A market is opening for alternative energy

You electrical contractors better get with the program, or you are going to lose a huge corner of the market in alternative energy,” said Lori Ryker, describing the marketplace as it relates to electrical contractors and the increasing demand by consumers.

“If you don’t, you will lose business to product specialists in that field.”   Ryker should know. As the author of “Off the Grid,” a book that illustrates the benefits of alternative energy sources in high-end homes she has designed, she is a designer and partner in Ryker/Nave Design in Livingston, Mont. A sequel to here book will be published in spring 2007.

“What we’re seeing is that the product sales reps are taking the place of the electrical contractor because they have the product and are adding to their bag of tricks the ability to install them, when the electrical contractors don’t. The skies are full of specialists flying all over the country to steal this business, and they are charging a premium for their services,” Ryker said.

With many electrical contractors focusing on new construction, it limits their vision. “They also are missing the potential presented by a vast market that exists with retrofits to existing structures,” she said.

Among her primary irritants is the failure by contractors to consider one important element in alternative energy: interconnectivity, which is applied through the integrated building systems approach. This proactive method evaluates the potential of bringing together in one package all of the options available to builders, especially those interested in designing and building systems that will result in reduced energy costs.

It’s not looking at individual pieces of the puzzle.

“The contractor who is on top of the game will determine methods of integrating any of the alternatives that are appropriate,” Ryker said.

As an example, she points to the traditional use of water heaters and boilers in the installation of radiant heat.

“As an alternative, a boiler and hybrid hot-water heater powered by wind energy or solar panels connected to an inverter can be effective and more efficient. Smart tech also will be huge,” she said.

Seattle-based clients of Ryker’s firm focused on energy savings in their area, where winters are gray and rainy, and summer temperatures rarely rise above 80 degrees. Rather than using a traditional water-heater plumbing system, her firm installed photovoltaic panels to capture solar energy. The panels were wired to an on-demand water heater with motion sensors placed in the bathrooms.

“The sensors activated the hot water heater when someone entered the bathroom.”

So, rather than having a boiler running continuously to heat water that may only be required intermittently, the heaters work only when there is a demand.

“And, they were eventually able to program the amount of time the boiler ran to meet their exact needs,” she said, achieving maximum efficiency.

The result was reduced use of the boiler, maximized use of solar energy and smaller checks sent to the local power company. Installing the components require no more talent than that of a master electrician, but did require an awareness of the options.

Ryker also is a proponent of emerging technology in the geothermal area. These days, geothermal energy may be the foundation of a residential or commercial energy system. Conceptually, the process is no more difficult than installing a radiant heating system, except that Mother Nature provides the first stage of heat.

Step one involves burying coils filled with glycol or some other liquid outside a structure to a depth where the soil is 55 degrees, 12 months of the year. The glycol is naturally heated by the earth and sent inside by a heat pump. In the process, the temperature increases 300 percent, so the temperature of the glycol on arrival is 150 degrees. If the pump is energized by solar panels, the heat is, essentially, free.

The flip side is, like a thermos, a system imbedded in the floor also can be used to introduce cool glycol to the interior, perhaps reducing the demand for air conditioning during summer months.

“A contractor should be sensitive to his environment and understand that different locales require different solutions,” Ryker said.

For instance, the need for air conditioning in July in Phoenix will be significantly different than in Portland, Maine. And it’s a fair assumption that winters in Arizona are more temperate than those up north.

Similarly, it’s so windy in the Rockies and the heartland that wind energy may make more sense than in other locations.

“This isn’t just technology for the ‘Greens’, by the way,” Ryker said. “This is rapidly becoming the way mainstream America is looking at energy costs.”

The downside to this approach is the initial cost of components. However, that argument essentially falls into the rent-versus-buy mentality of home ownership.

The upfront cost of an energy-saving system’s components likely will be greater than the cost of tapping into the grid. However, if the monthly cost of a traditional energy system, electricity or gas, is a variable amount, it is safe to assume that costs will increase over time unless we discover oil on every street corner in the United States.

Calculated on a monthly basis, like a fuel bill, a full-on alternative system may cost the amount of the energy added to the cost of the system. Over time, the system will be paid for and the recurring expense will disappear. Then, energy bills will be, at least significantly reduced, if not eliminated. A building owner or resident may actually see increased cash flow and the inherent value of the property will be enhanced as the rest of the world wakes up to the potential savings and begins to expect energy-savings systems.

If installation of a total system is not initially in the cards for your customers, it may be assumed in the planning stage of a project, allowing various components to be added as the financial situation improves.

Finally, if the electrical contractor is more involved at the outset, he may sell the components and installation; the firm will make more money and have a happier clientele.                EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.