Let the sun reduce power bills

John Valentine's North End home has both solar hot water heating and photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.
John Valentine's North End home has both solar hot water heating and photovoltaic cells to generate electricity. The Olympian

When science teacher John Valentine and his wife, Linda McCone, were planning retirement, their thoughts turned to technologies that could cut their monthly bills to fit a reduced income.

The result is a significant investment in a 21st-century update to their 1926-vintage North End home – among them, solar panels that heat their water and provide power.

“What we’re trading is a fairly large dollar investment now when we’re still working in exchange for lower expenses when we retire,” said Valentine, 57.

Valentine and McCone are among a group of Pierce County solar power pioneers sharing their knowledge Saturday with people considering making the leap to sun power. Their home is one of 20 homes and buildings on a self-guided, no-cost Tacoma Solar Tour.

Sponsored by the NorthWest Solar Group, the tour is part of a nationwide exposition of solar dwellings under the aegis of the American Solar Energy Society.

A little more than a year after Valentine and McCone retrofitted their home with solar panels, increased insulation and installed a superefficient gas furnace, the green investments are leading to lower heating and electric bills. There’s also the good feeling they get from knowing that their lifestyle is being largely powered by renewable sources.

Valentine will talk with tour participants about the advantages of a single-tank solar hot water system and the modular photovoltaic panels that adorn his roof.

When Valentine and McCone first began investigating in solar two years ago, some contractors told them their home was too shaded and too close to other homes to use solar power. Valentine persisted until he found a contractor who said he could configure the panels to take advantage of his home’s alignment.

The result is a system that functions both efficiently and without much maintenance, he said.

Quantifying just how much each system is saving is hard to do, said Valentine, because the solar panel installation was just part of a comprehensive energy update to his home at 811 N. I Street.

The net result, he said, is a total energy bill that’s been about 20 percent lower than before. That reduction comes in spite of the fact that both he and his wife have been working from home since the new systems were installed, raising considerably the amount of time that both the lights and the heating systems are working.

The retrofit cost Valentine about $17,000, which was reduced to about $13,000 by various federal energy tax credits.

A similar installation today would be less expensive, he said, because the price of solar panels has since dropped by half. Panels he bought for $1,000 more than a year ago are now available for $500 or less, he said.

That price spike 18 months ago occurred because of a big demand from Germany and Spain, which were in the midst of major solar retrofitting campaigns that have now expired. In the meantime, more manufacturers have entered the market, increasing supply even as demand softened.