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Electricity or Hot Water?

I want to use solar energy, but can't decide whether to start with solar electricity or solar hot water. Can you help?

Sue Benson, Charlotte, NC

Hi Sue, The technologies, costs, and benefits are quite different between the two solar energy systems. I assume your home has electricity available through a

utility grid. If your home is off grid, you will almost certainly benefit more from a solar-electric (PV) system. For an on-grid home, the answer is a little more involved.

If the monetary return on your investment is a primary concern, d you will find that a solar water heating system is a better value in the United States. Solar water heating collectors are simpler-to-manufacture, more efficient products. Hot water collector efficiencies are about 55 to 65 percent, with system efficiencies of 40 to 50 percent. PV module efficiencies are about 12 to 18 percent, with system efficiencies about 10 to 15 percent.

The costs to have a typical hot water system installed are from US$3,000 to $6,000, and typical PV systems run from US$5,000 to $25,000. The lower cost of the equipment and higher system efficiency translates into more bang for the buck. This economic advantage can be offset if a

PV system is eligible for any local, state, federal, or utility incentives that don't apply to hot water systems. These must be factored into the equation if they are available.

Although the equipment is more expensive, solar-electric systems integrated into the utility grid tend to be a cleaner, simpler installation. If cosmetic appearance is a big concern, PV systems are probably better looking, but that's in the eye of the beholder. If this doesn't help you make a decision, you can always flip a coin, or install both. Chuck Marken, AAA Solar, Albuquerque, New Mexico • [email protected]

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