DURHAM, N.C. — One of the hottest topics in the industry continues to be the rising cost of utilities. Almost every operator has felt the effects of rising gas prices, and each one also feels the pressure to come up with a way to combat the problem.Bob Austin, president of Washin’ and a Dryin’ Laundry in Durham, N.C., has kept a close eye on all his options and decided on a somewhat unconventional solution: a solar-powered water-heating system.A HOT IDEA“The first inkling of anything solar in my brain happened about three years ago in my home. I ended up not going with it for a couple reasons, but that was when I first started thinking,” says Austin. “Really, the motivating factor was when they finalized what the real tax credits with federal and state were going to be.“There are numerous Web sites out there explaining the state and federal tax incentives for commercial solar installations,” Austin says, explaining his situation. “The tax credits are 65 percent of the installed cost with 35 percent of that at the state level and 30 percent federal.“Solar water heating also qualifies for accelerated depreciation under MACRS (Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System). Since North Carolina also has an income tax, this solar equipment is excluded in the appraisal for property tax purposes.”The North Carolina State Energy Office ended up being the deciding factor though. The investment qualified for a low-interest (1 percent) Energy Improvement Loan.“The loan program iced the cake, basically,” he says. “[It’s] going to up-front the money for me, I get the tax credit, and instead of paying the electric company or the gas company, say $300 a month, I’m basically just paying off the energy office loan for $300 a month. And at the end of five years, which is the payback period, then I own the equipment. I’m going to have to pay somebody, so at the end of five years I might as well own something.”MAKING THE PLAN COME TOGETHEROf course, in business it’s never as simple as it sounds, and a lot of different people and organizations were involved in the project at nearly every stage of its development.“It has not been a cakewalk to gather all the parties together, government and non-government, to see a common vision,” Austin says. “It has taken patience and attention to detail.”One of the first parties to get involved was the North Carolina Solar Center.“The solar center really helped me in determining what’s the best bang for your buck,” Austin says. “Is it really worth it to try this new, cutting-edge stuff or is it safer to go traditional? They answer all those types of questions.“It was really, really useful to have a third party — independent, didn’t benefit either way with me doing it or not doing it or going with product X or product Y — to say ‘you don’t need eight panels, you really just need six,’ or you can’t do it with four of those types, you need three of these types.’“I was looking at what they call evaporate tube, which is a small glass tube that has a gas in it that heats up and the heat exchanger exchanges the gas as opposed to liquid, so it’s able to heat a lot hotter. Instead of heating to like 150 F you can get up to like 190 F.”Clean Energy Durham also played a significant role.“If you’re familiar with something called the Million Roof Initiative, that’s a U.S. program that’s trying to get a million solar roofs installed,” says Austin. “Clean Energy Durham was sort of an offshoot of that.“They helped out a lot in determining how to [set up] the backup system. It’s great when it’s sunny, but what about days when it’s not sunny? What are you going to use?”He ended up going with a tankless water system, or instantaneous heating, as a supplementary backup. “All of the water is stored in these tanks, and when there’s hot water in the tanks it just passes through the instantaneous heater, but if it’s not hot enough, then the instantaneous water heater will kick it up that extra couple of degrees you need to get it out.”It was almost as much of a learning experience for the installer as it was for Austin. “I think I’m probably the first person who’s doing this — I’m right out of the gate — and the installer is like, ‘I can’t wait to see what happens, because I know a lot of people are hinging on what happens to you.’”Because Austin doesn’t own the building for Washin’ and a Dryin’, he also came across a few problems working with the landlord.“He wants a deposit, which I can understand. He required me to do some structural engineering certification to make sure that what I was putting on the roof wasn’t going to fall through,” Austin says. “I don’t have the drawings for the building, I just lease the building, so it’s been a struggle to work with him.”DOUBLE BENEFITSo what is Austin hoping to get from all his work? It breaks down into two areas: efficiency benefits and marketing benefits.“Solar systems can last 30 years, so if I put it in now and 30 years from now I still have it, the payoff will be huge,” Austin says. “And as gas prices continue just to fly through the roof, the higher they go the bigger the margin is going to be.“The other thing is it’s a promotional thing. We’re helping the environment, so it helps with the marketing side of the business,” he explains. “I’ve got four competitors within a mile of me, so anything you can do to draw an extra person or two in is a real help.”The media coverage is off to a good start, with both the Durham Herald Sun and a local radio station offering to do local-interest stories when the panel is installed. “That hasn’t happened yet because the installation isn’t complete, but both of them are that media blitz that I plan on after I flip that switch.”
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