kind of solar collectors should be used, may be answered at this stage.

Melissa Elander, one of SUNREI's four founders, said that by working with organization, homeowners can save thousands of dollars in installation costs because of the volunteer labor. SUNREI also helps homeowners fills out applications for federal and state rebates offered by the government. The federal government offers a flat $2,000 rebate for projects that replace a home's primary hot water production with a solar-generated one. The primary system generally then becomes the secondary, or backup. This transition usually requires buying a new dual-coil tank.

The Millers are paying $1,800 total for the installation of their system, which requires 30 evacuated tubes to be mounted on their barn roof. The project – minus the installation costs – would cost $6,300 if not for the federal and state reimbursements, as well as the federal tax credit that the homeowners are responsible for applying for themselves. A typical professionally installed system would cost between $8,000 and $12,000, estimated Elander.

In addition to the tubes mounted on the roof, the volunteers also must run copper pipes from the collector to the water storage tank. A temperature controller is the brain of the system, controlling when the glycol – the chemical liquid that runs through the system – should be circulated. Other parts of the system range from circulator pump to temperature and pressure gauge to drain and fill valves. For many of the volunteers, a solar-raising is their first time working with the tools necessary to put together the system.

Cindy Clogston started Saturday off with no soldering experience. By the end of the day, she had soldered many an integral part of the system, including the manifolds that hold the evacuation tubes to the barn roof.

"That's sort of the idea. You come away with some skills," said Elander of the value of helping out. "The whole thing works on a pay-it-forward system. If you want one done [at your house], you do have to come and help out."

"I had no idea what I was going to do today, but I prefer to be doing something than not," said Clogston, who hopes to have her house in Whitefield retrofitted at some point. Regardless, Clogston speaks highly of the experience.

"Everybody's nice," she said. "It doesn't really matter who you are. We're all here for the same reason."

Saturday's rainy solar-raising had 19 volunteers – including builders, electricians, and plumbers – and the previous event boasted 25. The day usually begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends whenever the work is completed, which has been around 5:30 p.m. The Millers provided a lunch buffet for the volunteers, with recipes made mostly from food from their garden or grown locally.

Though the move to solar energy is a potential money-saver in terms of energy costs, one of the reasons cited by many of the volunteers for the move to solar energy is the energy independence it offers.

"The alternative energy is just really appealing to me in a lot of ways – not just alternative energy, but getting away from oil," said Holly.

Woody finds the environmental impact appealing.

"I'm looking for ways to be carbon-negative," said Woody. "I think that it's becoming really clear that climate change and global warming is happening already. It's like a terrorist the way it's affecting everything from hurricanes to tornadoes to droughts to floods. It's just beginning to make itself apparent to how big a problem it could be."

Woody said though the transition to a solar water heating system may be small in the grand scheme of things, at least it is a step in the right direction.

"It's just a drop in the bucket…" said Woody.

"…but eventually the bucket fills up," concluded Elander.

Those who are interested in learning more about SUNREI, volunteering, or simply being added to the email list should email Melissa Elander at Melissa.sunrei@gmail.com.

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