Solar Heat

When my grandfather came to this country over 100 years ago, he worked his way around the US and Canada learning English and looking for just the right spot to establish a farm. About 1920, or so, he found the right spot on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, in Palm Beach County, Florida. It was heaven for a Danish farmer, with a climate that allowed year-round crops. Solar power was already a big deal in South Florida back then, even before John started Sun Electronics!You think I’m making this up? I’m not, but I’m not talking about solar electricity, either. I am talking about solar water heating and it was a big deal in Florida. In the late 1800s, a guy in Baltimore, MD, invented the self-contained Climax Water Heater. It first caught on around Baltimore, as you might expect, but was a hit in Florida. Why? My best guess is that South Florida has plenty of sunshine and, in those days, was very cut off from the rest of the country, causing fuel to be expensive. Until Mr. Flagler’s railroad, a ship was the best way of getting to the budding paradise.A Climax Solar Water Heater cost around $25, back when that was some real money.

Solar water heating kind of fell by the wayside at some point as gas and electricity became common, but guess what I saw in the Sun Electronics warehouse when I visited a few weeks ago? Solar water heaters! They are a lot more sophisticated and efficient than the early ones, using heat pipes and evacuated glass tube technology. They look kind of like this.

The tank is stainless steel with a thick foam insulation layer. Those blue tubes are magic! Not really, but they work like magic, pulling in the heat. Sure, you could use one of these babies on your suburban home to save on the power bill, but imagine the luxury of hot showers at your remote cabin or house in the boonies or on your own personal island. A remote abode would have you in pretty much the same situation as old Coral Gables when you couldn’t just call the propane truck to stop by and top up the big gas tank to fuel a water heater. I also saw solar ovens in the warehouse. Most of us would probably think of these as a novelty and only use them for camping, but I am thinking they’d be handy in case of an emergency, like for those folks camping out at Mexico Beach, where their houses used to be. There are places around the world where peoples’ health is ruined by the smoke of cooking fires. I bet they’d love one of these. The real surprise on the water heater, though, is the price. Sun’s prices are about half what some other places charge, just like with their solar panels. I wanted to figure how that compares to the prices a century ago when they paid in silver dollars. Looks to me to be about the same, now, as buying 25 Silver Eagle coins, even though the modern heaters are more efficient and durable! Solar thermal power has been put to use for a long time. Even Mom’s old black cat sits in the window of the sun porch and uses it. Why not us? By: Neal Collier