October 2011 ESPCO Newsletter


It has been about five weeks since hurricane Irene really did some significant damage along the east coast. The town in which I live in Orange County, NY sustained damage the likes of which I have never seen in my 20 plus years here.

Some roads were completely washed out, homes flooded, Main Street and all our local businesses were under water, the sewer plant was heavily damaged…and I can go on and on.

My wife and I were very fortunate that our home remained dry and sustained no damage at all. Many of you know I live on a mountain, a private road with just eight homes including mine. The bridge which leads to our homes was badly damaged as a result of Irene and the sustained rains which ensued took out what was left of the bridge and we have been without access to our homes by vehicle for the last five weeks. The week after Irene, we made some temporary repairs to the bridge just so each family could get a vehicle on the other side. I have been using my four-wheeler as a valet service to my truck. It was lucky we did this as more heavy rain took out the temporary repair within a week rendering the bridge impassable again.

I tell you this tale of woe not for sympathy but rather as an entrée into some points I want to make about my thermal solar system on my home


You all know that a little over a year ago I installed a Sunnovations Thermal Solar System, (TSS), on my home for domestic hot water production. Arnoud van Houten, President and CTO of Sunnovations, and Matt Carlson, CEO, actually found me when they needed some assistance in creating a training program for their installers. We made a bartering deal where I consulted for them and in return they gave me a complete Sunnovations TSS for my home. They even sweetened the deal when Arnoud spent a couple days helping me install the system…so cool to have the inventor of the system actually assist in the install!

The Sunnovations system is unique for many reasons so let me quickly touch on a few of the highlights.

The Sunnovations TSS utilizes the “steamback” concept but does so in a very safe and practical approach. First, the Sunnovations system does not have a traditional mechanical pump but rather something called a geyser pump, (no electricity is used), to transfer the solar heated fluid into the tank below.

Unlike a traditional closed loop glycol system, the system has a proper overheat protection mechanism based on the steamback principle. Normally the system operates under a vacuum, (for efficient and safe operation). If the domestic hot water tank is fully heated, the system will produce a minimal overpressure, (3 PSI), which pushes the fluid from the collectors into an external overflow reservoir, (located behind one of the collectors). The maximum fluid temperature will not exceed 220 F, well below the breakdown temperature of glycol.  This is “steamback” at its BEST!

The benefit of “steamback” technology allows the Sunnovations system to be piped with PEX tubing from the collectors to the domestic hot water storage tank and back. Let me tell you first hand from an installer’s point of view, this is a beautiful thing! The ability to run PEX greatly reduced the installation time and cost as opposed to using copper.

Let me expand on how the system does not use a traditional circulator. I’m going to do my best to explain how the system circulates without a mechanical circulator…Arnoud will probably cringe how I over simplify this, but here goes.

The standard Sunnovations system comes with two 4’X 8’ flat plate collectors utilizing a harp shaped piping configuration within. Once the installation of the collectors, piping and domestic tank is complete, you pull a vacuum on the collectors…that’s right…a vacuum on traditional flat plate collectors! As the sun hits the collectors causing the fluid within to boil, (at a much lower temperature due to the vacuum), the geyser pumping pushes the fluid up into a vertical stack above the collectors. Some compare it to a coffee percolator. This causes the fluid level in the tube to the tank to be higher then the fluid level in the tube from the tank. The fluid levels equalize, (fluid gravity balance), which creates circulation in the solar loop. This perpetual motion circulates fluid from the collectors to the heat exchanger in the tank and cool fluid is returned to the collectors.

We lost power of course during and after Irene…we have a whole house generator because this happens rather regularly when you live as remotely as we do, but we would have had hot water without the generator which is really a wonderful benefit!

OK…lets wrap this up by bringing this back to my house post hurricane Irene.

My biggest fear with the bridge being out on my road is that no emergency vehicles can come up to our homes. In the case of a medical emergency we could get the ill person down to the bridge where we could meet EMT’s but in the case of a fire we are sitting ducks! It is this thought that has me not sleeping at nights!

I had been so consumed with this fear that I never considered that we could not get deliveries of heating fuels to the homes on the mountain, (fuel oil and / or propane). It was my wife that reminded me to look to see how much fuel oil we had on hand and I was dismayed to find we had about ¼ tank left, (we have two 250 gallon tanks). Irene hit about five weeks ago when it was still summer time…the temperatures on the mountain are getting down into the fifties now and it won’t be long before we need the heat to fire up!

Our Sunnovations TSS has provided uninterrupted domestic hot water with NO use of fuel oil! In what has been a very stressful five weeks, I never had to be concerned about running out of hot water…what a relief!

