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Convert Your Home to Solar Energy Paperback – December 7, 2010
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About the Author
Everett M. Barber, Jr. is the founder of Sunsearch, Inc., a business he ran for over 30 years until he recently retired to speak and write about energy matters. During that time, he and his company designed and installed thousands of solar systems in the southern New England area. In addition, Everett was an adjunct professor of Environmental Technologies at Yale University, where he taught courses in thermal analysis of buildings; system design for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning; plumbing systems; electrical systems; and fire-safe building design. Everett is a member of the American Solar Energy Society, International Solar Energy Society, and ASHRAE. At the latter, he served on the committee that developed the internationally accepted standard for testing of solar thermal collectors.
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Top customer reviews
I especially love this book because it has all of the basic answers to questions that anyone new to the field inevitably has. Questions such as "How do you size a solar collector for pool heating" come up regularly and now we have a go-to reference for all of the common types of solar energy systems. This is super handy.
This review isn't about me, but I think it would be helpful to know my background so you understand the viewpoint I applied while reading the book. I'm a mechanical and electrical engineer (degree in mechanical) and a certified energy professional holding a NABCEP certification. I've been selling, designing, and installing solar systems full time for over 3 years and founded a solar business with 6 employees with four more being hired as of this writing.
Now back to the book...
All prominent residential solar energy technologies are covered, in an easy-to-read writing style:
- Solar hot water
- solar pool heating
- passive home design for solar heating and cooling
- space heating
- solar electricity (often called PhotoVoltaic systems)
The content is presented in various ways through a generous helping of graphs, tables, sidebars, and example diagrams. I highlighted 5 books from the list of suggested further reading.
I highly recommend this book for its approachable and comprehensive content. There are a few deficiencies, though, which is why I gave it only 3 stars. One star lost for partially misleading content and one star lost for outright misleading content and errors. Hopefully, these will be corrected in the next edition--I'm sure this gem of a book is on its way to a second printing. Here's what I noted while reading the book:
1. The book's many colorful photographs of people working on the roof don't show a single person practicing good safety habits or using fall protection. Not one. The two photos on page 200 capture a triple-play of unsafe behavior: No fall protection harness and two instances of gross ladder mis-use. The top photo shows a guy standing on the back of a ladder with the ladder laid face-down on the roof face. Right underneath, the photo shows a very extended ladder slanted WAY too much, to the point where it will slip away from the roof when someone climbs up it. By moving the ladder about 5 feet to the right, it could have been placed against a square surface.
This is a major point because the book gives the reader the impression that these unsafe practices are routine, when they are anything but routine. The truth is that the solar providers who cut corners on safety tend to cut corners elsewhere, also. First of all, they tend not to have insurance. This is one way they can decrease their overhead and offer lower prices. Unharnessed workers can also work faster than someone wearing safety gear, thereby cutting their labor time and costs further. Cost cutting is NOT the most important thing. The legitimate, conscientious solar professionals who are more interested in quality and safety than speed have to pay higher insurance premiums because of these unsafe practices and the accidents they cause. The focus needs to be on quality (system quality and quality of life), not shortcuts.
2. PAGE 9: Says New York is as much as 1.6 miles (1km) lower than Denver. The conversion is backwards here (1 mile = 1.6 km).
3. PAGE 27: The bar graph at the bottom of the page illustrates a recurrent omission throughout the book. Blanket statements are made about system performance or how one piece of equipment compares with another WITHOUT taking into account the climate conditions a system can experience across and up and down the country. From this page forward, it's clear that the authors favor flat panel solar thermal collectors over vacuum tube collectors and I have no doubt that their advice on evacuated tubes suffering from snow cover is worth many times the purchase price of the book for someone in New England or Colorado. However, in areas where snow falls infrequently but the temperatures are nevertheless frequently near and below freezing, evacuated tubes can significantly outperform flat panel thermal collectors.
After quality equipment, orientation, and shading, Climate is EVERYTHING. You can't broad-brush system performance as if one rule of thumb applies to all parts of the country.
This page also shows something else I found a bit distracting: the authors refer to "air cooled" and "liquid cooled" collectors to distinguish between collectors that heat air and collectors that heat a liquid (which can then be used to heat either air or another liquid). I appreciate their novel approach to categorizing these systems, but even as an engineer, I found this naming convention more than a bit backwards. Technically, it is true that we're cooling the panels, but that's not the purpose. The purpose is to heat some substance and use it to carry heat from the collector to where it can be put to good use. Talking about cooling the panels strikes me as inside out.
Kudos to them for addressing the subject, though. It got me thinking and I came up with the following alternative names:
- air transfer vs liquid transfer
- air medium vs liquid medium
4. PAGE 30: Serpentine solar heat collectors are simple to arrange in long parallel arrays and should probably be used that way if more than two collectors are used. Since a parallel configuration is the best way to reduce pressure and efficiency loss, I believe that the authors meant to say that a _series_ configuration can't be used in long arrays.
