The past 25 years have brought changes to the heating industry that most of us wouldn’t have thought possible, or necessary, in the mid-1970s.

Condensing furnaces just a whisker shy of providing 100% efficiency were only in the imaginations of manufacturing engineers until 1980. Air-to-air heat pumps were improving in the 70s, but many in the industry remained skeptical because of past equipment problems. Electronic solutions to efficiency problems, in the form of setback thermostats, variable-speed motors, and system control modules, were tomorrow’s answers.

Since 1977, the energy efficiency of even average heating equipment has improved by half, a remarkable achievement. But for eight years, I was more interested in a technology that doesn’t get much press these days — solar energy.

The solar industry had a chance to grab a permanent foothold in the home heating market. It wasn’t ready. Most solar contracting grew separately from the heating trades.

For a few years, solar enjoyed most-favored technology status from federal and state governments. When the support turned to indifference, solar economics could not compete in the heating market.

Hvac contractors could have adopted the solar industry without much disruption in their businesses. But as the promise of solar turned into some fairly ugly realities, most contractors decided they didn’t need the aggravation.


The unions and their employers were a notable hvac exception. Both SMWIA-SMACNA (Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association-Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association) and UA-MCAA (United Association-Mechanical Contractors Assoc-iation of America) offered outstanding training, allowing thousands of qualified techs to do competent solar work. Many of the commercial solar installations still operating today were union jobs done right.

The solar and the hvac industries intersected at odd corners. Manufacturers of copper valves and fittings, copper and aluminum fins, pumps, blowers, and other products found new markets. A few hvac contractors dabbled in some solar side work. What they lacked in new age enthusiasm, they made up for in tight joints and fittings.

The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) started a solar section and passed a standard that allowed members to offer certification to complete solar systems. Panel manufacturers formed their own certification group to rate solar collectors. This dissipated some of the message that one strong certifying body could have presented to the buying public.

Today there are still a dozen manufacturers around the U.S. and internationally, each with a thin network of dealers and sales agents, that supply thermal solar equipment. If you wanted to get into the solar business locally, you could easily find the components you needed, learn how to install them, and start advertising. The phone will ring — but not enough.

Conservation Vs. Production

During the era of the OPEC oil embargoes,Newseditor Gordon Duffy saw renewable energy as a growing trend and regularly wrote articles about it in these pages. In time, solar became my beat.

President Jimmy Carter signed budgets that significantly increased funding for alternative R&D and demonstration projects. He often stated his belief that solar would be an important source of energy in the U.S.

Then as now, the terms “solar” and “renewable” (or “alternative”) energy had almost interchangeable meanings. They meant sun-related energy (thermal or photovoltaic [PV]), wind, biomass, and sometimes geothermal. There were also related technologies, such as hydrogen or ocean wave energy, but these usually were not considered mainstream alternatives.

The country had been talking about energy conservation for generations and the subject had grown tired. We were looking for something that added to the solution, not just subtracted from the problem.

Although he preached conservation, President Carter and a Democratic Congress didn’t mind spending federal dollars to further a more forward-looking goal. Actually, there were several goals:

  • Reduce dependence on foreign energy by increasing domestic production.
  • Break the stranglehold of high energy prices on the national economy.
  • Reduce the use of fossil fuels. Not such bad objectives at any time.
  • Sometimes you would hear projections that alternate energy could provide “up to 20%” of all the energy used annually in the U.S. The analysis of such optimistic forecasts invariably required:

    1. An enormous decrease in energy consumption (conservation); and

    2. Widespread use of decidedly low-tech renewable energy systems, namely wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

    When President Carter signed federal solar tax credits into law, many states followed suit. The rush was on.

    The generous federal residential credit was an attention-getter for homeowners. Spend up to $10,000 on a solar space-heating system and get a 40% credit (up to $4,000). Or pay up to $3,000 for a domestic hot water (DHW) solar system and get a 25% credit (up to $750). State credits, where available, added to the savings.

    These were actual tax credits, not deductions from income. The homeowner calculated the taxes owed, then subtracted the solar credit.

    This was the jumpstart the solar industry had been hoping for. The potential market went from thousands to millions overnight.

