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Should I Get a Solar Thermal System Instead of a PV System. Solar thermal installers

Should I Get a Solar Thermal System Instead of a PV System. Solar thermal installers

    Solar Thermal Panels For Heating Cooling

    Eliminating the need for electricity or natural gas, solar heating and cooling technologies instead collect and use free, clean thermal energy from the sun. An economical alternative to solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that produce electricity to supply all of a property’s energy needs, solar heating and cooling systems simply eliminate the need for electricity to cool or heat the air and water in a home or business.

    Almost 75% of residential energy consumption in the US is related to water heating, space heating, and space cooling. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), 115 million homes consume 266 billion of energy annually, which is roughly the same as sending 10 million Americans to college every year. Likewise, 4.8 million commercial buildings consume 107.9 billion of energy annually, of which approximately 47% is related to heating and cooling.

    With so much energy consumption in the US directly attributed to the heating and cooling of air and water, solar heating and cooling can play an important role in providing economically viable and environmentally sustainable solutions for supplying these essential needs.

    Solar heating and cooling can also play an important role in mitigating the impact of global warming. A single-family home with a solar water heating system installed will reduce its CO2 footprint by an average of 28%, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). With a combination solar air water heating system, this reduction in CO2 can easily exceed 60%. Likewise, businesses and manufacturing plants with high makeup air volumes will achieve similar CO2 reductions with the installation of solar heating and cooling systems.

    The Rising Adoption of Solar Heating and Cooling

    Significantly reducing America’s dependence on imported fuels, solar heating and cooling (SHC) systems already represent an important intermediary step in the transition to the solar energy era. Made popular decades ago as an efficient means of heating outdoor swimming pools, solar heating and cooling is now commonly used in residential, commercial, and industrial applications for heating and cooling both air and water.

    The SEIA reports that over 30,000 solar heating and cooling systems are installed annually in the United States, employing more than 5,000 workers across America, and generating an estimated 435 million in revenue. However, US market penetration of solar heating and cooling is low, with only 9 gigawatts thermal (GWth) of installed capacity. In China, on the other hand, solar heating and cooling systems are being installed at a rate 10 times higher than in America.

    Solar Heating and Cooling – The Basics

    Thermal energy can be generated from many renewable sources, such as solar, biomass, and geothermal. These systems are known collectively as renewable heating and cooling technologies. Systems which change sunshine into usable thermal energy are referred to as solar heating and cooling (SHC) technologies.

    Measurements of thermal energy are often expressed in British Thermal Units (BTUs), which represent the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. BTUs, or “therms,” are easily converted into kilowatt-hours (kWhs).

    Capturing the sun’s energy through solar heating collectors, the heat is efficiently transferred into buildings for heating and cooling purposes. Solar heating and cooling technology is easily recyclable and non-toxic, consisting mainly of copper, aluminum, steel, and/or polymers. SHC systems are appropriately designed to meet a building’s specific space and water heating and cooling needs.

    solar, thermal, system, instead

    The following is a basic explanation of today’s solar heating and cooling technologies, from “Solar Heating Cooling: Energy for a Secure Future”:

    Solar Heat Collectors:

    Meeting the energy needs to heat water for the average American home can be achieved with only one or two solar heat collectors, which require around 60 square feet (ft2) of roof space. However, more northerly states with significantly colder weather than average temps may need a larger number of solar collectors, roughly requiring up to 400 ft2.

    There are several types of solar collectors, including flat plate, evacuated tube, Integral Collector Storage (ICS), thermosiphon, and concentrating. Flat plate collectors are the most common type of collector in the US. Flat plate collectors have copper pipes attached to an absorber plate contained in an insulated box that is covered with a tempered glass or polymer coverplate.

    Evacuated tube collectors consist of rows of parallel, transparent glass tubes that have been “evacuated” of air, creating a highly efficient heat insulator for the fluid that runs inside the length of the tube. Evacuated tube systems are generally used when higher temperatures or higher volumes of water are needed, as well as for process heating and solar air conditioning systems.

    Simple unglazed collectors are typically used to heat pool water or preheat large volumes of industrial process water in warm climates. Flat plate, concentrating, and evacuated tube collectors use transparent cover plates or glazing, metal, or polymer absorbers, and insulation to efficiently produce heat at higher temperatures.