5. PAGE 34: During the many presentations by solar wafer and cell manufacturers that I've attended, not one has said they cut the silicon with lasers. They all mention disk blades (not used much anymore) or wire saws.
6. PAGE 35: The cut-away diagram of a solar module/panel is missing a layer. A complete breakdown is HERE (though I don't know why the text mentions "Junction Box"): [...]
7. PAGE 48: The description of "Collector Efficiency and Performance" badly needs a graph. Words alone just don't do justice to this very important topic.
8. PAGE 53: Contains an oft-stated "comparison" of solar thermal versus solar electric systems ("Heating domestic water with the sun provides between 2 and 18 times as much energy per square foot of collector as does a solar electric system"). Two pieces of information are missing: (1) heat and electricity are two very different types of energy and aren't really comparable. (2) Electric energy can be used in many more ways than heat energy. It's basically a sound bite, so no big deal.
9. PAGE 56: The description of a drain-back system leaves out a key point: the rising liquid pushes the air in the collector(s) through the collector's outlet pipe and down the pipe where the air is temporarily trapped in a tank before it reaches the hot water tank. The pump basically moves a bubble of air from the collector to the return side of the plumbing and then the bubble rises back to the top of the system, where the collector is, when the pump stops. It's easy to describe in a way that makes it seem more complicated than it really is.
10. PAGE 58: Not sure why the authors state that "a drain-back system uses a non-potable [undrinkable] coolant". The main advantage of a drain-back system is to be able to use plain water without antifreeze (the antifreeze is what makes the coolant non-potable). Water is a great coolant and its performance as a coolant decreases when you add antifreeze.
11. PAGE 64: Another statement that evacuated-tube collectors are slightly less efficient than flat-plate collectors. (See item 3 above)
12. PAGE 118: The graph refers to "House Conservation Measures" without mentioning what measures are being used. This makes the graph essentially meaningless.
13. PAGE 123: During the discussion on transmitted heat gains, it's worth mentioning that a significant effect of installing a solar array on your roof is the shading that it provides. While the exact benefit is very complex to calculate and quantify, this effect is unmistakable in a region that has more cooling load than heating. The roof stays cooler, exposing the attic to less heat that can penetrate through the ceiling to the house (where the air conditioner, of course, has to use energy to remove it).
14. PAGE 127: The statement "as air temperatures go down, so does the efficiency of solar collectors" is only true for solar thermal collectors. The efficiency of solar ELECTRICITY panels actually goes up when their temperature goes down.
15. PAGE 156: If a solar energy system of a certain size costs $65,000, then a system half that size will cost a bit more than half as much, due to the economy of scale you get on the larger system. You can usually buy more than twice as many donuts (or whatever) with twice as much money. This principle is very true for solar electric systems. Many of the costs--design, permitting, engineering, purchasing, installation set-up and clean-up--are not proportional to the system size.
16. PAGE 158: How a house is heated and cooled is also a significant factor in the operating cost of the house.
17. PAGE 159: Many utilities buy surplus energy at the "avoided fuel cost", the cost of the lump of coal they didn't have to burn to produce the extra energy you had left over at the end of your net-metering cycle (monthly or annual).
18: PAGE 159: The grid is more efficient not only because it will never "charge" fully and can therefore always absorb any surplus energy your system might generate, but also because batteries are about 88% efficient. 100 Kilowatts into the batteries will only give you around 88 kW back.
19: PAGE 165: Not all off-grid inverters have generator terminals. Not all inverters even have terminals to connect a solar array. Sometimes they just discharge the batteries and expect you to have some other way to charge them.
20. PAGE 166: 36 volts isn't common. 48V systems are becoming very common because electrical systems run more efficiently at higher voltage and the wire sizes don't have to be nearly as big. With a 12V system, you can easily end up with 150 to 300 Amps of current. That's takes really big wires that are not easy to work with. The equipment may not even have terminals big enough to handle the fat wire, so make sure an engineer or someone who likes to check on details is involved.
21. PAGE 168: A diagram on strings of modules/panels is needed.
22. PAGE 168: A DC-DC converter is only like an AC transformer in superficial ways. A DC-DC converter is a DC power supply that operates on one voltage and supplies another. It's more like your laptop's power supply than a transformer. Anyone dealing with DC systems needs to know that a transformer only works on AC power. I got caught by this once and had to scramble for a DC-DC converter at the last minute.
23. PAGE 171: The picture of the battery box mentions that ventilation is not necessary for a battery box placed outside, but heat can weaken your battery output and cold can permanently damage the batteries if they freeze (a discharged battery freezes much easier than a charged one, by the way).
