RIPTON - Low-tech panels on south walls turn sunlight into free heat, warming frigid air and saving fuel costs throughout Vermont's long heating season.
It's a cold, clear February day, and Gary Whitman of Mountain Signs is smiling. Whitman recently installed a pair of FreeHeat(tm) solar panels on his paint room-the first commercial installation of these handcrafted systems from Middlebury-based Solar Heat Vermont. A probe in the panels tells him they're working, pumping out solar-heated air to raise the temperature inside his Ripton workspace.
"My goal was to maintain the temperature so the furnace wouldn't come on," Whitman said. "I think the panels are doing that. I'm pleased. The cost is reasonable, and they're simple, nothing to fail in them."
The smile Whitman is wearing today started with a news story in the Addison Eagle about FreeHeat panels that piqued his interest. Months later, Whitman ran into Mike Mayone, an East Middlebury artist he knows, who also happens to be a consultant to Solar Heat Vermont. Conversation came around to the FreeHeat panels and Whitman's interest was renewed.
Mayone visited the Mountain Signs studio and confirmed that it was well suited for a FreeHeat system. "My square footage is perfect for these two panels," Whitman notes. "You can heat 10 square feet per one square foot of panel. I have about 640 square feet in the paint room, and the ceilings are a little more than nine feet high. "
Whitman called Ron Kohn, owner of Solar Heat Vermont, and arranged to come with his wife, Donna, to look at the panels in person at Kohn's home in Middlebury. On a blustery December day, Kohn and Whitman carried a sample panel outside and leaned it against a woodpile to face the sun.
"I was pretty impressed," Whitman says. "It was 25 degrees out and the temperature came up to about 74 degrees in less than five minutes, and the wind was blowing." He ordered the panels, which were custom crafted for his space, then took down trees that shaded the paint room. "Now that I'm looking for the Sun, I don't want anything in the way."
Eager to start saving on fuel costs, Whitman installed the panels shortly after they were delivered, with help from his brother, Scott. "We had sunshine for about an hour that first day, and I think we got up to about 101 degrees," he said. "It was probably around 60 in the paint room-a 40-degree rise."
The next week was largely overcast, but many sunny days followed. According to Whitman, when the sun shines, the panels blow out air heated to 110, 115, and even 122 degrees, raising the room temperature 12 to 13 degrees.
Whitman checks the probe in his low-tech panels regularly, learning what kind of heat he can expect under different weather conditions at different times of year. "I'm really looking forward to seeing how high the sun gets before I don't get a good effect. When it was 3 above and windy and so clear-no wisp of a cloud-temperatures came up to 105-degree air from the collector, and the room was about 50," he says. "Even today with marginal Sun, it's brought the temperature up 5 degrees, and it's about 20 to 21 degrees out there."
Although Whitman won't know how much he saves until he can measure his fuel use, he's confident that he's already beginning to get a return on his investment in solar space heating. "When the main furnace cycles several times throughout the day and the furnace in the paint room doesn't, I know the panels are working." Kohn points out that reflected light from snow cover increases the effect.
Solar Heat Vermont began demonstrating FreeHeat panels at local farmers markets in 2009, after Kohn had tested them on his own home and garage for two heating seasons. He saw that people had a grasp of solar hot water and solar electricity but needed to experience passive solar space heat for themselves. At these events, people could put their hands in front of the panel's top vents and feel the heat blasting out. Now the demo unit invites hands up to the vents with the message "Feeling is believing."
The demonstrations are showing people how passive solar space heating works, even in the North Country, Kohn says. When the sun shines, the simple FreeHeat systems harness its radiant energy to help heat indoor spaces. Customers have bought FreeHeat panels for a house in Bridport, a garage workspace in Lincoln, and an apartment building in Middlebury.
Most have installed the systems themselves, using the illustrated installation guide provided by Solar Heat Vermont.
Check it Out: Solar Heat Vermont is based in Middlebury. The company builds FreeHeat(tm) solar panels, passive solar space heating systems generically called thermosiphons. A standard collector is 32 square feet, but all panels are sized and built to order for each customer's situation, using local source materials and skilled local craftsmen. For more information, see www.solarheatvermont.com.