Soaking up the rays


Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 4:01 a.m.
Don and Mary Cook live in a home that's completely off the power grid, but say they haven't given up the creature comforts.
Solar panels on the roof power their appliances and heat their water without the expense of utility bills. They don't have air conditioning, but their Williston home feels comfortable due to a design that keeps summer sun outside and cool breezes flowing inside.
"Most solar-panel houses are really odd," Mary Cook said. "We wanted to make this as much like a regular house as we could."
After years of being an elusive option for home owners, solar power is coming of age. New tax rebates and other incentives are making solar-powered equipment more affordable. At the same time, the Iraq war and hurricanes have stretched fuel supplies and increased utility bills.
"Things are only going to get worse," said Shalabh Maroo, president of the American Solar Energy Society at the University of Florida. "The best possible solution is to get prepared."
The society is organizing a self-guided tour Sunday of four area homes to showcase the possibilities of solar power. The Cook's home and UF Professor Elizabeth Seiberling's home in Interlachen, which is also separate from the power grid, are among the tour stops.
The typical homeowner is more likely to embrace less drastic steps than becoming completely solar reliant, said Tom Lane, owner of ECS Solar Energy Systems in Gainesville. The company sells solar water heaters, pool heaters and panels.
The initial expense of solar equipment scares off some people, but Long said new tax credits, rebates from utilities and energy-bill savings offset those costs. Solar water heaters cost $3,800-$4,000 and full-blown solar energy systems cost $10,000-$60,000.
The new federal energy bill gives a 30-percent tax credit - up to $2,000 - for homeowners who install solar-energy equipment. Gainesville Regional Utilities offer a rebate worth up to $450 for solar water heaters, and other area utilities offer similar incentives.
The cost difference between solar and conventional water heaters is eventually paid through utility bill savings, Lane said.
"Most people would get their money back in seven or eight years just based on utility savings," he said.
In addition, he said, solar homeowners who remain connected to the power grid can raise extra money selling excess energy back to the utility.
Such agreements have fueled the growth of solar power in Europe, where German and Spanish utilities offer higher-than-market rates for solar power.
But Seiberling, a physics professor at UF, said she was motivated to build her solar-powered home as a way to be self-reliant. She said Hurricane Katrina has driven home the reasons she chose to get off the grid.
"I don't like to feel like I'm dependent on the government," she said.
The home owned by Seiberling and her husband, Randy Cullom, has air conditioning, which is used at limited times. Seiberling said being reliant on their own energy supply has inspired a handful of lifestyle changes.
"If it's sunny out we'll do the laundry and use the vacuum cleaner," she said.
Don Cook said his home's positioning, fans and a porch connected to the bedroom, make hot weather bearable. The location ensures sunlight barely creeps in windows during the summer yet extends in further during the winter, he said.
The Cooks do little things to cut down on power use. Clocks on appliances are turned off, low-energy light bulbs are placed in fixtures and insulation is maximized. Solar power heats their water and energizes panels that power a group of batteries when not being used for appliances.
Both the Cooks and Seiberling spent years designing and tens of thousands of dollars constructing their homes.
Seiberling said she's now selling her home, so she and her husband can move into a solar- and wind-powered sailboat and travel the world.
Lane said homeowners seeking less drastic ways to embrace alternative energy have new options and reasons to choose solar power. Fluctuating fuel prices are making people realize that relying on fossil fuels isn't the best idea, he said.
"Higher prices at the pump always cause our business to go up," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.

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