24: PAGE 179: The section headed MAINTENANCE says that fuses protect the inverter from lightning strikes. This is absolutely not true (a fuse can't blow fast enough and the arc of lightning can jump right across the blown fuse if it did manage to blow before anything was damaged). LIGHTNING ARRESTORS protect the inverter. They come in two types: dielectric arc gaps (cheap and moderately effective) and varistors that cost a little more but are extremely effective.
25. PAGE 199: Many electricians and electrical contracting companies have shown interest in solar electric technology and training (though the percentage is small because of the tremendous number of electricians in the country). The challenge is that they don't really learn the specifics of solar electric systems requirements unless they do solar full time. The part of the National Electric Code (NEC) that covers solar electric systems is unlike the rest of the code in many ways. Experience doing inside wiring, lighting, or industrial wiring won't help very much when it comes to the particular practices required by the Solar Electric Systems chapter of the NEC. As the book says, this can easily lead to someone thinking they know more than they actually do and becoming dangerous. DC power is very different from AC, just to name one.
26. PAGE 201: The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) does not provide training. They are a testing and certification organization.
27: PAGE 210: The Plug starting with "AN IMPORTANT REASON FOR A SOLAR SALESPERSON OR EXPERIENCED ROOFER..." says that you should add a new layer of roof. DO NOT DO THIS. The new layer of roof adds more weight to your roof and your roof can easily become overloaded. Trusses today are so highly engineered that they only have enough capacity to support the roof deck, the shingles, someone walking around to inspect or repair the roof, snow, and the strongest wind that's likely to kick up. A properly designed and constructed roof structure does have some safety margin, but you can't use that to support the solar system. ALWAYS strip off old roofing to free up the roughly 1.5 pounds per square foot of weight. These systems last for 30 to 40- years when installed properly. All it takes is a night where freezing rain piles on top of yesterday's snowfall and then the wind starts howling like mad. You'll need that extra 1.5 pounds of capacity, so make sure you have it.
28. PAGE 211: The text refers to receiving a full deposit. Doubtless meant to say a "full refund".
29. PAGE 213: As a point of clarification, the tax credit "allows you to subtract 30 percent of the cost of the system from your [federal tax bill]". Simply saying "taxes" is a bit general. As an additional important points are that the tax credit will not generate a refund (it only goes as far as cancelling out your tax bill) AND you can roll the tax credit over for up to 5 years if you're not able to claim it all in the first year.
30. PAGE 213: $3 to $5 per watt is not typical. Most utilities have taken advantage of very low citizen watchdog activity and eliminated or slashed rebates that were previously in this range. At the time I'm writing this, $2 is a high rebate. GET A SYSTEM AS SOON AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN. THE INCENTIVES GO DOWN, NOT UP.
31. PAGE 214: Some confusion about the difference between a REC (Renewable Energy Credit) and the actual electricity generated. A REC is produced alongside the electricity and is separate from it. You can use the electricity yourself or sell it to someone and you still have the REC which can be sold in a completely separate transaction.
32. PAGE 214: Credit is possible after the "net zero" point, but it's usually only for monthly net metering cycles and is done at far below retail rate. Some utilities buy the surplus above "net zero" at "avoided fuel cost" (see item 17 above).
That's it. If you've read far enough into the book "Convert Your Home to Solar Energy" to note all of these corrections and remarks, then you're more informed about solar energy in general than most the people are. CONGRATULATIONS! Now the only thing left is what you're going to do with your new knowledge!!
No matter what you do, support your regional solar industry association. They're mostly volunteers and work very hard to make solar energy accessible to as many people as possible. You can find them at [...] or [...]. Get training, make contacts, and be in the loop on legislative and regulatory changes in your area.
Thanks for reading,
This book has quite a few characteristics going for it. It's comprehensive without being verbose, with most of the information presented in an unbiased fashion. For an overview of the subject, you really can't do better. It's also sprinkled with lots of informative graphics and wonderful color pictures. You will learn a lot!
On the down side, this isn't a book for DIYers. Home made components like water storage tanks are briefly mentioned, but plan on visiting builditsolar for all the info you need constructing your own solar energy systems. There was also a couple concepts I just didn't get like how it's less efficient to keep your thermal tanks at a lower temperature. Even after reading it a few times the understanding eluded me.
Worse, the book suffers from excessive cutesieness on the part of art directors and composition managers. For oldsters like myself, the font is needlessly too small and sometimes lost in colored backgrounds. The white type on orange background is the worst. Definitely get this book but swing by and up the magnification on your readers. You'll need it!
I have had the chance to work briefly with Everett and I can tell you that he is one of the best in the industry. Put another way; when he talks, solar professionals listen. I can't think of a person better situated to steer the consumer public than him.
I own two houses and I want to install PV sytems on both and a pool heater on one.
The PV I'll leave to the pros because the state incentive programs require it. But all pros are not equal or even honest so this book will help you understand what the pros are talking about and choose the right one.
The pool heater I'll do myself with the help of this book. I also like all the little small projects, solar dryers and the like.
Add this book to your solar library!