New Hot Market: Using IT to Monitor Solar Water Heaters

It should come as no surprise that the recently launched California incentive program to promote solar water heaters has been leading to a boom for manufacturers, service providers, and startups. SunReports, for one, on Wednesday unveiled a package of monitoring devices and services for solar hot water systems designed for business customers.

The system, called Apollo2, measures and analyzes temperatures and flows of the water as it moves from the water main before being heated to the pipes that distribute the hot water throughout a building. Sensors pick up the data and send them to a SunReports datacenter for aggregation and analysis.

SunReports then provides the analytics via web portals to both the installers who put in the solar heating systems and to the businesses that bought them, said Thomas Dinkel, SunReports’ CEO, who hailed from Fat Spaniel, which develops monitoring and data collection hardware and software for owners of solar panels.

“It’s important to reinforce the purchase decisions by providing some visibility into their systems,” Dinkel said. “It’s terribly important for consumers to know they are achieving their objectives.”

SunReports makes money by selling the sensors and monitoring device and charging an upfront service fee for five years worth of data collection and analysis, Dinkel said. The company’s customers are distributors and installers, who can then bundle the SunReports package as part of the solar water heater offering or a standalone product. The startup is pricing Apollo2 and the service fee at around $1,600.

California is administering its solar heater rebate program under California Solar Initiative, which also oversees the incentive program for installing solar panels at homes, businesses, and nonprofit and government buildings located within the territories of the three main investor-owned state utilities. The California Public Utilities Commission began the CSI-Thermal program for residential installations in May, and is the process of finalizing the rules for multifamily and commercial installations. Dinkel said he expects the CPUC to adopt rules for multifamily/commercial systems by the end of this month.

The rebate program can provide a rebate of up to $1,875 for a single-family system, though the state expects the average to be $1,500. These rebates are good for solar water heaters that can reduce the reliance on regular hot water heaters that run on natural gas. Solar water heaters that can reduce the use of electric hot water heaters are eligible for rebates of as much as $1,273 (the average being $1,010). The state has budgeted $350.8 million for CSI-Thermal and plans to run the program until the end of 2017, or when the money is spent.

SunReports launched a monitoring package, called Apollo1, for the residential market in April this year. Dinkel said the suggested price for Apollo1 is $800, including the service contract. Apollo1 also can monitor the performance of solar panels.

The state doles out the rebates based on the estimated performance of the solar water heaters. The state does require a performance monitoring for heaters installed for multifamily and business customers (the metering rules have yet to be finalized).

Dinkel said the program’s requirement isn’t the only incentive for installers to do a good job of monitoring the solar water heaters they’ve sold. The state requires equipment manufacturers and installers to offer a minimum warranty of 10 years, so keeping both residential and commercial installations running smoothly – and fixing any problems quickly – can save money for both the sellers and the solar water heater owners.

Home and business owners are looking for more simplified data showing how much solar heating energy is produced throughout the day and how that translates into carbon footprint reduction, Dinkel said. Installers, on the other hand, will get more detailed analysis of the temperatures, water flows, energy production by the solar heaters (versus heating by conventional heaters that act as backup systems), as well as alerts of any signs of performance problems.

SunReports’ emergence reflects the growth of the energy monitoring market, where a variety of hardware and software developers are looking for opportunities to measure energy generation and consumption for clients from utilities to consumers. Although the market is young, technology companies have started to offer devices and web-based services that will likely overlap in their functions.

Dinkel said he’s hoping to partner with home-energy monitoring companies that want to beef up their offerings to include solar water heaters and solar electric systems. Startups such as Skyline Innovation offer not only solar water heaters but also monitoring systems and services.

SunReports has sold “hundreds” of its products so far, and is aiming to tackle the European market, where incentive programs for solar water heaters are more widely available. The company is distributing its monitoring packages through Schüco, a large German seller and integrator of solar electric and hot water systems that already has been doing business in the United States for several years.

Dinkel said he would like to raise about $1 million to speed up the company’s foray into the European market. SunReports is self-funded and has received funding from angel investors.

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