    While most solar collectors are commonly used for water and space heating at temps up to 200°F, concentrating collectors are useful in industrial and manufacturing processes because they can produce heat in excess of 300°F–400°F.

    solar, thermal, system, instead

    Solar Air Heating:

    Solar heating systems are very effective at capturing the sun’s energy. With today’s technology, SEIA reports that solar heating systems “typically produce 45 kWhth to 102 kWhth per square foot of installed collector area per year (or 1.5 to 3.5 therms/ft2 in equivalent heat units), which is up to 80% of all the available solar energy hitting the surface of the collector.”

    Solar air heating systems typically use a non-toxic liquid, water, or air to transfer heat from the solar collector. Heating water or an antifreeze solution, liquid-based systems circulate the heated liquid through a heat exchanger connected to a storage tank. Air-based systems heat air in a solar air collector and then fans distribute the heated air, circulating it around the home or property as needed for space heating. Energy storage technologies may also be employed with solar heating systems to provide heat when there’s no sunshine, and at night. Energy storage may also be used with solar cooling and solar water heating applications.

    An alternative form of solar space heating uses vertically installed transpired solar collectors on the southerly wall. Transpired solar collectors have perforations in them which allow the air to enter, heating it as it rises. As the heated air rises to the top of the wall, it is directed into the ventilation ducts of the building for distribution as space heating.

    Picture credit: Solar air heating system vertically installed on exterior wall at Fort Drum, New York, from Solar Wall via

    Solar Cooling:

    Solar cooling applications are very useful, as air conditioning represents a major strain on the electrical grid when weather is very hot outside. Using this same heat and strong sunshine to produce solar air conditioning is an ideal solution to reduce this strain. Also referred to as solar-assisted cooling, properly sized residential solar cooling systems may also be used for space heating during winter months.

    Absorption chiller systems and desiccant systems are the two types of solar cooling systems. The most common of the two is absorption chiller systems, which use solar water heating collectors and a thermal-chemical absorption process to generate air-conditioning, with no electricity used in the process. The process is very similar to a refrigerator, except that a compressor is not employed in solar cooling. Instead, heated liquid from the solar collector drives the absorption cycle.

    The second type of solar cooling system is a desiccant system. Air is cooled by passing over a common desiccant such as silica gel which draws out the humidity from the air, making it feel more comfortable. Solar heat is used to dry out the desiccant, regenerating it for reuse.

    Solar Water Heating:

    SEIA reports that over 9 million residential water heaters in the US are replaced every year, creating a great opportunity to transition to solar water heating. The cost is relatively low, and most home solar water heating systems can be easily installed in one day. There are two types of solar water heating systems: active systems, relying on an electric pump to circulate the water, and passive systems, which use thermodynamics to move the water. Active solar water heating systems are the most common in the US for both residential and commercial applications.

    Solar water heaters are composed of three main elements: the solar collector, insulated piping, and a hot water storage tank. Electronic controls can also be included, as well as a freeze protection system for colder climates. Solar radiation hits the solar collector, the solar collector absorbs the heat and transfers it to potable water in the system. Flowing out of the collector into a hot water tank, the heated water is available and used on demand.

    With the freezing temperatures of colder regions, an indirect system is used. In this case, an antifreeze solution, such as non-toxic propylene glycol, is heated in the solar collector and flows to the heat exchanger on the hot water storage tank. The heat exchanger transfers the heat from the antifreeze solution, warming the storage tank filled with potable water. This hot water is used on demand, while the antifreeze solution recycles back to the solar collector for reheating.

    In either case, a properly designed and installed solar water heating system can provide up to 80% of a home or building’s hot water needs.

    Solar Pool Heating:

    The widest use of solar heating technology in the US today is solar swimming pool heating. According to SEIA, over 30,000 solar pool heating systems are installed every year. Because of the ease of installation and Rapid payback period, nationwide acceptance of solar pool heating in the residential sector has been consistently high over the past 35 years.

