Meet Your Neighbor: Ken Hall, Solar Panel Owner


(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

by Kristine Mosuela, NVSWCD Intern

Ken Hall, proud owner of a pair of solar thermal panels, in the backyard of his Centreville, VA home.
Ken Hall, proud owner of a pair of solar thermal panels, in the backyard of his Centreville, VA home.

Ken Hall has been living in Centreville, Virginia for over 40 years. Since 1977, his house has been wearing solar panels that have kept the home and Hall family warm under its roof for an entire generation. They installed 2 solar systems: a solar hot water system and a solar space heater.

I recently visited Ken’s home to talk about how he got interested in solar power and his experience with his solar thermal system.

How did you first get into solar?

Ken’s family got their solar system installed not too long after they moved into their house in the late 1970s. With the ridiculous mortgage, we had to find some way to cut the utility bills, too. There was a lot in the news about them at the time. And then they came up with the wonderful tax credits to do it. After the tax credits, it was a couple hundred bucks. The original cost of the system without tax credits was I think $5- to $7,000 a piece. And then the tax credits for it was 90%. Very reasonable. Even if it wasn’t efficient, it was a very reasonably priced try. Those 90% active solar stuff, that stuff all quit by the '80s. It was an actual tax rebate, for 90% of what you spent on your solar system. You just included that in your tax form. It just came off the top of our taxes. Uncle Sam was taking all the risk. Uncle Jimmy (President Jimmy Carter) was real good to us back then.

How long did it take to install?

Day and a half. Yeah, they’re good. For the hot water system, I don’t think they were here for more than 2 days. For the space heater, they came down through the garage roof and straight through the crawlspace. Including the installation of new ducts, it took about the same time: They were in and out in less than 2 days.

There are two water tanks in this solar hot water system: in front is the homeowner's existing gas-powered water heater and behind it is a larger solar heat exchange tank. In the larger tank, cold water is pre-heated by the warm antifreeze from the solar panel. The preheated water is then skimmed off the top of the solar tank and enters the gas water heater to finish bringing the water temperature to over 100 degrees.
There are two water tanks in this solar hot water system: in front is the homeowner's existing gas-powered water heater and behind it is a larger solar heat exchange tank. In the larger tank, cold water is pre-heated by the warm antifreeze from the solar panel. The preheated water is then skimmed off the top of the solar tank and enters the gas water heater to finish bringing the water temperature to over 100F.

So how does it work?

The solar space heater works by drawing cold air from the house, heating it, and then blowing back the warmed air into the house. By a system of ducts and fans, the cold air goes through the crawl space and up through the garage and into the panel. It heats it and then goes back down and blows it behind the grate in the family room, where it then rises through the house.

The solar hot water system works by using solar energy to preheat water before it gets heated by the gas-powered water heater. The solar panel on the roof contains antifreeze, which the sun heats. The antifreeze circulates through the heat exchanger, and heats up the water and cycles the water through the solar hot water tank. From that tank it gets to 70 degrees and goes into the gas-heated water tank where it gets heated to over 100 degrees. 70 degrees instead of 45 degrees, which makes it pretty hard to run out of hot water. It works perfect when it’s cold and there’s sun out. As long as it’s not cloudy out, it gets good solar energy.

Did you notice a change after you installed the panels?

Once it was all up and running, we liked it a lot. We were amazed that the system actually worked.

When the solar space heater first starting working, before it got damaged, it worked pretty well. It kept the chill out of the house without the furnace running.

With the solar hot water heater, everybody in the family can take a hot shower. We don’t run out of hot water, ever. Before then we had a 40-gallon water tank. 2 people and the hot water was gone. But now we’ve got 100 gallons of hot water. It’s pretty hard to run out of 100 gallons of hot water unless everybody takes back-to-back showers. The 45-degree water going into the gas tank doesn’t just chill the whole tank suddenly so that there’s no warm water coming out. Water going in at 70 degrees is much more comfortable when it comes out.

Did it really reduce your electricity bill?

About that same time we got the siding insulation done so it was hard to tell what was the siding and what was the solar reflecting in the gas bill. I will never actually try to figure it out, but I’m pretty sure the water system, even if it hadn’t been for the tax advantages, would have paid for itself by now.

What are some challenges you encountered with the solar panels?

The panels are susceptible to extreme weather conditions. The water panel didn’t take any damage from the hailstorm in 1995. The other one took the damage in the ductwork that wasn’t adequately protected. So, the solar space heater hasn’t been used since 1995. Additionally, due to rearranging the home interior, access to the system has been blocked by furniture and boxes and hasn’t been serviced in several years.

The annual antifreeze changing was a couple hundred bucks. Once the servicing company moved out of the area, Ken’s family stopped receiving annual service calls (which included checking the pumps and pressure and having the antifreeze replaced). They plan to get it serviced for the first time in several years when they get their roof redone. Renovating the roof presents another challenge: It’ll cost about $800 to get the solar panel disconnected and put back on when we reroof the house this summer.

Would you do it again, today?

The water system works very well, and I’d recommend that to anybody. Especially when you have teenage girls that take long showers!

The left-side panel (laying flat on the roof) uses the sun to heat antifreeze. The antifreeze is then circulated through a heat exchange system to preheat water to 70F before it enters a gas-powered water heater. The panel on the right (propped up above the garage) is angled to capture the most sunlight in order to warm up cold air (from the basement). It then blows the warm air back into the living areas of house.
The left-side panel (laying flat on the roof) uses the sun to heat antifreeze. The antifreeze is then circulated through a heat exchange system to preheat water to 70F before it enters a gas-powered water heater. The panel on the right (propped up above the garage) is angled to capture the most sunlight in order to warm up cold air (from the basement). It then blows the warm air back into the living areas of house.

Many thanks to Mr. Ken Hall and his family for inviting me to learn about the solar panels in their home.
Read more about solar energy in the article "Northern Virginians Go Solar: Local Efforts for Alternative Energy. "


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