The rivalry between solar hot water systems and conventional electric systems is an old one. Although the very term ‘conventional’ when referring to electric water heaters is a bit of a misnomer, considering that the sun far preceded electricity in the history of producing hot water. But let us not get bogged down in semantics.
In a very real sense, solar water heating is unconventional and fighting the underdog’s battle against a well established opponent. There is one good reason why electric water heaters are the inherent favorite in this year’s Solar Bowl. I know what you’re thinking: “Then why isn’t it called the electric bowl?” Well because Solar indirectly rhymes with Super and this is my stretch of a metaphor so buTT OUT!!
Ahem…sorry about that. I nearly lost my nerve there. Anyway, back on task…The one big reason for electric’s big advantage is up-front costs. And how can you blame people who look at a price tag of, say, $400 for a new electric heater versus $2,000 for a solar hot water system? You can’t.
On the other hand, you can look beyond purchase and installation and into the months and years following. There you’ll find that a solar water heater saves money, while an electric heater continues to cost money — and a lot more money as energy prices continue to rise.
Still unwilling to switch jerseys?
Let’s lay out the playing field then, side by side. We’ll see which system does the most for you at the lowest cost and over the longest haul. (Notice that aside from initial cost, solar wins in every category.)
Solar Hot Water System
Electric Water Heater
* Active systems require the running of pumps to circulate water so a small portion of fossil-fueled grid power may be necessary.
You can see that Electric takes the early lead, but over the course of the game is pummeled by Solar’s incessant money-saving style of play.
So, for our $2,500 solar hot water system: Initial costs after a federal tax credit is $1,750. Because of high variability, we’ll go ahead and ignore state or utility rebates, although you can probably expect another 20% to come off the original tally (meaning HALF could be paid for!). Still, with savings of $25 per month, that $1,750 solar water heater will pay for itself in just under six years (compare to potential life span). In that same amount of time, at monthly costs of $25 per month, by using that electric water heater you will have spent $1,800 on utility bills alone.
So at the six-year point, the solar water heater and the electric water heater have cost roughly the same amount of money. Now here is the clincher — the extra point that wins the game — from that point forward the solar water heater continues to provide free hot water, while the electric version continues to cost roughly $25 per month until it breaks or you finally decide to go solar.
No matter how you slice it and no matter how many times it’s instantly replayed, the solar water heater takes the ball for the long run. It Could Go All The Way — to keep this somewhat pathetic barrage of sporting puns going. (shrug)
Furthermore, partially because I felt so bad for the electric water heater, I left out a few more good marks for solar hot water. Most notable is the increase in property value. The going rate is $20 in added value for every $1 of energy savings in the first year. A couple of clicks on the old calculator brings that total to $6,000…not bad for $2,500 solar system. By this rationale, one could honestly say that a solar hot water system actually makes you money, especially considering that they are exempt from sales and property taxes in many states.