    SEIA also notes that businesses such as hotels, resorts, apartment complexes, health clubs, and schools are excellent venues for solar pool heating. With over 186,000 heated commercial pools in the country, more than 60% are indoors and require heating year-round. Outdoor commercial pools are often heated continuously, as well. As noted by SEIA, “The amount of energy required to heat a competition-sized outdoor pool located in a warm climate such as California is equivalent to the annual natural gas consumption of approximately 150 single-family homes, so significant energy savings can be achieved in this area.”

    Depending on the climate and whether the pool is located indoors or outdoors, the solar pool heating system will require the appropriate solar collector. Heated water then flows from the solar collector through the swimming pool’s filtration system to transfer the heated water into the pool.

    Picture credit: Aquatherm via

    The Economics of Solar Heating and Cooling

    Residential solar water heating systems typically range between 6,000–10,000, according to SEIA, depending on system type and geographic location. This cost is significantly reduced by the Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and various local, state, and utility incentive programs. The out-of- price of installed systems is typically 3,000–5,000 with these incentives, and the payback period is typically in the 4–8 year range.

    Typical commercial applications include space heating, cooling, and water heating. Building types that are particularly well-suited for these solar applications, according to SEIA, include “military facilities, manufacturing plants, large multi-family residential buildings and affordable housing, municipal facilities, hotels, elderly and student housing, hospitals, sport centers, and agricultural operations.” Commercial and industrial systems generally range between 20,000–1,000,000, depending on size and the heating or cooling load. Depending on application, location, and financial incentives, the payback period for commercial systems can be likewise as low as 4–8 years.

    SEIA notes that capital expenditures (CAPEX) for solar heating and cooling systems are often higher than conventional fuel systems, but on the other hand, operational expenses (OPEX) are much lower because the fuel is generated and supplied for free. Budgeting fuel expenses becomes a thing of the past, lowering OPEX significantly with the transition to clean, renewable solar heating and cooling technologies.

    Promoting Further Growth

    The small residential sector represents around 80% of the current solar heating and cooling market volume in the US. By expanding solar heating and cooling systems to generate around 8% of America’s total heating and cooling needs, SEIA estimates that this could displace an equivalent of 64 coal plants, or approximately 226 million tons of offset carbon emissions every year.

    “Solar Heating Cooling: Energy for a Secure Future,” developed by SEIA-member companies and BEAM Engineering, lays the groundwork for achieving this 8% by driving installed solar heating and cooling capacity from today’s 9 GW thermal to 300 GW thermal by 2050. SEIA predicts this would bring more than 50,000 good-paying American jobs and an estimated 61 billion in annual energy savings for homeowners, businesses, schools, and governments.

    SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch reports, “In 1891, inventor Clarence Kemp of Baltimore patented the first commercial solar water heater in America. Kemp enclosed a simple metal tank in a wooden box, creating the so-called ‘batch’ water heater. Looking back,” says Resch, “we’ve certainly come a long way since then!”

    Picture credit: The largest Solar Water Heating System in the US, at Prestage Foods in NC – produces 10,000 gals of hot water a day for turkey processing. From Prestage Foods via

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    Should I Get a Solar Thermal System Instead of a PV System?

    When you hear about installing solar, you’re most likely hearing about PV (photovoltaic) solar cell panels. They’ve become standard in the industry.

    PV solar cell panels were developed in the 1950s at Bell Labs to power electronic equipment. They picked up development speed through funding during the space program.

    An older form of solar technology called solar thermal has been around since 1896. These two technologies are fascinating and have each moved solar technology forward in their own right. But when it comes to installing solar on your home, does solar thermal make sense?

    Here’s a breakdown of the differences between the solar thermal versus PV and which makes more sense for homeowners.

    Solar Thermal Generates Heat to Warm Water

    The primary use of a solar thermal system is to provide hot water through the use of solar technology.

    Similar to a PV solar system, solar thermal systems requires collectors or panels on the rooftop. They absorb solar energy just as PV systems but differ in what happens from there.

    Solar thermal systems have a pump circulating solar fluid (water, saline or other fluids) through the collectors and deliver heat to a water storage tank.

    When homeowners need hot water, the solar-heated water takes precedence and either eliminates or reduces the energy needed by the boiler to heat water. This is how solar thermal reduces energy bills, as generating heat for water consumes a lot of energy.

