A thrilled crowd in Yelm Thursday evening viewed an innovative solar hot water heater that delivers enough hot water to heat a home or a greenhouse- even in wintertime.
Even more exciting, the heating device was not some pie-in-the-sky prototype but an actual production unit, designed and produced by Silk Road Solar, a Kennewick, WA company headed by engineer Raymond Lam.
“We’ve sold about 200-300 of these units in the past year or so,” Lam said, “and that’s more than all of our competitors combined.”
Lam’s success is attributed to old-fashioned business acumen – build a better product and give the customer a fair price. Silk Road sells its residential-sized heaters for about $1,600, which can generate about 50 gallons of hot water per day, even with cold, overcast skies.
“Our solar hot water heaters average about 160º, even in winter,” Lam told his audience.
This ability to generate high temperatures during the low-sunlight months is unique in the solar industry. To accomplish this feat, Lam’s products capture the full spectrum of solar energy, in particular the infra-red and ultra-violet wavelengths, which pass through clouds and rain, and not just the energy delivered by visible sunlight, which is what typical solar heaters utilize.
Silk Road’s heaters use a series of sensitive rods composed of copper, aluminum and stainless steel to capture the solar energy, and the process is further enhanced by encasing the rods inside vacuum tubes coated with a special film. The tips of the rods are then placed inside a “header,” which is like a water-filled boiler. As the rods heat up from the sun, they transfer the heat to the water in the header.
Enough hot water can be produced in the winter to run the fluid through a standard household base-board heating system in order to provide ambient heat throughout a home.
“These units are ideal to heat greenhouses, so food can be grown year ‘round even in the cold, rainyPacific Northwest,” Lam said.
With this singular ability to generate high heat in the winter, Silk Road heaters avoid the major pitfall of sunlight-dependent units, namely, their inability to prevent the water from freezing in cold weather.
To counter that deficiency, visible sunlight units must use a glycol anti-freeze solution, which then means that water can not be heated directly. That adds another layer of machinery, such as heating coils, pumps and controllers, and coupled the loss of heat in the transfer from the solar unit to a hot water tank, makes the visible sunlight heaters much less efficient than Silk Road’s design.
“Our design is simpler,” said Lam, “so it’s less expensive.”
With units under $2,000, Silk Road products are significantly cheaper than competing solar heaters, which typically range from $5,000-$10,000 for a household unit.
Lam also told his audience that current federal energy policies make purchasing a solar hot water heater more affordable than ever before. He said that homeowners installing a unit this year will receive a 30% tax credit, and folks in rural areas, such as Yelm, can receive an additional 25% credit from the USDA.
“The USDA alternative energy program ends June 11, so you best have your application for the tax credit filed by the first of June,” Lam warned.
In addition, owners of solar hot water heaters receive a greenhouse gas credit of $5 per ton of gas each year. However, the average homeowner only saves about a ton of carbon dioxide per year.
“I give my customers a discount if they assign the tax credit to Silk Road Solar,” Lam said, adding that his company can stockpile the credits to a significant degree and then sell them to corporations seeking greenhouse gas abatements.
“This money goes into our employees’ pension fund,” Lam said, giving a view to how he has a comprehensive view of his operations. In fact, Mr. Lam is not a dreamy-eyed inventor, but more of a creative genius that constantly asks how can we do this better?
Silk Road Solar stems from that perspective. Before forming his company, Lam worked as systems analyst for Boise Cascade and other large corporations where he sought ways to lower the environmental impacts of their operations, especially with recycling and composting programs. Along the way, he won awards from the US EPA and the Washington state Department of Ecology, which led him to found Silk Road Enterprises in 2008, to expand his designs of enhanced environmental practices. That in turn led to developing his remarkable solar heaters.
“I wanted to bring affordable solar technology to the average person, and that led us to build these hot water heaters,” Ray said.
Ray Lam’s commitment to improving the environment imbues his vision and guides his company.
“The green movement has to be driven by the grass roots,” he said. “People can not afford any extra expense in order to be green, so what I do is commercialize the great ideas that have been developed by all the smart guys out there. I didn’t invent anything new for our solar hot water heaters. It uses off-the-shelf technology that other people have invented.”
Nevertheless, Lam has a grand view of the world that goes beyond just hot water.
“I’d like to see the average person be utility-independent.”
Lam illustrates how that can be partially accomplished with his solar hot water heaters, declaring that the average household, which spends 30% of its energy bill on heating hot water and another 25% on ambient heat, could save over half of its annual expenditures with his products.
Continuing to think on a grand scale, Silk Road Enterprises is currently focused on anaerobic digesters, transforming food scraps and yard wastes into fuels, and recycling programs for mattresses and auto windshields. As he explores these areas, Lam sees unique aspects of the problem that could lead to innovation solutions.
“Windshields shatter so uniformly, and the pieces do not have real sharp edges – that’s got to lead to something,” he told the Mountain News with a twinkle in his eye, excited by the possibilities of the unknown even in something so mundane as auto glass.
For more information on Silk Road’s solar hot water heaters: www.silkroadenvironmental.com or (509) 460-3012.
© 2011 The Mountain News WA
SOLAR HOT WATER PRESENTATION Thursday May 19 at 6:00 pm
Gordon’s Grange next to Gordon’s Gardens Center at 308 Yelm Ave E., Yelm
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