Farewell to the Solar Water Heater

I call that getting swindled and pimped
I call that getting tricked by business. – Macklemore


It seemed like a good idea at the time.

As some of you will recall, in 2010 we had a solar water heater installed. Thanks to the federal tax credit and a rebate from the electric company, we only had to pay about 1/3 of the total cost, and we hoped to save $30-50/month on our electric bill by using the sun to heat our water. Green? Check. Interesting and unusual? Check. Cost-effective? Probably. I pegged our break-even point at 3-5 years, much better than the 20-year break-even point for solar electrical panels.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

For a couple of years, the system worked great in summer, okay in spring and fall, and hardly at all in winter due to changes in roof temperature. That aspect wasn’t a surprise as the system only works when the roof is warmer than the water in the tank. However, I never noticed any significant drop in our electric usage. With so much variability in weather conditions and hot water usage, it would be very difficult to measure exactly how much the solar water heater was saving. However, I expected to see some difference, especially in summer when it heated the water so well.

In 2012, after two years in service, the system stopped heating water as well as it had before. The pump still ran water up to the heating panels on the roof and back, but the water temperature rose much more slowly than it should have. So I had to call the installer back out. He cleaned out one of the filters or something like that, and afterward it worked great for about a year. Fortunately, he didn’t charge for the visit other than a small fee for a failed part. I must add that the failed part was a tube that leaked water into our bedroom closet, which was more than a bit annoying.

Finally, this summer, the pump quit working correctly. Instead of pumping water up to the roof, it merely vibrated and made weird and loud noises, loud enough for me to hear from our bedroom. The installer, along with every other North Texas company who installed the Fafco Sungrabber system, had gone out of business. The one company I could find who still serviced these systems in the area was difficult to work with and not very responsive. But they finally delivered the final straw of bad news: the replacement pump was nearly $700.

I was done. “Come take this thing out,” I told them.

On Wednesday of last week, about a week after I nearly flooded my house by trying to do it myself (always know where to find the key to turn off your water in case of emergencies, people!!), the crew came out and removed my much-hyped solar water heater. Considering how much I paid to have it installed ($1500) and then removed ($250), I am quite sure that I never earned my money back despite my high hopes at the time. My intentions were good. I think the installers did a decent job. But it seems that the technology just didn’t work that well. The boss at the removal company said he refused to install the Fafco system in homes I had because it was “crap.”

Now we are back to having a normal, boring, non-eco-friendly water heater. It isn’t the most efficient, but it works. When we sell this house someday, we won’t need to explain that we’ve got this weird solar thing and describe how to use it, nor will we need to scramble to find someone who can repair it. That’s one less thing to worry about.