One more thing I wanted to share with you about my TSS; I have to admit I had some concerns about the two collectors withstanding hurricane winds. You can see my installation under the “Media” tab at my website and then in the “Gallery” under the heading “solar”.  You will see that the collectors are not flush with the roof of my home but rather supported in a rack on what is essentially a flat roof covering a portion of my deck. I chose this application primarily so that I could replace the roof on the house without having to remove the collectors. I think you will agree after viewing the pictures, these collectors could be sails if they were to ever come loose from the rack!

I purchased the rack online, (Sunnovations did not offer one in their package). I will admit to you that I was not at all thrilled with the rack when we first went to assemble it.  The only paperwork that came with the rack was a single sheet mechanical drawing which did little to assist in the rack’s assembly. I had Jim Coleman from JC Construction assisting me with the install of the collector rack…Jim has essentially rebuilt our home over two major renovations and put the roof on our place as well so I wanted him there for his expertise and intimate knowledge of my roof. Jim had the patience that I lacked to sit and work out the assembly of the rack…and I am eternally thankful to him for that!

The rack claims to be good up to 140 MPH winds…now Irene was more like 70 MPH at it’s strongest. The good news is those collectors never moved…not at all! Our four acres of land was strewn with downed trees but the collectors were not damaged and the Sunnovations TSS has been producing fossil fuel free hot water with no interruption!

I have become somewhat disenchanted with the majority of TSS manufacturers…most systems being marketed in the US are grossly overpriced and not terribly sophisticated in their technology. The Sunnovations system offers everything I just described at a fraction of the cost of most other TSS.

Maybe the best and most important aspect of the Sunnovations products is that it is made in the United States!

I will leave it up to you to determine if my endorsement of Sunnovations is objective or not but I will say this…if you are considering getting into the thermal solar business I strongly suggest you give Arnoud and Matt a call. You can link to their website from mine under the “Links” tab or go directly to www.Sunnovations.com

…and by the way, our bridge is finally getting what we hope is a permanent repair this week!

Here are some great SOLAR ARTICLES: Check out this article from Solar Thermal Magazine about how the drug store chain, Walgreens, is installing solar and geothermal systems in their locations around the country. You can read the article at this address:

Read about a new line of thermal solar storage tanks in this Solar Thermal Magazine article at this address:

Want to use your iPhone as a solar site evaluation tool? Check this out:


I have devoted a lot of space in recent newsletters to geothermal so I wanted to go lightly this month but I do have some interesting stuff to share with you.

Check out this article comparing geothermal to the plight of the electric car. There are interesting comments as well from readers. It is from Renewable Energy World.com and you can read it at this address:

Check out this article from HeatSpring Magazine by my friend Chris Williams. Chris talks about how university campuses can be a great source for geothermal and solar projects. You can read the article here:

Hurricane Irene slowed progress on the ongoing geothermal project in Montgomery, NY. that I have been sharing with you. I hope to be involved in a flush and purge procedure in the next couple weeks so if all goes well I should have some new video of the procedure posted for the November newsletter as well as the story of a homeowner in Ohio who contacted me about his poorly performing geothermal system. The system was never flushed and purged properly because of some misinformation about a “pumping station” product which was used on the job…stay tuned!


When I was in Oklahoma in August I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial which honors those killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. The memorial is both beautiful and a sad reminder of the events of that day.

The memorial consists of two “gates of time”…framing the moment of destruction. Between the two gates is a beautiful reflecting pool. There are 168 bronze chairs representing those killed…19 chairs are smaller than the others representing the children killed.

I’m glad I took the time to visit the memorial while I was in Oklahoma as it reminded me of one of the horror’s this country endured pre-9/11.

On 9/11/01, myself and my good friend, and then co-worker, Bill Doran, were scheduled to perform a “factory start-up” of a commercial HydroTherm boiler in a new dormitory at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, NJ., (about ten miles as the crow flies from Ground Zero). As I traveled south on the Garden State Parkway I pulled over just north of the Nutley police barrack where route 3 passes over the parkway. The elevation was such at that spot that I could see the tops of the towers…burning. I did not realize at that moment that I was actually witnessing the south tower collapsing…I just thought the fire’s intensity had increased and that was why I no longer could see the towers through the smoke.

Bill and I arrived almost simultaneously at the NJIT campus…the campus was in lock-down and we could not find a soul and all doors were locked. We could here the F-16 fighters above our heads. One tower was already down and what we didn’t know was the other would come down while we were still on the campus grounds.

When I spoke of this at Bill’s retirement party a few years back I mentioned how odd it was to think we were still trying to enter the dormitory so we could perform the boiler start-up…in retrospect, clearly we couldn’t get our minds around what was happening just miles from us and we were trying to find some normalcy…but that was not to be found for a long time.

On 9/11/11 Bill and I text-ed each other at the time the attacks took place…if we live to be 100 we will never forget where we were that day and with whom.

LOVE you Bill!