    Differences Between Solar thermal and PV Solar Panels

    Solar thermal is currently used more often on large-scale applications where lots of hot water is needed, like a laundromat or a college dorm. It also requires the use of large amounts of water, more equipment including moving parts like pumps and solenoid valves, has a more complex installation process and is more expensive than PV.

    Why Homeowners Are Likely Better Off With PV

    Instead of two separate solar arrays competing for the same optimal south-facing roof space, installing solar PV panels and pairing them with an electric water heater is more cost-effective. This will also be more efficient both spatially on the roof and in terms of overall energy usage.

    With all the extra moving parts of solar thermal systems, there’s a lot more that can go wrong when installing or maintaining the system over time. The cost of PV solar panels has reduced to far less than solar thermal and there’s practically no maintenance for PV.

    While there are integrated solar thermal and PV systems being developed, they’re still essentially more complex than necessary. PV are more reasonable now, making it less expensive and less cumbersome to heat water with electricity.

    In the early days of solar, one advantage solar thermal had over PV was that it allowed energy storage for intermittent power. With net metering available to most solar customers and battery storage becoming more available, it’s easier to store electricity collected through PV panels and use it later.

    For the average homeowner looking to minimize energy costs without adding any extra projects to their plate, PV comes through as the more straightforward and less expensive option.

    If you’re looking into solar, here’s a great post on how to conduct due diligence on your solar project. Going into any project with a good understanding of the process will ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible and that you get exactly what you need.

    Still, have questions about solar PV versus solar thermal? Contact our energy advisors team or call 888-454-9979.

    solar, thermal, system, instead

    Solar thermal installers

    Solar hot water systems, also known as solar thermal systems, use solar collectors to absorb the sun’s light and change it into heat energy. Solar collectors heat a fluid, which is then used to provide either hot water for household use or heat for the home. Some thermal systems produce warm water that is used to heat swimming pools.

    Solar domestic hot water systems use the sun to heat either water or a heat transfer fluid, such as a water-glycol antifreeze mixture. This is done in collectors which are usually mounted on the roof. Once the water is heated, either directly or via heat transfer, it is stored in a tank similar to a conventional gas or electric water heater tank.

    With direct circulation systems, pumps circulate household water through the collectors, where it is directly heated by the sun, and then into the home to be used for bathing, laundry, etc. This design is also known as “open-loop” and it works well in climates where freezing temperatures are rare.

    With indirect circulation systems, an electric pump circulates a heat transfer fluid through the collectors. The fluid absorbs heat from the solar collector and then passes through a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger, which generally is in the water storage tank inside the house, transfers heat to the water. In this case, water is indirectly heated by the sun; such designs are also called “closed-loop” systems. These are popular in locations where freezing temperatures are common.

    In addition to there being two types of circulation systems, there are also two main types of solar collectors for indirect circulation systems that are suitable for Frederick County’s climate:

    Flat-Plate Collectors are the most common collector for residential water-heating and space-heating installations. A typical flat-plate collector consists of an insulated metal box with a glass or plastic cover, called “glazing,” and a dark colored absorber plate. Sunlight passes through the glazing and strikes the absorber plate, which heats up, changing solar radiation into heat energy. The glazing allows the light to reach the absorber plate but reduces the amount of heat that can escape. The heat energy produced in the collector is used to heat the liquid (either water or a heat transfer fluid) as it flows through tubes, in or adjacent to the absorber plate.

    Evacuated-Tube Collectors consist of rows of parallel transparent glass tubes, in place of the absorber plate in a flat-plate collector. The absorber tubes are cylindrical in shape; therefore, the angle of the sunlight is perpendicular to the absorber for most of the day. This enables these collectors to perform well even when sunlight is diffuse, and in areas with cold, cloudy winters. Because air is evacuated from the space between the tubes, the resulting vacuum minimizes heat loss to the outdoors and makes the collector more efficient. As a result, evacuated-tube collectors usually heat water to fairly high temperatures. While they can achieve higher temperatures and efficiencies than flat-plate collectors, they are also more expensive.

