For almost a year now, atop a building at 7736 Monroe St., solar panels have sat sedately, greeting the morning sun each day, taking in valuable energy and helping to reduce the cost of heating water for its tenants.
Local landlord Frzad Khaledan owns the building where Niles-based Solar Service Inc. has installed hot-water-producing solar panels.
And he isn’t the only one. Another landlord, Dr. Eugene Anandappa, who owns two buildings Forest Park, as well as several others in Oak Park, also had the panels installed recently on two of his buildings near the corner of Pleasant Street and Oak Park Avenue, in Oak Park.
Khaledan cited three distinct reasons for choosing to install the panels.
“First I studied environmental engineering,” he said, adding that the panels use renewable energy, sot hey are environmentally friendly, a concern of his.
Second, “it is cost effective, the state gives a good rebate program, you can write off most of a portion on your federal taxes,” he said. “It will probably pay itself off within a year or two. Third, I am just being a good corporate citizen.”
As for Anandappa, he said the project required a large capital outlay, which he expects to recoup in 5 to 10 years, depending on the rate of increase of natural gas prices. But the primary impetus for going solar was environmental and to stop relying on natural gas.
“I’m very much aware of the energy problem, and I try to do whatever I can in a small way to make it better,” said Anandappa, a physician and 30-year River Forest resident.
Solar Service owner and founder Brandon Leavitt said energy is a commodity, and most people are consumers.
“We believe it makes more sense to own your energy,” Leavitt said. He tells owners of new solar systems to expect 70 percent reductions in their hot water bills.
In fact, Khaledan said his hot water bill has gone down over the last year, despite increases in natural gas prices.
“While gas prices have skyrocketed this year, my water bill has gone down 10 to 20 percent, even with a 10 to 20 percent increase in natural gas cost,” he said. “The net effect is probably in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 percent in savings.”
Leavitt said solar hot water systems have been around for a century, but that the technology has improved. After switching the system on at the Pleasant/Oak Park Avenue building on a sunny 90-degree afternoon, 360 gallons of 74-degree water was brought to a temperature of 126 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even in the winter, just four hours of sunlight are enough to heat water for a building, Leavitt said.
Here’s how it works: a 12-horsepower pump sends a mix of water and antifreeze to the panels, where the fluid is heated and returned to the basement, where it enters a heat exchanger. There water pumped from three 120-gallon reserve tanks takes the heat from the antifreeze mixture.
The system is automatic. As the heat atop the building rises above the temperature of the reserved water, it kicks on to further warm the water. When nightfall or cloud cover stops heating the panels, the system shuts off, trapping the energy in the reserve tanks.
Glass on the solar panels is tempered, and stronger than a car’s windshield. It also has antiglare properties, which help capture energy. The panels never need cleaning and are cool to the touch, making lawn installations possible for residential customers, Leavitt said.
Solar hot water is much more efficient that photoelectric solar panels, Leavitt said. He’ll install solar electric, but only “when it makes sense.”
“The market for solar is vast,” Leavitt said. And looking out over rooftops in the area he can easily see available work.
He has installed systems for buildings large and small, some to heat pool water. Upcoming projects include Governors State University and hangars at the Greater Rockford Airport.
Leavitt said he’s installed more than 1,000 systems since his first”for his mother”in 1977, and that they’re all still working.
“If it’s not working today it’s probably because the house has been torn down,” he said.
But wait, there’s more. Incentives drive down the cost of every installation, Leavitt said, by grants and rebates through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and federal tax write-offs for commercial building owners.
“The service that Brandon’s company provides is outstanding,” Khaledan added. “They can help you get the state’s rebates. If you do anything above a $10,000 project you get about $6,600 back.”
Residential customers may also benefit from local loan/grant programs, if they are available.
A company flyer says an owner of an 18-unit six-flat could expect $20,000 in savings in a decade on a $30,000 investment.
Leavitt said panels can be installed on any roofs”flat or sloped, facing any direction”and garages and lawns, too.
He got the idea for going solar while in a summer school program sponsored by Buckminster Fuller, known for designing the geodesic dome. Students were given one problem and one rule: Solve one of the world’s energy problems without making a problem for someone else.
“I was just out of high school, and I was concerned,” Leavitt said.