Are you one of those self-service laundry owners who likes to put everything around you to good use? If so, you may want to put the sun to work for your laundry.More specifically, have you ever thought about utilizing solar energy at your laundry? While this concept may seem futuristic to some of you, solar applications have been part of businesses for years, says Garrett Schweikhofer, director of design and installation for SunHeat Solar, Addison, Ill. SunHeat Solar provides solar-energy installation services for residential and commercial applications. Simply, the company supplies its customers with the ability to generate hot water and electricity, utilizing an array of solar-energy technology.“Going solar in laundries has been around for quite some time,” says Schweikhofer. “We work with a veteran laundry broker.”You may be familiar with The World’s Largest Laundromat, which has been featured in American Coin-Op. The Berwyn, Ill.-based laundry utilizes a 36-panel, solar hot-water system.THE RIGHT CHOICE?Some might consider the self-service laundry industry to be a bit conservative, so it’s not unusual for owners to look for more traditional solutions to traditional problems. If your water-heating equipment is dated, and you are looking to upgrade, there might be another way to go, Schweikhofer advises.“We would look at your existing laundry equipment, determine its efficiency, condition, etc.,” he explains. “Then we would determine if you need to upgrade, and what gains you can make in terms of efficiency.” The water heater, water tank, and large boiler are all taken into consideration, he adds.“We can upgrade to combine solar and high-efficiency water-heating equipment. Now is the time to think about this.”The solar panels preheat the water. “There are several different types of solar panels; the ones for laundries are typically hot-water panels. They are made of copper, mostly; circulation fluid goes throughout the panels.” The solar panels only preheat a certain percentage of the wash water. Then, the water heater provides the necessary additional heat.Such a high-efficiency water-heating system can save 15 to 30 percent on your natural gas bills annually, he claims. “Keep in mind that your water-heating costs are maybe 40 percent of your gas usage.”If you think your store is too small, too large or too old for such a system, you are wrong, Schweikhofer says. “This system is applicable for all laundries. The system doesn’t handle all the water heating; the amount varies based on the hot water used and the number of collectors a store has.” A system can handle as much as 30 percent of your hot-water needs, he adds.Since a solar-based system can’t handle all of a store’s water-heating needs, there will always be a need for backup systems. “You can go three days with no sun, or have a huge amount of customers using hot water over a short period of time. However, some of the larger-scale systems can heat a significantly higher percentage of water.”There are a few things that need to be taken into consideration if you are thinking about adding such a system. “First, the building has to have a sunny roof area. The panels face south toward the sun. You don’t want other buildings or trees blocking the sun. We also look at the structure of the building to see if any reinforcements might be necessary. Typically, we just attach the solar panels to the roof; it’s like adding rooftop equipment such as an air conditioner or heating unit.”If you think living in a certain state, or climate, disqualifies you from using such a system, you are wrong again, he says. “Solar can be used on laundries in any state, however, not all systems will be equally efficient. While there may not be as much sun in Illinois as Arizona, for example, there is still plenty of sun in Illinois. Our system works great year-round, even on cold or cloudy days. On cloudy days, a significant amount of heat can still be generated.”The systems do require maintenance, although such work is minimal, he says. “Servicing is few and far between. The warranties on collectors are typically 10 years; every eight years or so, the solar fluid needs to be changed. Solar panels can last 20-plus years.”COST, BENEFITSThe cost to utilize such a system varies. “A cookie-cutter system, before tax credits, can be as low as $5,000. A system can go up to $100,000.” The good news, he adds, is that there is a 30-percent federal tax credit on such systems. Your state also could help share the cost of installing such a system. In Illinois, for example, while funds are somewhat limited, owners can take advantage of a 30-percent direct rebate from the state, he says. “Illinois is a good solar state.”Leasing is also an option. “We do lease equipment. By avoiding up-front costs, and with the savings from this high-efficiency equipment, your monthly payments are essentially a wash.”If you install this system, you can revert to your “traditional” operation if you’re not satisfied with the change. “You could do this, but people don’t.”MOVING FORWARDTapping into the sun with solar panels working in tandem with an efficient water-heating system doesn’t sound all that far-fetched. With this in mind, why don’t more laundries utilize such a system?“Old habits are hard to break. Some people are ignorant about [the benefits of going solar]. Some people are also afraid to make changes. But we’re still in the early stages of solar.”Schweikhofer says some of the solar “pioneers” were burned in the early days. “Some of the early systems were installed incorrectly. There were bad companies installing bad systems. The industry had a poor reputation.”SunHeat Solar has been working to perfect the system’s design. “Over the last couple of years, there have been newer technologies, better collectors, improvement with system parts, and a reduction in pricing. You can now get a low-priced, high-performance system.” Today, owners can even track the amount of energy being generated at their laundries, he adds.He jokes that in an ideal world, all self-service laundries would go solar. On a serious note, he challenges laundry operators to analyze a three- to five-year ROI, utilizing systems that can last 25 years. “You can see big savings here.”How much solar impacts this industry, as well as other industries, will depend on the price of natural gas, he says. He saw more solar interest in 2008 when gas prices shot up. “Higher gas costs will change things and make solar more viable. When you think about better equipment, and the efficient combination of solar and water heaters, I believe owners will want solar.”The savings such a system is designed to produce are obviously key to an operator, but there is another positive aspect of utilizing such a system, he believes. “There is a large value to marketing green. Customers will drive by your store and see the panels. They will come into your store.”Your marketing plan shouldn’t just revolve around the visual element of solar panels on your roof. “Talk to your customers about this system, about how much it will save. Promote the benefits of going green. Some customers will choose your store simply because you’re going green and utilizing an environmentally friendly hot-water source.”Are you someone who likes to look long-term when it comes to business issues? If so, Schweikhofer believes this system is for you. “This is a new way to do things. It may cost more to start off, but in the long run, and even short run, it will pay for itself. With global issues, we can’t afford not to tap into solar.”If you have any questions or comments about this article, contact SunHeat Solar at 630-424-0563, or e-mail email@example.com.