Hot water is the second largest draw on household energy — right after space heating — and represents about 30 per cent of total energy use in our homes. So you are right to be turning to the sun for green alternatives.
Solar thermal systems convert sunlight into heat for household water through solar collectors mounted on roofs. Water, or a water and antifreeze solution, carries heat from the collectors and pumps it through a heat exchanger to warm water for a hot-water storage tank. From there, it's ready for your bath and home!
A typical system requires about six square metres of sloped, south-facing roof, with minimal shading from nearby trees and buildings. An abundance of sunny weather is not a prerequisite! Solar energy comes from the light generated by the sun — not just from direct sunlight — so even on cloudy days the sun can generate enough energy for up to 60 per cent of domestic hot-water needs.
Although solar thermal systems aren't cheap to install, the savings associated with reduced dependency on fossil fuels may well offset your long-term costs. This is especially true of systems installed for summer use — like those for pools or cabins — where costly freeze protection packages aren't required.
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A solar heating system will also add value to your home. Municipal and provincial governments are also in various stages of approving legislation requiring new homes to be "solar ready." It will bolster your credibility with your green neighbours and earn a great big thumbs-up from me!
Once you've done a little research to determine if your municipality or local utility company has rules or rebates that pertain to solar heating, the next step towards installing a system is to contact a solar company and request a free assessment. Professionals can assess your home's suitability and the potential costs, and may even recommend other popular solar options that could be better-suited to your particulars.
Solar thermal technologies aren't new, but you'll likely be an innovator in your community. Organizations like the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) have resources to help you along the way.