    Siting a Solar Hot Water System

    The Department of Energy (DOE) provides an excellent web page on Siting Your Solar Water Heating System. While an obstruction-free southern exposure is best for optimal results, depending on your location and the tilt of your collector, your system can face up to 90 degrees east or west of true south without significantly decreasing its performance. You will need to assess your site’s solar resource and the optimal orientation and tilt for your solar collector. The efficiency and design of your system will depend on how much of the sun’s energy reaches your roof or property (if the system will be ground-mounted). In addition, both the orientation and tilt of the collector will affect your solar water heating system’s performance. The optimal tilt for your solar thermal collector is an angle equal to your latitude; however, installing your collector flat on an angled roof should not result in a big decrease in performance.

    Solar thermal suppliers and installers can perform a solar site analysis for you, usually at no charge. Refer to Contractor Selection Tips and Resources to find and assess prospective installers.

    Costs of a Solar Hot Water System

    Solar water heating systems typically cost more to purchase and install than conventional water heating systems. A solar water heater can, however, save you money in the long run. In Frederick County, solar thermal systems typically range in size from two 4’x8′ collectors heating an 80 gallon tank, to three 4’x8′ collectors heating a 120 gallon tank. They cost approximately 8,400 to 9,600, respectively, before incentives. (Sources: Sustainable Energy Systems, personal communication; U.S. Department of Energy).

    Understanding the Incentives

    The information below on incentives is current as of February 2013. For the most up to date information on incentives, visit

    The Maryland Residential Clean Energy Grant, the federal tax credits, the sale of Solar Renewable Energy Credits, and electricity savings can reduce first year costs by as much as 4,000.

    • State Grant: The Maryland Residential Clean Energy Grant Program currently offers a 500 flat incentive for systems with a panel area of 10. 100 square feet.
    • Federal Investment Tax Credit: Under current law, solar hot water systems installed prior to December 31, 2016 are eligible for a 30% federal tax credit. At least half the energy used to heat the dwelling’s water must be from solar.
    • Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs): A Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) is a tradable commodity representing the non-polluting value of 1,000 kWh (1 Megawatt hour (mWh)) of electricity (or the equivalent) produced by a solar system. A solar thermal system contractor may install a controller that converts British thermal units (Btu) to kilowatt hours (kWh) in order to track the accumulation of equivalent kilowatt hours. A 30-tube evacuated tube system can be expected to produce 3 mWh, or 3 SRECs per year, which in 2012 was worth approximately 420.

    System owners have several options for selling their SRECS:

    • A system installer may refer new owners of solar thermal systems to an SREC aggregator/broker who may process required paperwork and trade SRECs on their behalf. This may be the simplest option for homeowners who do not want to be directly involved with extra paperwork and the selling of SRECs.
    • System owners may register and sell their SRECs themselves by applying for certification through the Public Services Commission’s website and by setting up an account and registering their system with the Generation Attribute Tracking System (GATS). GATS is where SRECs are created, tracked, and transferred to buyers when sold. GATS allows users to report generation data and collect and advertise credits for sale via the Bulletin Board.
    • System owners may register their system with an auction platform, such as SREC Trade, Inc., which provides public listings of SREC pricing and hosts monthly auctions for SRECs. Alternatively they can register with a trading platform, such as Flett Exchange; it also tracks the kilowatt hour generation of its customers’ systems, and pays customers the current rate for the annual SRECs their systems produce.

    Pro-Formas – Costs and Payback over 5 Years

    The charts below compare the costs and impact of incentives on evacuated tube and flat plate systems:

    Pro-Formas Evacuated Tube Systems

    A. 30 Tube, 2” double-walled tubes; sized for 2-4 people (~36,000 Btu)

    B. 24-Tube; 4” Single walled tubes; sized for 4-5 people (~52,000 Btu)

    C. 60-Tube, 2” double-walled tubes; size for 5-7 people (~72,000 Btu)

    Solar Water Heaters

    Solar water heaters.- sometimes called solar domestic hot water systems.- can be a cost-effective way to generate hot water for your home. They can be used in any climate, and the fuel they use.- sunshine.- is free.

    How They Work

    Solar water heating systems include storage tanks and solar collectors. There are two types of solar water heating systems: active, which have circulating pumps and controls, and passive, which don’t.

    Active Solar Water Heating Systems

    There are two types of active solar water heating systems:

    • Direct circulation systemsPumps circulate household water through the collectors and into the home. They work well in climates where it rarely freezes.
    • Indirect circulation systemsPumps circulate a non-freezing, heat-transfer fluid through the collectors and a heat exchanger. This heats the water that then flows into the home. They are popular in climates prone to freezing temperatures.

