With a mismatched system, you pay to work out all the kinks

‘Good deals’ are not always good or a deal.             

I know that these days we’re all trying to save our nickels. We’re looking for deals, sales, great finds on Craigslist, whatever.

People designing solar thermal systems aren’t exempt from this. Here, a good deal on a set of unmatched collectors or there, a really great price on a used boiler. The result is a cobbled-together system that is almost always guaranteed to work sluggishly, if at all.

It seems I’m spending a good amount of time lately trying to talk mostly homeowners and installers out of these hodge-podge designs.

Recently, for instance, an installer sent me a drawing that featured a Bosch water heater, as well as a Bock tank, Caleffi controllers and HTP stainless tank products with both gas and electric heating.

Cobbled system

This system features a mismatched boiler,
solar pump station, DHW storage tanks — and
lots of controls trying to make something work.

In another case, I’ve taken two dozen calls since 2013 from a homeowner who was promised by a solar dealer that a new solar system would reduce her propane bills. After the outdated 1970s-era design failed, the installer continued to add boilers and other parts to try to fix it — charging the homeowner each time, of course. The new solar system actually produced utility bills higher than those using the homeowner’s old, inefficient boiler.

You can’t determine effectiveness of mismatched system

When I started designing solar thermal systems back in the early ‘90s, all we had available were parts from different suppliers that had to be cobbled together. I often found hidden conflicts with heaters and tanks that would not respond correctly, or the controls were so complicated it was difficult to get one sequence to initiate after another.

It comes down to this: You simply can’t predict if these systems, designed to be built only once, will work. There is no backlog testing and its performance history has never been measured. These are all unknowns until you actually build one, test and measure, changing what didn’t work — until it performs adequately.

Some manufacturers have begun to provide whole systems in which all components work together. At HTP, its innovative owner and I have spent years developing integrated solar heating systems designed — and proven — to work seamlessly. These systems work, and I can guarantee them.

But there are still plenty of manufacturers who don’t have the capability to expand around a whole system because they don’t make the whole system. I am contacted regularly, for instance, by companies wanting to sell their collectors. That’s all they make — the easy stuff.

More important than the sales price of individual components is the long-term ROI of the whole system. You can save yourself countless hours and endless frustration by installing systems in which all components are happy to work together.

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