    Then Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in 1980 and began cutting federal solar budgets, more every year. He also wanted to reduce, then eliminate, the federal tax credits. Congress kept him at bay, refusing to rescind the credits. It remained to be seen whether the credits would be extended beyond their expiration on Dec. 31, 1985.

    The solar industry believed that at some point it would get its extension. But the credits ended as scheduled and 1985 marked the end of a vibrant, growing solar thermal industry.

    Solar Economics

    Could you find a good solar space heating system for $5,000 (after tax credits) that would substantially reduce your heating load? Absolutely. High-quality, efficient, and well-built equipment, installed correctly, would lower heating bills.

    But once industry competition kicked in, merely saving money wasn’t good enough. Marketers tried to outdo one another with projections on how quickly their solar systems would pay back their cost. After all, the homeowner became his own utility company, a pleasant fiction repeated too frequently.

    No one required that the improved efficiency of a new gas furnace pay back its entire initial cost. But, as an add-on, a solar system needed to pay for itself.

    This lead to convoluted calculations that confused prospective buyers. A typical pitch went like this:

    Take what you pay now for heating fuel and figure that fuel prices will go up by, say, 10% per year. Thanks to inflation, your dollar is worth less every year, and your investment opportunities are limited. The solar system will reduce your heating bills by 50%. Run the numbers through a solar calculator (free with every system purchase), and there’s your answer: 3.7-year payback. After that, it’s all gravy.

    Each assumption was faulty. Oil and gas prices fell in the early 80s. Shortages were nonexistent. Inflation cooled and the economy improved. And solar energy systems only occasionally cut the heating load by the projected amount.

    With expectations raised to ridiculous heights, some buyers became disappointed with their results. They might have been happy to get a 10% cut in their winter utility bills, but making $75 per month payments on a loan to save $200 a year in energy didn’t make sense.

    Storage Problems

    Thermal storage was an enormous problem for solar space heating. The options were solid (stones or slabs), liquid (water or other fluids), or exotic (phase-change materials). Each was technically feasible but carried its own shortcomings. They were also expensive and required a level of commitment that homeowners may not have anticipated. Few looked forward to housing barrels or rock piles in their basements.

    Heating domestic water was not as daunting a technical task as space heating. For DHW, install one or two collectors on the roof and pipe the solar array to a storage tank. Yet even when everything worked, the savings were usually low. Cut the cost of heating domestic hot water in half and what have you saved? In many cases, $10 or $20 a month — when the sun was shining.

    Moreover, the potential grief of buying a solar system could compound daily. You could see solar collectors on many roofs in those days, and a good number were clouded. If the seals did not hold perfectly, condensation seeped under the glazing and reduced the collection efficiency. If the installer wasn’t an expert plumber, those gallons of water or ethylene glycol circulating on the roof could come dripping through the ceiling. And then there was draindown.

    Anyone living in a cold climate needed to get all the liquid in the system off the roof and into the house before the sun went down or behind clouds. Otherwise the system would freeze up like a three-year-old Pinto. Draining almost all of the liquid in time was an achievement, but not always enough to prevent disaster.

    More Credits?

    Today, the Solar Energy Industries Association has about 65 members. Most of the manufacturers make PV components or systems, but there are a few thermal equipment producers left.

    SEIA still is hoping for an industry bailout, asking President Bush to keep an election promise to support a 15% federal tax credit for the purchase of residential solar electric or water heating equipment.

    What does the national energy picture look like today? In the year 2000, the total U.S. net generation of electricity was 3,792 billion kWh, 2% higher than the year before. Fifty-two percent was generated by coal, 20% by nuclear, 16% from natural gas, 3% from petroleum, 7% from hydro, and 2% by renewables.

    The use of renewable energy for electricity generation in the United States dropped by almost 12% in 2000. Renewables generated 358,606 million kWh (net) in 2000, down from 406,322 in 1999, according to the Energy Infor-mation Administration. Solar PV went from 848 million to 844 million kWh. Wind was the only renewable energy to increase, rising from 4,488 to 4,947 million kWh over those two years.

    Renewable energy will continue to play an important role in our future. When it makes economic sense to install solar, you won’t be able to stop an industry from supplying what people need.

    Johnson has been an assistant, associate, and chief editor of The News since 1977. From 1982 to 85, he was editor of Solar Engineering & Contracting.