Written by Pam DeFiglio
Brandon Leavitt has been installing solar power since 1977, but he’s seen a big shift in the reason why people choose to harness the power of the sun. Back then, it was the environmental thing to do. Today--it's just cheaper than paying NICOR or ComEd month after month.
Especially with government incentives that pay for 60 percent of the cost.
Leavitt, president of Solar Service Inc. in Niles, which installs solar all over the Chicago area, also dismisses the notion that Chicago doesn’t get enough sun to make solar work.
“Germany uses more solar energy than any other country in the world, and they get much less sun than Chicago,” he said.
The company's three buildings are powered by solar, and Leavitt was able to earn enough solar electricity credits that the August bill was only $6.05 (see photo).
Here’s the conversation we had with him:
Patch: Your website says you install solar electricity, solar hot water and solar heating. I think most people know that solar electricity involves putting photovoltaic panels on the roof and then converting those into electricity for the household. But what are solar hot water and solar heating?
Leavitt: The use of solar energy to heat water is the most practical, mature technology.
What happens when you park your car in the sun?
Take a piece of metal, paint it black, stick it in an insulated box, it’ll reach temperatures as high as 200 degrees. We put it in a glass box called the solar collector.
The box is placed on a rooftop or in a yard. Two 4’ x 8’ solar panels can generate over 100 gallons of hot water a day in Chicago, which on an annual basis would provide over 70% of a family’s hot water needs for the life of the home—based on a family of four.
They require no maintenance and only have one moving part. They don’t wear out. They work on sunny days as well as cloudy days.
When there is not enough sun, their regular water heater takes over automatically. Also, the regular water heater also lasts a lot longer.
Worldwide, using sun to heat water is the number one use of solar. You’ll see it all over the Middle East and Europe. Australia, Japan and Sweden have been using the sun to heat water since the 1950s.
It’s really an older technology we’ve rediscovered.
So what would the average price be to put solar hot water in a suburban home?
The average price is between $10,00 an $12,0000, But the good news is, government can pay 60 % of the cost, so the homeowner is only spending $4,000 to 5000. The panels will outlive the home. The water heater—the standard model will last 20 to 30 years, and stainless will last 50 years.
It’s a worry free investment with a great return.
Patch: What about those who say there aren’t enough hours of daylight in Chicago?
Leavitt: We have as much usable energy as Los Angeles. You only need four hours of sunshine to create a 24-hour supply of hot water.
Normally four hours of sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. can deliver a 24-hour supply of hot water, and in Chicago we achieve that 70% of time. We store it.
And while we don’t need heating or air conditioning at certain times of the year, we use hot water every single day.
Patch: So for someone who just wants to get started in solar, is solar hot water the way to go?
Leavitt: Yes, it’s a good way to start, though the price of solar electricity has recently dropped, so it’s a good investment.
Prices have dropped a lot in the last three or four years on the module that creates solar electricity from the sun. So while solar hot water is the most popular, solar electric is catching up quickly.
Patch: When you turn on the faucet, does it get hot right away?
Leavitt: It’s no different, it’s just that there’s more of it. You can have an 80 gallon tank as opposed to 40.
Patch: So what is solar heating?
Leavitt: It’s getting more solar panels, a little more storage, tying it into a hot water coil in the furnace duct. Now we can deliver solar heated air to every room, in partnership with a standard furnace. We can take any furnace, old or new, and make it a hybrid and deliver solar as well as conventional.
The coldest day of the year is also the sunniest. There’s no clouds in the sky when it’s below zero. So when you need solar to work the best, it does.
We average 30 to 40 percent solar heating delivery on an average home. For new construction homes that are well insulated, we can do about 40 percent.
If you’re building a new home, it would cost about $10,000.
It will add $35 a month to your mortgage and save you $70 to $100 a month. Why wouldn’t you do that?
Patch: What about for an existing home?
Leavitt: A complete solar heating and hot water package installed, after government incentives, is about $10,000. Banks love to finance these things because they know the customer will be saving money down the road.
We come out and give a free inspection. If it doesn’t make sense, we’ll tell them it doesn’t make sense.
Patch: What if people are hesitant to make that investment because they don’t know if they’ll be in their home more than five years?
Leavitt: Studies have shown that homes with the savings of solar sell faster, in difficult markets or in good markets.
The city of Chicago just passed a law requiring home sellers to produce utility bills.
Patch: Where else besides homes do you install solar systems?
Leavitt: In the greater Chicago area, we do public housing projects, schools, we have three projects on Notre Dame College Prep (in Niles), and two on Glenbrook South (the two swimming pools). Evanston Township High School has three of our systems. We do a lot of community colleges.
When we do schools, we do it as a learning experience for students as well. At Oakton Community College, the mechanical equipment is in a display booth outside the cafeteria, so students can see solar energy at work.
We do a lot of education, and a lot of public speaking and outreach to engineers and officials.
Patch: So there’s momentum toward solar energy?
Leavitt: The world is moving in that direction. It’s inevitable.
We installed first system in Lincolnwood 1977.
In the late 80s, oil (prices) crashed, solar centers were cut, the original solar boom shrunk dramatically, about a decade later it came back-- more for environmental reasons than the cost of energy.
Then government discovered it’s a great way to create jobs that can’t be outsourced. In the past decade it’s been a billion dollar industry just in California alone.
It’s a big part of the economic recovery. Without solar, things would be much worse than they are today.
Patch: How long will government incentives last?
Leavitt: By law they expire in 2016.
Republican governors understand they put people to work, and Democrats favor homeownership, so it’s a win-win.
A lot of laws require American-made equipment to be used. We’ve always purchased American-made products; we’re vary proud of that.
Patch: What’s the best way to learn more about the whole topic of solar energy?
Leavitt: Visit our website and come into our our office. We got a $6 electric bill for all three buildings last month.
Foundations will pay the majority of cost for schools, so we help schools find funding to do this.
We're at 7312 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Niles, on the west side of the street, next to the animal hospital.