    Passive Solar Water Heating Systems

    Passive solar water heating systems are typically less expensive than active systems, but they’re usually not as efficient. However, passive systems can be more reliable and may last longer. There are two basic types of passive systems:

    • Integral collector-storage passive systemsThese consist of a storage tank covered with a transparent material to allow the sun to heat the water. Water from the tank then flows into the plumbing system. These work best in areas where temperatures rarely fall below freezing. They also work well in households with significant daytime and evening hot-water needs.
    • Thermosyphon systemsWater is heated in a collector on the roof and then flows through the plumbing system when a hot water faucet is opened. The majority of these systems have a 40 gallon capacity.

    Storage Tanks and Solar Collectors

    Most solar water heaters require a well-insulated storage tank. Solar storage tanks have an additional outlet and inlet connected to and from the collector. In two-tank systems, the solar water heater preheats water before it enters the conventional water heater. In one-tank systems, the back-up heater is combined with the solar storage in one tank.

    Three types of solar collectors are used for residential applications:

    • Flat-plate collectorGlazed flat-plate collectors are insulated, weatherproofed boxes that contain a dark absorber plate under one or more glass or plastic (polymer) covers. Unglazed flat-plate collectors.- typically used for solar pool heating.- have a dark absorber plate, made of metal or polymer, without a cover or enclosure.
    • Integral collector-storage systemsAlso known as ICS or batch systems, they feature one or more black tanks or tubes in an insulated, glazed box. Cold water first passes through the solar collector, which preheats the water. The water then continues on to the conventional backup water heater, providing a reliable source of hot water. They should be installed only in mild-freeze climates because the outdoor pipes could freeze in severe, cold weather.
    • Evacuated-tube solar collectorsThey feature parallel rows of transparent glass tubes. Each tube contains a glass outer tube and metal absorber tube attached to a fin. The fin’s coating absorbs solar energy but inhibits radiative heat loss. These collectors are used more frequently for U.S. commercial applications.

    Solar water heating systems almost always require a backup system for cloudy days and times of increased demand. Conventional storage water heaters usually provide backup and may already be part of the solar system package. A backup system may also be part of the solar collector, such as rooftop tanks with thermosyphon systems. Since an integral-collector storage system already stores hot water in addition to collecting solar heat, it may be packaged with a tankless or demand-type water heater for backup.

    Selecting a Solar Water Heater

    Before you purchase and install a solar water heating system, you want to do the following:

    Also understand the various components needed for solar water heating systems, including the following:

    Installing and Maintaining the System

    The proper installation of solar water heaters depends on many factors. These factors include solar resource, climate, local building code requirements, and safety issues; therefore, it’s best to have a qualified solar thermal systems contractor install your system.

    After installation, properly maintaining your system will keep it running smoothly. Passive systems don’t require much maintenance. For active systems, discuss the maintenance requirements with your system provider, and consult the system’s owner’s manual. Plumbing and other conventional water heating components require the same maintenance as conventional systems. Glazing may need to be cleaned in dry climates where rainwater doesn’t provide a natural rinse.

    Regular maintenance on simple systems can be as infrequent as every 3–5 years, preferably by a solar contractor. Systems with electrical components usually require a replacement part or two after 10 years. Learn more about solar water heating system maintenance and repair.

    When screening potential contractors for installation and/or maintenance, ask the following questions:

    • Does your company have experience installing and maintaining solar water heating systems?Choose a company that has experience installing the type of system you want and servicing the applications you select.
    • How many years of experience does your company have with solar heating installation and maintenance?The more experience the better. Request a list of past customers who can provide references.
    • Is your company licensed or certified?Having a valid plumber’s and/or solar contractor’s license is required in some states. Contact your city and county for more information. Confirm licensing with your state’s contractor licensing board. The licensing board can also tell you about any complaints against state-licensed contractors.

    Improving Energy Efficiency

    After your water heater is properly installed and maintained, try some additional energy-saving strategies to help lower your water heating bills, especially if you require a back-up system. Some energy-saving devices and systems are more cost-effective to install with the water heater.

    Other Water Heater Options

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