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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Solar Water Heating Assessment Project: Understanding and Improving Effectiveness for California Households

  • Author(s): Moezzi, Mithra
  • Ingle, Aaron
  • Outcault, Sarah
  • Sanguinetti, Angela
  • Lutzenhiser, Loren
  • Wilhite, Hal
  • Lutz, James D.
  • Meier, Alan
  • Kutzleb, Jennifer
  • et al.

Solar thermal water heaters are an old technology used a century ago in California. They are now used extensively, in updated form, in many countries. According to government and industry estimates, well-functioning solar water heaters can theoretically displace 50 to 80 percent of the output of a natural gas-fueled household water heater, depending how hot water usage aligns with production and storage capacities. In so doing, they offer tremendous potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, fuel consumption, and energy bills. Such performance holds promise for California given its climate change and energy efficiency policy goals, since 40 percent of the natural gas used in California households is used to produce hot water. However, absent programs, only a specialty market for solar water heaters has developed. To encourage wider deployment, the California Solar Initiative—Thermal program offers financial incentives for systems qualifying under a carefully crafted set of specifications. The program has had some limited success since its inception in 2010. Within that context, this research assessed the performance and potential future use of natural gas-displacing solar water heaters in single-family homes in California, attending to a wide range of sociotechnical considerations. This project documented high diversity in user satisfaction and perceived system performance, and a qualified decrease in project costs to below $5,000 per installation. Solar water heating is a technology in progress, not universally suitable but instead appealing to varied niches shaped by household sensibilities, abilities, and hot water use levels. Thus, recent evolution provides a counterpoint to the pessimism, even as serious difficulties remain. The suitability of solar water heating for California households is not purely a matter of costeffectiveness within a typical energy efficiency framework, but also of evolving performance, perceptions, and values in light of ongoing and aspirational energy and social transitions ahead.

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