The sun may not always be reliable in Ireland but when it does come out, you have to agree almost everything improves.
To take advantage of our little bit of sunshine, more homeowners are availing of a solar heating system in order to offset the costs of heating water in a traditional manner.
Solar energy is gaining ground over the last number of years, primarily thanks to grants for homeowners under various SEAI schemes. These grants directly reimburse homeowners for up to 30% of the cost of the installation and make biting the solar energy bullet that little bit easier.
Believe it or not, Ireland gets about the same ‘insolation’ levels (the amount of solar energy reaching the earth) as France, Germany and Austria, but of course the levels decrease the further north you are.
What exactly is a solar heating system?
It’s a heating system that uses the radiant heat of the sun (solar energy) to heat water.
There are actually two types of solar heating systems. Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic.
Solar thermal is used only for heating your water. It’s the original solar energy system and it’s the most efficient way to use synergy from the sun in terms of heating water. It’s generally used to retrofit existing houses and also in new builds.
Solar photovoltaic is the newer system and is used for generating electricity. Solar PV is becoming more popular particularly with the new build sector to meet the new building requirements.
Do I not need a traditional water heating system now?
A solar energy system by itself is not enough to meet the demands of hot water heating. In the summer months, May June July, for example, it would be enough to heat the water. Last summer the weather was good enough that most people had no need to turn on another method of heating their water. But it is always installed with another method of heating water, be it a gas boiler, oil boiler, electricity, biomass.
So, how do does it all work?
You have a solar panel on the roof (or in some cases it can be installed on the ground, in the garden). The solar system contains solar fluid (glycol) which is heated by the rays of the sun and transfers its heat to the water in the cylinder so then the water is used for hot water throughout the house.
Why are solar heating systems gaining in popularity?
It’s a combination of reasons – primarily to do with grants. When solar started first gaining popularity in 2006, the market quickly became saturated. The reason it was so popular is that there were grants given out under the SEAI Greener Homes scheme – they gave out grants for putting in solar. And now under the SEAI Better Homes there’s more grants available.
Obviously there’s a growing awareness for wanting to be more environmentally friendly as well and lessen their reliance on fossil fuels.
About this grant
The grant is generally fairly easy to get – there are a number of steps:
- The homeowner looks for an installer (who has to be registered with the SEAI) and gets a quote from the installer.
- Then they notify the SEAI of their intention to use the installer, and provides the quotation.
- The installer carries out work.
- The homeowner pays installer.
- The house has to be assessed to make sure the energy rating has been improved.
- The homeowner claim back from SEAI.
How do you decide what size of system you need?
It depends on the size of the house and the occupancy of the house. This can affect how many panels are required and how much hot water is needed and then the capacity of the cylinder.
Is it a big undertaking to get this installed?
It depends on the individual situation. Some houses already have quite a modern heating system in there already, so it’s not such a big deal – it can be done in 2-3 days. Other houses it will be an overhaul of the house – they’ll get their solar, but they also might get their boiler and upgrade their controls, and we’ll do all that together so that could take 4-5 days, depending on what’s needed. In general though, it’s not that big of a job. All the jobs would be done in under a week.
So, how is it installed?
It’s a bracketing system that is screwed into the slates or tiles of the roof and you attach the solar panels to them. A bolt is fixed to the roof and the frame is fixed to the bolt and the solar panels fitted then. So you’re not cutting into the roof as you would with a skylight.
There are a type of solar panel like that that are built into the roof, but they tend to be put into new builds where they can be built in. They’re not really suitable for a retrofit.
What kind of savings can a homeowner expect to get?
It can be difficult to say, because every situation is different so what we tend to do is to give a customised saving plan to the customer. But it depends on how many solar panels are put in, how many tubes are put in, where the site is, in terms of the amount of sunlight that it gets. So it can be very difficult to give an exact figure, and it tends to be done on a case by case basis.
Is it always possible to get a solar energy system installed?
No. The first thing we do is send out a technician and get a site assessed. Sometimes it’s not suitable – there’s no point installing a system where there’s not enough light, where there’s a lot of trees around for instance, if it’s in shadow for a lot of the time.
Sometimes there are other options, instead of installing the panels in the roof you could install them further down the garden for instance. They’re raised panels in the ground, at an angle. It’s not that common in Ireland but you do see it on the Continent. Just keep the kids away from them.
Have the building regulations changed to incorporate solar energy systems?
Yes – Every house has to reach a certain efficiency now, every new build build. It’s pushed people more heavily into Solar PV, because in terms of the energy rating that it gives, solar PV gives an attractive rating. It generates electricity and feeds back into the grid..
How much maintenance does the system require?
Maintenance is important. It’s important to get the system serviced every year to two years.
The solar system consists of solar tubes and they are quite fragile and in a heavy winter can be broken quite easily and they need to be replaced. They are only €40 to replace so that’s a common thing that we see and would replace quite a lot.
Are the systems guaranteed?
It’s a requirement under the SEAI that the solar system comes with a 5 year guarantee.
Tips to remember when considering solar heating systems:
- There’s a grant for almost 30% of the installation cost
- Costs vary depending on house size and occupancy
- There are two types available – thermal and solar photovoltaic
- Use a registered installer