We Get Greener Kit Cassingham & her Bigger Half

Choosing Solar vs Propane Heating Systems

If you hadn't noticed, I am for reducing the US's reliance on oil, especially foreign oil. I'm also strongly in favor of using renewable energy instead of oil for heating and transportation. My quest to reduce our reliance on propane is causing me to balance our budget with my ethics and environmental stance. In other words, I've hit a moral, for me, dilemma.

After putting over $1,300 of propane in the tank -- mid-winter -- it seemed to me it was past time to seriously consider installing a solar water heating system. Who wants to pay $2,500-ish/year in propane costs? I wanted to move forward with installing solar hot water panels on the property. Evacuated tube collectors, to be more precise.

Evacuated Tube Collectors
Collection Tubes for solar hot water system

As I typed that it occurred to me I am paying $1.14/year/square foot of house. How much do you typically pay for heat, hot water, and cooking? We have an energy efficient home, and live frugally (heat set to 64 degrees, few demands on hot water, and low oven/stove use) so I'd think we could get by with less propane.

This great idea of mine came about after sitting next to a man who, on his Telluride home, just put a few solar hot water panels. He talked about the low cost of $1,500/ panel. That seemed most reasonable. So, I started my research. I found three companies I wanted to talk to (there are more in the area, but based on previous experiences narrowed my search to these three).

Aside from it being an interesting shopping experience we found that solar hot water is expensive, at least as a retrofit. The estimated costs ranged from $15,000-$35,000. Gulp!

The price range reflected different installation and sizing choices. The cheapest had no heat storage option, and a relatively small set of solar hot water panels. The most expensive involved ample heat storage and a large array of solar panels.

If the solar hot water system covered 100 percent of our propane needs, we'd pay for the system in somewhere between 6 to 14 years, assuming the cost of propane stayed level. Given that the cost has more than doubled since we started using it eight-ish years ago, I feel confident in saying that the payoff would be faster than that. But, the system would cover only about half of our propane needs meaning the payoff is more like 12 to 28 years. Did I already say "Gulp!"?

If we were going to stay in this house "forever" I'd urge My Bigger Half to take the plunge with me. But we hope to build a new house, in the next few years, on the land where his office is, fixing the mistakes we made in this house. With that dream in place, how do you make decisions, assuming that the new system cost isn't of financial consideration (which I'm not saying at all)?

For now we are opting to take a few more energy-efficiency steps instead of sinking that much money into a project that we don't know if we'd see any payback on. We'll incorporate various alternative and renewable energy systems into our next house.

Being green, and environmentally sensitive, can be such a challenge. Not getting to do "the right thing" is disappointing too. I know the payoff would be about 10-15 years, but I haven't been able to convince My Bigger Half we should lay out the money, especially given we'll still have to pay for propane.

What would you do? How would you balance lowering your carbon footprint for tomorrow and living below your means for today?


$15000 to $30000 seems crazy! I'm speaking, however, as somebody who has no carpentry skills. When I was growing up "in a neighborhood", my dad put a solar hot water augmentation system onto the side of the house. Tubes painted black. A piece of fiberglass barn roof over them. A tank in the basement (repurposed) with a homemade heat exchanger. All sitting between the water intake and the "real" hot water heater. I can't believe that it would be $15000 to dabble with augmenting your hot water! Shucks, for a tenth that amount, think about all the hose you could lay outside on hot summer days, at least, and get a boost that way!

Good luck. We have the same worries, but at this point are only trying to solve it with a timer in the hallway to limit teenage shower length.

vlnvla at February 27, 2011 3:01 PM


I too have no carpentry skills. And the price seems "breathtaking", which is a big reason we've decided to delay this step. But I will acknowledged that costs when we were growing up were lower than today.

It's also hard to compare your installation to ours. I know ours is complex and the installation needs to be large so we can heat the entire house in the deep of winter. I know our winters can be bitter cold as well.

We're going to take belt-cinching steps as well, but we don't have many more we can take, given our extreme efforts to date. But we'll do what we can to lower our propane needs.

Thanks for your reminder that many of us can do our own projects at times.


Kit Cassingham at March 6, 2011 6:01 PM

Here in Israel we get plenty of sun. As a result most people have a solar hot water system, which results in lower prices, and no need to retrofit. On the other hand, these systems are relatively useless for heating because in the winter there isn't enough sun to heat the water sufficiently.

Another thing is, A/C seems to be more efficient than propane for heating, and may be a good alternative especially if you already have it installed to cool your house in the summer.

Mati F at March 16, 2011 1:48 AM

Mati, you have some interesting experiences with solar energy there. If we were just heating water for showers and the like this wouldn't be as big a deal, but we are heating water for in floor heat as well. You may not have enough sun in the winter to heat water, but our cold weather really would really sap a small system.

Now, summer cooling is an issue we don't have. Our nights are generally cool enough to cool the house, then the overhangs and insulation keep the house cool most of the time. When all else fails we use the whole-house fan. It would be nice if heating were that simple. And maybe it is.

Thanks for your comments.


Kit Cassingham at March 27, 2011 10:39 PM

Gee, Kit, have you and [My Bigger Half] looked into a ground heat source based system? Yes, it does use hydro. But even a good solar system needs some electricity for pumps, etc.

I think your best bet is to save up money, so that when you build your new home, you can have passive gain and active heat systems, and not skip on cost/quality.

Investing money in your current home, unless you think you can recover the install costs, may not be worthwhile if you plan to move.

When buying solar and other systems, beware of one thing: Make sure the guy who sells it is also the guy who installs it. Some folks talk a good line, and sell nice stuff, but when it comes to actually making it work... they can't. Be sure to get references, and ACTUALLY GO SEE some past projects. And while you are checking out the installer's last work, make sure you interview the owners, to see if things worked out ok.

Pierre Laberge at April 3, 2011 2:06 AM

There is possibly a much less expensive option and that is to build a parabolic collector. There are old 12' satellite dishes that can found just for the taking. I've wanted to convert one of these for hot water for years but have not. The dish can be lined with small wall mirrors to cover the entire surface. Keep all of the mirrors covered during construction and servicing because of the intense concentration of light. A tracking system is needed for operation. Hot water and steam is possible.

Fred at May 1, 2011 1:20 PM

Pierre, I like your suggestion about just building anew, and doing it righter that time than this time. :~) We won't make any money back on any renewable energy installations so agree it's best to just wait.

Thanks for the advise about buying and installing equipment. It's prudent to get references and see the work of any contractor; your reminder is appreciated.


Kit Cassingham at May 2, 2011 12:43 PM

Fred, I like your idea. The challenge is that we aren't handy and don't do such projects. That's an interesting idea to consider for our future home/office build. Thanks for chiming in. I will be able to track down people who are talented at that kind of installation by the time we are ready for it.


Kit Cassingham at May 2, 2011 12:45 PM
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