Two or three years ago, seeking out alternatives to our huge dependence on fossil fuels made sense and was seen as an environmental-friendly option as well. Twelve months ago it made even greater sense against the background of all that frantic talk of ‘peak oil’. But even then, little did we realise the extent to which oil prices would rocket, with such serious knock-on effects for our economy. Ireland has a massive dependence on oil and the bottom line is that we have to take drastic steps to decrease that level of over-dependence. To do this we will have to develop alternative sources of energy, be it wind, solar or wave, and indeed tap into new technologies that will come on stream. Energy alternatives are no longer just a life-style choice or a feel-good green thingy. It has become an imperative for us all, nationally and individually – to the power of one, as the slogan goes. One of the technologies that has emerged as a very viable and dependable one in recent years is that of solar energy. The more prices soar, the more economic sense it makes – payback time relative to investment outlay has pretty much halved! The systems to exploit this freely available and abundant resource have become increasingly sophisticated and efficient. Government agencies, in recognising the significance of the contribution which solar-tapped energies are making, have instituted significant grant assistance so as to make its use a viable economic proposition. When I began to explore solar energy options, particularly in the form of solar panels, I was genuinely surprised at what was readily available and at an accessible cost. There are an increasing number of installation companies now doing this work, but when I discovered that the required expertise was readily available under my nose here in Knockboy/Ballygunner, I had to go and learn more. It is the policy of this column to support and promote locally based enterprise, particularly when one has the reputation of being top-notch – one could say county champions at this game too!

So, Some Facts First

The sun is the ultimate source of most of our renewable energy supplies. Energy from the sun is clean and abundant. There is a widely held opinion that Ireland does not have enough ‘sun’ to make solar energy systems worthwhile. In fact, parts of Ireland have annual solar radiation levels equal to that experienced at the equator. However, this energy is not received uniformly throughout the year. Some 70% of Ireland’s annual radiation is received between April to September and 25% is received in the months of June and July. Solar heating technology is about capturing this energy and converting it into a form that can be used in buildings, industry etc to substitute for fossil fuel energy.

Applications of Solar Water Heating

Water heating is required for space heating, domestic water heating, agricultural and commercial usage, and indeed for the heating of swimming pools. Solar water heating can be used to a greater or lesser extent for each of these water heating applications, but domestic water heating is perhaps the best overall potential application for active solar heating in Ireland and already accounts for approx 6% (and rising) of the total national delivered energy use. Domestic water heating demand continues all the year round and still needs to be satisfied in the summer, when there is plenty of solar energy available. Incoming mains water is usually at a temperature of around 10°C in Ireland and has to be heated, to a storage temperature of 60°C. For water, a typical house uses 5kWh per day of useful energy. This figure will vary from house to house, dependent on house size and water usage, but 5 is a good average figure. The amount of delivered energy (the energy registered on a gas or electricity meter) can be considerably higher, particularly in summer. Running a boiler with a continuously burning pilot light and uninsulated hot water pipe runs, for a little hot water, reduces efficiency considerably. Even electric immersion heaters may only manage 50% efficiency in terms of useful energy at the tap, boilers considerably less. Going solar makes greater sense as a well designed system will provide typically up to 100% of a family’s hot water requirements during the summer months of April to September and make a useful contribution during the rest of the year. In a typical year, overall the system will provide 50-60% of a family’s annual domestic water heating needs.

Some More Questions Answered: Hot water from the sun in Ireland?

Believe it or not, one square metre on your roof receives the equivalent of more than 100 litres of oil in free solar energy per year. This is more than in Paris! A solar water heater produces hot water by transforming sunlight into heat through its solar panels. That heat is then stored in a large hot water cylinder so that it is available when you need it. A control system ensures the regulation and safety of the whole equipment. Simple, efficient and reliable!

Okay, but what if the sun isn’t shining?

No problem. A solar water heater not only converts direct sunlight but also indirect sunlight into heat, so it works even when the sky is overcast. True, there will be less solar heat available during the winter, but a back-up heater will boost the water temperature. The result is 100% comfort at all times, with plenty of hot water for a fraction of the cost.

Is my house suitable?

A solar water heater can suit most situations. All you need is space to put the solar panels (generally on the roof) and room for the storage cylinder in your utility room or hot press, as well as access to the sun for the panels (orientated between south-east and south-west) and no over-shadowing by trees or other buildings.

What kind of system do I need?

Solar panels, also known as “collectors”, can be fitted to a building’s roof. They use the sun’s heat to warm water, or another fluid, which passes through the panel. The fluid is then fed to a heat store (eg a hot water tank) and helps provide hot water or a source of hot water for central heating for the building. The cost of a professionally installed system for heating hot water can vary greatly, so if you are considering investing in this technology, you should do sufficient research to ensure that you are getting the best system for your needs and value for your money. There is a good selection of solar water heaters available on the Irish market. They are all built on the same principle, with varying degrees of sophistication and price. If you are building a new house or replacing your hot water system, the extra cost of a solar water heater can be as low as €1000 compared to a conventional system.

Here’s where your local expertise comes in as Pat McGrath and his team at Atlantic Solar Heating Specialist of Ballygunner fame can advise you on what are the best options for your specific needs. Pat, who leads the expert team, has vast experience in all aspects of plumbing and heating systems in particular, and ever keen to be at the forefront of his profession. He is in no doubt as to the future for solar panel powered energy for heating. Leading Pat’s team is another Ballygunner stalwart, Paul Flynn, who along with David Power will quickly move to deal with your queries and so advise you on the best options as to costings, number of panels, add-ons to enhance the systems further and help with grant application guidance. Pat will be there to direct his installation teams to ensure quality control in achieving optimum efficiencies. So go on, check out this team and score in favour of a solar powered future! Want to learn more? Well, contact David at 087-6592519 or Paul at 086-0443129 (although not next Saturday – they’re busy doing the other business in Thurles!) or leave a message at the office at 051-377039. Reach for the sun with another winning Ballygunner team!

Go Seachtain Eile, Slan.