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Solar Hot Water Installation Cost

I want to install a solar hot water system for space-heating at my home in Chicago. After a satellite survey of my property, the one company I called gave me an over-the-phone quote of $23,000 to install a four-panel system with forced-air heating integration. From reading your magazine and searching the Web, I expected an installed solar hot water system to cost about $5,000.

Is this company taking advantage of me or is it a lot more expensive to have one of these systems if you live in a climate where the temperature occasionally drops below 0°F? As much as I would like to save the planet, there is no way that a $23,000 solar hot water system with an annual savings of only $400 makes sense. I can install a 2 kW PV system for that price, or improve the insulation of my house and buy Energy Star appliances.

Paul Beerkens • via e-mail

Solar water heating systems pay back much more quickly than space-heating systems because the water heating system is used year-round; the space heating system is typically used only about half that (or less).

If your home is underinsulated, spend the money there first. Insulation and reducing infiltration (weatherproofing) has been shown by many studies to cost about 2 cents per kWh. Energy conservation and efficiency measures are called negawatts, and are the best bang for the buck unless your home is already energy tight.

Chuck Marken • Solar Thermal Editor

The quote you received is called a ballpark bid. I typically give over-the-phone ballparks at $7,000 for the first collector and $3,500 for each subsequent collector for space-heating systems. But, that's in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place where labor is less expensive. For Chicago, I would have told you to expect an estimate between $17,000 and $20,000 for a four-collector system. The estimate after a site visit would usually go up or down from there depending on the space-heating component and the retrofit difficulty.

Solar hot water and space heating systems are more expensive in colder climates and climates with less solar energy available.

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Solar Pool Heating

Cut your pool heating bills dramatically! A solar pool heater is one of the most efficient solar technologies and can extend your pool heating season by months. Prices starting at: $284

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Reduce your home heating costs by as much as 30%. An ideal efficient and environmentally friendly, low-cost air heating option. Prices starting at: $1,247

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Save 50-80% on your hot water bill by installing a solar water heating system that can pay for itself within 5 years! Systems from AET, Heliodyne and Solar Roofs. Prices starting at: $2,092

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Box r isCoing Green with Claire Anderson

Prefab homebuilding is undergoing a revival, but it's nothing like its predecessors. In its new incarnation, "green" prefab promises an efficient way of building a high-quality, energy-conserving home with smart, earth-friendly materials.

Architect Michelle Kaufmann's foray into the world of prefabricated homes was purely practical. In 2001, she and her husband, builder Kevin Cullen, began searching for a modest home in the overinflated San Francisco Bay area real estate market. After six months of being unable to find an affordable, energy-efficient, eco-friendly home, they decided they needed a new approach—create their own.

They purchased a lot in a semi-rural town in Marin County, California, and worked to complete their green design—a home that would use less water, energy, and materials than a conventionally constructed home.

Photos: Michelle Kaufmann Designs' prefab Glidehouse.

Navigating the Building Lexicon

Kit home—Kit homes, which include log homes, domes, and timber-frame homes, are typically assembled at the home site, either by an experienced owner-builder or a contractor. They usually include only the exterior shell of the house, and require further construction and carpentry for completion.

Panelized home—Wall, roof, and floor sections/panels are manufactured in a factory, which offers the advantages of better oversight over material quality and waste reduction, and more control over costs. Structural insulated panels (SIPs), which can be fabricated and customized at the factory, then assembled at the building site, are one example of panelized construction.

Manufactured home—Built on a trailer chassis and manufactured off-site using lightweight metal framing, these homes are considered portable and temporary structures. Little to no on-site labor is required. In 1994, the U.S. government revised the Housing and Urban Development building code to include higher standards for manufactured homes' mechanical systems, structural design, fire safety, and energy efficiency. Prior to 1976, these structures were known as "mobile homes."

Stick-built home—A home built using conventional framing methods entirely on-site.

Modular/Prefabricated home—Skilled factory workers assemble complete building "modules" off-site. Once complete, they are transported by truck, ferry, or train to the building site, where the modules are set onto a site-built foundation. Most modular homes require some finish work, such as tying the individual modules together and connecting wiring and plumbing. Modular homes have similar characteristics to site-built homes and must pass the same code requirements.

The result is a three-bedroom, 1,560-square-foot home designed for function and tailored to the climate. Strategically placed dual-paned windows and doors throughout maximize cross-ventilation and natural lighting while minimizing the need for artificial lighting and mechanical climate control. Exterior gliding wood shades help mitigate heat gain from the hot summer sun, while maintaining ventilation. The sloped roof of their "Glidehouse" facilitates hot air inside the home to move up and out of the house through small, operable clerestory windows. Oriented south, the roof also accommodates a 4.5-kilowatt solar-electric array. Inside the house, energy-saving LED and compact fluorescent lighting, and Energy Star appliances, help keep energy use low. Durable, low-maintenance materials, such as composite concrete countertops and weathering steel siding (alloyed for weather resistance by creating a thin rust sheen), were used inside and out.

Photos: Michelle Kaufmann Designs' newest modular, the Smart Home, is a model of green building and energy efficiency.

Intrigued by their unique home construction project, friends and colleagues asked how they could have modern, green houses too. "People are desperately trying to find healthy, green, efficient homes for their families," says Michelle. "However, the information and solutions are not always easy to find. People are uncertain of what to do and the best way to do it. People are busy, have budgets, and want simplicity. Where were the easy, affordable green solutions?"

Efficient Homes with Mass Appeal

When Michelle and Kevin were searching for a place to live, green home options were limited—and expensive. After their home-building experience, Michelle made it her professional goal to "marry good design with minimal environmental impact, and create 'green' homes that could be widely available." She says that translated into "creating a prepackaged solution using the principles of mass production combined with sensible, uncomplicated floor and roof plans, eco-friendly materials, and low-energy options."

Prefab, modern, and "green" models include (clockwise from top left): Alchemy Architects' weeHouses: two-story and cabin; Eco-Infill; B-Line Medium from Hive Modular; and Ideabox.

Prefab, modern, and "green" models include (clockwise from top left): Alchemy Architects' weeHouses: two-story and cabin; Eco-Infill; B-Line Medium from Hive Modular; and Ideabox.

Pushing the Envelope on Green Prefab

For many people, the word "prefab" suggests standardized structures with little pizazz—functional, but unlikely to garner a second glance. That's far from the case with today's modern, green modulars: a diverse array of attractive, durable, eco-friendly products are being combined to create unique, livable, high-performance homes that fit the landscape.

Alchemy Architects

Minneapolis, MN

Blu Homes

Boston, MA

Most prefab designs lend themselves to some modification so customers can customize a plan to accommodate a challenging building site, change window placement for better solar gain, or even add an office annex.

Here are some of the companies across the country that are pushing the envelope on green prefab.


Denver, CO

Hive Modular

Minneapolis, MN


Salem, OR


Los Angeles, CA

Michelle Kaufmann Designs

Oakland, CA

Blu Homes

Boston, MA

Hive Modular

Minneapolis, MN


Salem, OR


Los Angeles, CA

Web site

www. alchemyarchitects. com

www. bluhomes. com

www. eco-infill. com

www. hivemodular. com

www. ideabox. us

www. piecehomes. com

www. mkd-arc. com

Location of factory

Various factory partners

West & Northeast

Denver, CO

Various factory partners

Various factory partners

Various factory partners

Various factory partners

Footprint (sq. ft.)





400-1,500; + 215 s.f. cubes



Multiple floors avail.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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