BOZEMAN, Mont. — The Community Food Co-op has joined a growing number of Bozeman businesses that are harnessing the sun's rays to drive heating costs down.
On Monday, Liquid Solar, a solar water-heater company, started installing three solar panels, each roughly the size of a pingpong table, on the roof of the West Main Co-op building. The panels will use the sun's energy to heat water used in the Co-op's bathrooms, food-prep areas and kitchen.
Co-op operations manager Chris Berman said the Co-op had an energy-efficiency audit that revealed 150 to 165 gallons of hot water was used each day.
"It kind of surprised us that it was that low with the dish washer and everything," Berman said. "But we still want to reduce our use of resources."
Liquid Solar owner Todd Hoitsma said he has installed solar water heaters for three other downtown businesses that are now reaping the cost savings.
"The Co-op has a hot-water demand so this reduces the cost associated with that demand," said Hoitsma.
Solar power panels turn the sun's rays into electricity, but the process of changing one form of energy to another makes such panels less efficient. Some energy is lost.
Solar water heating systems use a different kind of panel that collects heat directly with no energy change so they're more efficient.
Even in Montana, such systems can be effective as long as a building isn't shaded out for much of the day, Hoitsma said.
According to the National Renewal Energy Laboratory, Bozeman has the same solar energy potential as parts of Georgia and Alabama.
Hoitsma said the Co-op's solar system will heat the water in an insulated storage tank, which will then flow into an efficient water heater. Because the solar system can heat the water at least 70 percent of the time over the course of the year, the water heater rarely has to come on, so it uses less energy.
Berman said the store decided to install a solar water heater earlier this summer.
"We like to be as sustainable as we can be so, as new technology becomes more developed and affordable, we like to add it," Berman said. "We've already installed things like solar power panels so we're just ticking things off the list."
Such systems can also be used to heat buildings, such as the home of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition at 215 S. Wallace Ave.
Valorie Drake, GYC finance director, said their solar system also heats water that then heats air using a heat exchanger to heat the building.
The only time heat is needed is during the winter months so sometimes they need to use conventional power on cloudy days. But most of the time, they're saving money.
"It doesn't take much sun to heat it up," Drake said. "It cranked last winter with all the sun we had."
Hoitsma has installed similar systems in around 100 homes in the valley. Solar heat systems last two to three decades and can pay for themselves several times over during that time, Hoitsma said.
"I compare it to a mortgage, where people are willing to pay a little extra money up front to reduce their payments," Hoitsma said. "It's the same idea when buying energy-efficient systems that are a little more expensive but save money over the long term."
Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com