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Clean Energy Intro: Top 10 Alternative Solar Uses

Powering your home with big solar panels is expensive. Despite the long-term benefits, not all of us can fork over the cash for the initial investment. Fortunately, since the sun is such a tantalizing and constant source of energy, innovative minds have made lots of ways to harness sol’s rays. Here’s a top-10 list (and introduction) to other forms of solar power that might fit your budget and your practical needs. For less practical needs, a few are just plain cool.

#1: Solar Water Heater

Solar water heaters come in a variety of types and designs which means they’re a versatile and practical option for everyone who enjoys a hot shower. How do they work? Most use the heat of the sun to warm water, which means your hot water tank expends less natural gas or electricity to do the same job. The benefits of this technology: price, investment return, and size. You can upgrade an existing water heater into a solar water heater for $4,000-$6,000. Typically you’ll spend less if you’re building a new home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “your water heating bills should drop 50%–80%” after installation. That means you’ll regain your investment in savings more quickly than other solar systems. And let’s not forget size – these are smaller systems that won’t clutter your roof. Check out this site for diagrams about regional climate, maintenance fees, and more.

a solar tube#2: Skylights and Tubular Daylighting Devices (Solatube Daylighting Devices)

Most homes were not built with windows in the ceiling and installing a skylight can be expensive. Instead, consider installing a tubular daylighting device (aka Solatube Daylighting System) – a clever reflective tube that directs sunlight into interior windowless spaces. Solatube Daylighting Devices provide natural light without electricity, are versatile and inexpensive, and they don’t have to take up any more space than a normal light fixture. Accessories like dimmer switches and lightbulb fixtures allow you to control the brightness and use the tube at night. You can DIY for a few hundred dollars or hire a professionalFiber optic solar lighting uses the same idea, but it’s more complex (and expensive).

#3: Solar Battery Chargers

This is my personal favorite, and the source of much envy: Portable solar panels that charge your cell phone, ipod, or even your laptop. They tend to appear as messenger bags, backpacks or roll-outs and are perfect for outdoor excursions, off-grid applications, or emergencies. Your GPS or cell phone don’t do you much good if their batteries die, and you could take all those pictures on your next vacation with a fully charged camera. This is definitely a luxury item, but we’ve all known the frustration of a dead battery in one or more gadgets.

#4: Solar Lights

These are perhaps the most recognizable and accessible solar products on the market. We’ve all seen the little garden lights poking up out of the ground, their little solar-tops staring back up at us. But these garden lights, in their endless varieties, do not represent the end of solar lighting. There are also portable solar lights and lanterns for camping or emergencies. On a larger scale, some cities have invested in solar street lights or solar trees. If you need to illuminate something but can’t plug it in, solar lights are the perfect solution.

#5: Solar Screens (also known as curtains)

Oh I can just see you rolling your eyes, but let’s face it – as much as we love the sun, sometimes we need a break in the shade. “Passive solar energy” is a fancy way of saying “sunshine warm, shade cool”. Put that principle to work in your home by regulating when and where you let the sun in. If you let the southern sun shine during the winter it will help keep your house warm. (Just remember that sunshine can’t compete with a cold draft from poorly-insulated windows.) Conversely, if you lower the shades during the summer it will lighten your air conditioner’s burden, especially during the hottest part of the day. Putting passive solar energy to your advantage can reduce your energy bills. If you have the opportunity to build, “incorporating passive solar design elements into buildings and homes can reduce heating bills by as much as 50%.”

#6: Solar Oven

If you’ve ever ignited anything with a magnifying glass, you know the heat potential of the sun. Put this idea to work for your next cooking adventure – solar ovens! This technology directs sunlight towards a focal point to raise the temperature and cook whatever finds itself in the way. Designs range from the most basic tin-foil box to complex permanent appliances. These ovens easily reach temperatures high enough to cook meat or boil water and come in many designs. They’re great for outdoor cooking, especially in areas without fuel to burn or where burn-bans are in effect; it’s also safe (no burnt food), making an easy educational activity for kids. Cool factor: in many designs you can watch the food cook before your very eyes!

#7: Solar-Heated Pool or Pond

This one borrows the same principles of the Solar Water Heater, but at a much larger scale and with different equipment. If you’re dead set on owning and heating a swimming pool you’ll save a lot of oil by using a solar pool cover and/or a solar pool heater to regulate the temperature. The pool cover isn’t a floating solar panel. It’s an insulated pool sheet designed to keep in the heat, thus reducing the amount of energy required to maintain water temperature. The solar pool heater acts like a radiator in reverse: water is pumped out into a lattice of tubes where it’s heated by solar panels, then it’s pumped back into the pool. Circulating water through this system keeps it warm, even in cold climates. And just so you know, water has a “large heat capacity, high thermal conductivity“. That means it takes a lot of energy to heat up water and it will transfer that heat into other materials, like the ground. Lots of energy means lots of money, even if you harness free and abundant sunlight.

#8: Solar Decor

There are a plethora of garden and home ornaments that make the most out of solar power. Solar fountains and bird baths are just the beginning. While these may seem a bit frivolous, I think it just goes to show that you don’t have to give up everything you own to go green. You can indulge a little and find gifts for the least eco-inclined people in your life. There are even educational kits that you assemble into trinkets or toys. Who doesn’t want a solar-powered frog?

#9: Solar Signs

This is a practical solar panel application that we tend to overlook, but is already widespread. Use the sun to power signs along the road. Billboards aside, real estate, traffic, and construction signs are hot solar sites. Let’s not forget the urge to stand out from the crowd! This usage of solar power expands our ability to communicate, whether to warn motorists of construction or an accident ahead or to broadcast a product. Whatever your message, lighting a sign with solar makes more than a statement – it expands the application of a powerful modern tool.

#10: Solar Gadgets

Sometimes you just find something so cool or different that you wonder how someone could even imagine it. Solar gadgets are no exception. Here are a few that tickled my wallet or just made me laugh: solar tents for your next camping adventure, solar lighters to impress your friends, solar “personal massage” for someone special, solar tombstones for the dearly departed, and more! How about the “9 most unusual solar gadgets“?

It just goes to show that you don’t have to buy big solar panels for your home to benefit from the energy of the sun. Some techniques, like passive solar energy, don’t require any money at all. Solar means more than silicon wafers or fancy gadgets – it’s any application that puts our nearest star to work. Many of these applications can save you money, and all of them encourage a powerful and practical energy technology.

Images courtesy of:

  1. Solatube – solar tube

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Written By

is an environmentalist who loves to write. She grew up across the southeastern USA and especially love the Appalachian mountains. She went to school in the northeast USA in part to witness different mindsets and lifestyles than those of my southern stomping grounds. She majored in English Lit. and Anthropology. She has worked as a whitewater rafting guide, which introduced her to a wilderness and the complex issues at play in the places where relatively few people go. She also taught English in South Korea for a year, which taught her to take nothing for granted.


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