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Residents of Victoria Island, Vancouver  who choose to install a solar hot water system are eligible for $2,375 in grants, discounts and rebates toward upgrades from various levels of government.  We’d like to hear from anyone in ‘Couver, with their experiences of what it is like to apply for and get these grants. (contact us) both for off-grid and grid-connected projects.

A new solar hot water system will save up to half of the water heating bill and the equipment used is exempt from provincial sales tax.

It might cost $6,000 for a typical installed solar hot water system. But with all the discounts and grants and tax credits, the net cost to consumers is only half the list price of the system.

A number of agencies contribute incentives to switch. The $1,250 EcoEnergy rebate is a pilot project funded by Natural Resources Canada. Solar B.C. is a program of B.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a non-profit group partially sponsored by the provincial government, that contributes a further $1,000. LiveSmart B.C., an energy efficiency incentive provided by the province, kicks in $125.

“A solar hot water system gives the greatest financial return to homeowners,” says James Smyth of Pacific Solar Smart Homes of Victoria. “Solar heat can save consumers up to 50 per cent on the cost of warming household water. Depending on the number of occupants in the house, payback can be as soon as two years.”

A typical solar thermal collection system consists of a bank of solar collectors placed on a south-facing roof. Collectors can be glazed flat plates or vacuum tubes with collector tubes inside. Propylene glycol fluid heats up from the sun’s visible and invisible ultraviolet rays. The heated fluid is piped via tubes to coils inside a water-storage collection tank. Heated water from the solar water tank is then fed into the home’s regular hot water tank. Because the regular hot water tank is supplied with warmed instead of cold water from the water mains, it requires less energy to heat it up for household needs.

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Residential solar thermal heating systems typically include an auxiliary energy source in Canada. A conventional hot water tank heated by either natural gas, oil or electricity usually serves as a backup source of hot water in the winter when the collector is less effective. Although the solar collector can extract energy even on cloudy and cold days, the shorter daylight hours reduce the time available for the panels to do their work.

A typical solar system has a 10-year warranty and an expected life of 30 to 40 years. It is virtually maintenance-free and there is not much to fail. The only moving part is a pump to circulate the heated fluid from the roof to the storage tank. A replacement pump costs between $80 and $200.

“I had an itemized energy audit done on my house and solar heating was part of the recommendations,” says Patrick Chenier of Saanich. “The incentives and rebates came at a good time. I get to reduce my carbon footprint and I realize the benefit in my pocket book.”

Solar thermal systems, which harvest heat from the sun, should not be confused with solar electrical generating systems. A solar electric system — commonly called photovoltaic — converts sunlight into electricity and can reduce or even eliminate the monthly utility bill. Such systems make sense when the house is off the grid and far from hydro lines.

But systems that turn thermal energy into electrical energy are much more expensive — up to 30 per cent more — because the systems are more complex and require the use of inverters and storage batteries.

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Some countries encourage reverse or net metering, where a homeowner will sell surplus generated energy to the local utility at favourable rates. But that scenario is unlikely in British Columbia.

“It will never work in here because B.C. Hydro pays so little for the energy,” Smyth says.

“A homeowner looking to sell their energy will not likely see a payback on their original investment.”

Having a solar system might make a house more attractive to potential buyers, but don’t expect it to increase the list price, say real estate professionals.

“While a solar heating system may make a house more salable because of the attractiveness of lower heating bills, it doesn’t necessarily add value,” says Robert Young of Brown Brothers, who has been selling real estate in Victoria for 25 years. “It’s not exactly high on the list of items a prospective buyer is looking for.”

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