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Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008

Solar Panels Boost Hot Water Products

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Jack Daniels, co-owner of Milwaukee-based Hot Water Products, one of the largest distributors of thermal solar panels in the Midwest, isn’t one to go with the flow. “We’re not waiting for business to come to us,” says Daniels, whose partner, Howard Endres, began selling high-efficiency water heaters and boilers in 1998.

Daniels nudged his partner into the solar panel business three years ago, soon after Daniels became a partner in the company. Solar thermal panels circulate and heat water, an efficient supplement to natural gas or electric systems. Hot water can also be passed through a furnace or boiler to heat a house or business.

Today, the company designs and engineers systems for homes and businesses, and hires contractors for installations. Hot Water Products (HWP) has trained more than 100 contractors to install the panels, and fields three sales technicians who call Wisconsin businesses to talk about going solar.

Business is heating up. HWP sold about $400,000 worth of solar panels last year, and $1 million worth this year. “We only sold three installs in 2006, our first year. In 2007, panel installs were 10% of our total business, and so far in 2008 they are 20%,” Daniels says.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight to electricity, still generate most of the buzz at energy fairs. But solar thermal panels, he insists, are the better bargain. They capture 98% of the sunlight and turn it into usable energy, while PV captures no more than 30% of sunlight. Solar thermal is far less expensive, and the cost of a typical commercial installation can be captured in five years or less. Payback for PV is at least four times longer.

More companies are turning to solar thermal for new construction, including Culver’s restaurants, one of HWP’s clients. Daniels’ company designed a 100-panel installation on the roof of the Kalahari Resorts water park in Wisconsin Dells to provide 35% of the hot water needed for its laundry facilities. And HWP recently entered into a partnership with Mondial Energy Inc., of Toronto, to design and provide solar thermal panels to state of Wisconsin facilities, including 26 state university campuses, government buildings and prisons.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the alternative energy business,” Daniels says.

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