Epiphany: What I Learned From Heating My Pool With Solar Panels

A Hamptons pool, Photo: Dan Rattiner
A Hamptons pool, Photo: Dan Rattiner

Three years ago, the Town of Southampton tried to pass a law to force anyone putting in a new heater for a swimming pool to use only solar heat. It would not mean you’d have to take your old gas or electric heater out, just that when it came time for a new one, you’d have to replace it with solar.

Certainly the math was there. A solar heater would cost $5,000 for a small pool. A gas pool heater would cost $3,000, but it would bump up your electric bill at least $1,000 a summer. In two years, you’d pay for the solar heater. After that it was solar in a landslide.

Of course, the townspeople refused to rally around solar pool heaters to make sure they did their part about global warming. They squashed the idea. Nobody was going to tell them they had to have a solar heater. Were the politicians in bed with the solar panel people? What about their cousin in the gas heater business? And $5,000 for a new heater? And what ugly thing would they have to put up on their roof. This was America. The land of the free. They’d put in a solar heater if they damn well wanted. It ran against at least 3 of the 27 amendments to the Constitution.

Personally, I am in favor of stamping out global warming. I have a swimming pool. But I felt during this battle that I was on the sidelines because I had a propane pool heater that seemed to have a lot of life left in it, even if it cost about $300 a month extra on my electric bill during the swimming season.

Then came next spring which was last spring. It was dead.

I did, at that time, make the decision that we would go without heating the swimming pool at all that summer. We had kids over. But they’d jump in and jump out again. An eight year old knows when conditions ain’t right for swimming. They’d play on the patio. At other times, adults including me, tried to venture in. Same thing happened to them. What we had, last summer, was a gazing pool. You could sit around it and stare at it. That was it.

This spring, I went for the solar heater. As I said, it was a no-brainer, financially. This is not meant as a plug for the people who put this in—there are lots of people who do this work and most are good—but who I called was Go Solar in Riverhead and they sent somebody down with a clipboard to go over the matter.

The long and short of this story is that Go Solar put in a solar heater, did a good job and it works just fine. The 8 year-olds jump into the pool and stay in. I jump in and stay in. Other adults jump in and stay in. They’re a whole lot of beach toys and Styrofoam things and inflatable balls and splashing and so forth going on, and the pool is again a big success.

But the real story is what this has all done to my mind. I am now looking at this thing in a whole different way.

Before this new heater, what I had was a big spherical water pump that sucked the water out of one end of the pool, through some underground pipes and into one end of the water pump and then out the other end of the water pump to a big propane water heater just adjacent to where gas flames heated it, then out the other end of the water heater and back down some underground pipes and out through some nozzles at the other end of the pool to send the water circulating back in. It was an understandable contraption to me. An electric line extended out to a exterior wall outlet where the pump and heater got plugged in. Another line brought in propane from a big tank behind my garage and that tank got filled by a man driving a truck from a propane company who’d come up our driveway with a hose and nozzle to do the deed. Thus, with the turn of a temperature control knob did our pool get heated.

I know this is boring to describe, you already know this, and this is the way things work. There had been two sources of power at work. The electricity from the Lighting Company. And the propane from a gas company that buys it from an outfit that gets it out of the ground.

As a matter of fact, the Lighting Company makes the electricity from coal and oil and other stuff that comes out of the ground too. All contribute to global warming to make the 8 year olds happy.

So I’m standing there with the guy with the clipboard and we are looking at the defunct propane heater and I’m saying—do we take this out and replace it with a solar heater, which has its panels up on the roof?

And he looks at me like I’m crazy.

“No, you just take that away. There’s NOTHING that replaces it.”

I find this hard to process.

So here is how I now see this thing.

I have a swimming pool that is on the small size. It’s 16 feet by 32. It averages five feet deep. And though I still have to use a water pump to circulate the water around as before, that’s it! The heating is happening. And there’s nothing to plug in at all. Instead, there is this big black blanket on the top of my roof facing the southern sky and there is one pipe that leads cold water up to it from the water pump and another pipe that leads what is now hot water down from it back to the pipes that go to the nozzles of the swimming pool.

In the first two days, the temperature of my pool went up from 67 degrees to 77 degrees. It is now as warm as a bath. That happened because the two days were mostly sunny. So the blanket up there heated up – or actually it did NOT heat up—it simply passed through the heat of the sun to these small water lines that pass through it zigzag fashion like an electric blanket on your bed.

Though of course, unlike an electric blanket, you don’t plug it in.

I cannot tell you how unique this concept is to me. Until now, it’s been dig the earth and consume. Now, suddenly it is just gather up the sun’s energy. Amazing.

Interestingly, I do think this belies the experience you get with a Toyota Prius. Those who own these cars seem to think they are doing their job in reducing global warming.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Toyota Prius runs on gasoline and a small battery-driven electric engine. I saw a chart that showed a comparison between a Toyota Prius and a Toyota Camry in terms of its effect on global warming. On a scale of 100, with the Camry at 100 units of causing global warming, the Prius is at 65. The charging of the batteries to run the electric engine comes from electricity that comes from the aforementioned power plant doing its dirty damage. The gasoline for the other part is also doing its dirty damage. It is an illusion it is stopping global warming. It causes LESS global warming. But only not using it at all would stop the global warming it is causing.

And then there is my solar pool heater. It uses NOTHING except the sun’s heat. Some day, if enough people around the world use solar heating, it’s possible that all the sucking up of the sun’s heat to create power could cause the amount of heat on the surface of the earth to decline. We’d get global COOLING!

I look up at the sky every day to see how the warming of my swimming pool is going. It’s sort of a random business that comes from God and Nature. Some days it’s rainy and nothing is happening, other days it is partly cloudy and we get some heat and some days it is bright and sunny and the heat barrels in.

I’m told the pool could heat up into the high 80s if we get a series of sunny days. There is a thermostat up there—a piece of metal that expands from the heat or shortens from the cold—and it sends messages to the system to turn itself off or on. No electricity used there either.

This is amazing stuff.

I’ve asked for a price on replacing my hot water heater. It’s a 10-year-old pig. Runs on electricity. It’s ripe for this.

I wonder if we could circulate the pool water with solar. I am getting an education.

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