Eras of change

Chico-based FAFCO survives decades of change

FAFCO Solar Water Heating System.

FAFCO Solar Water Heating System.

illustration courtesy of fafco

Sustainable Space columnists Lori Brown and Greg Kallio are professors in the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management at Chico State University.

Flashback, late-1970s:
a Democrat and former peanut farmer named Jimmy is in the White House, the Iranian revolution is in the headlines, the economy is being hammered by record inflation, and the disco beat is giving way to new-wave music. This is an era of sky-high fuel prices, for both vehicles and home heating—primarily due to the Middle East oil embargo. Wood-stove sales are rocketing, high-mpg American cars are finally becoming available, and odd-looking glazed panels begin to appear on rooftops across the country.

It is a landmark era in terms of energy awareness. Environmentalist Amory Lovins touts the “soft path”—a move to renewable energy from dirty fossil fuels and nuclear energy with an emphasis on conservation and efficiency. President Carter is spearheading federal funding for clean, efficient energy technologies. The Department of Energy is awarding multimillion-dollar contracts for research in clean coal power, nuclear fusion, wind power, solar technologies, and energy-saving building products.

Tech surge
Hundreds of solar companies start up across the United States, spurred by the alternative-energy boom and lucrative federal tax credits and state rebates. Solar water-heating systems are suddenly affordable, and photovoltaic-cell manufacturing is ramping up. For many, this is an exciting, long-overdue revolution in environmental reform. Unfortunately, the clean-energy bus hits a brick wall when Americans elect a Republican named Ronnie who removes Jimmy’s solar panels from the White House roof. Solar-research programs are gutted and tax credits are left to expire. The nascent solar industry goes belly-up, and all but a handful of those solar companies go out of business.

Solar innovator
One of the few solar companies that survived the crash was FAFCO, found by Freeman A. Ford in 1969. The company survived by exploiting a niche market for solar energy—swimming pool heaters. In doing so, the company also developed a unique product by moving away from traditional copper and glass materials to polymers. FAFCO’s pool heaters were efficient, lightweight and inexpensive. Sales in Florida and the Southwest were sufficient to grow the company to nearly 200,000 solar systems sold today.

In the mid-1990s, two Chico State mechanical engineering students found employment with FAFCO (, located in Redwood City at the time. Wanting to move from the Bay Area and have stronger ties with the university, Ford relocated his company to Chico in 2000. The company has sponsored student-design projects and hired many Chico State graduates. FAFCO is now one of the best-kept secrets about Chico—home of the oldest and largest solar pool-heating company in the United States!

FAFCO’s north-Chico offices.

Photo courtesy of fafco

A new line
In 2007, FAFCO entered the domestic solar water heating market with its “Revolution” line of products. Leveraged from the company’s successful polymer pool-heater design, it stood out among competing products by being homeowner installable and shippable nationwide in just a 4-foot-tall box! Revolution has now evolved into the current FAFCO Solar Water Heating System, which is Energy Star certified.

The FAFCO system works with existing electric, gas and tankless water heaters. The system is designed to operate automatically by a solar controller, which circulates water through the black plastic panel of tubes only when solar energy is available. The heated water enters a “circulation module,” where it exchanges heat with water pumped from the existing water heater. It is a “drainback system,” meaning that the water will automatically drain back from the panels into a protected tank to prevent freezing during cold weather.

With the 30 percent federal tax credit, FAFCO Solar Water Heating Systems have a payback of less than 10 years by reducing your annual water heating bills by 50 percent to 80 percent! California is preparing to offer rebates for solar thermal equipment in the near future, which will make FAFCO systems even more attractive.

Déjà vu
In a way, it feels like the late 1970s all over again: the economy in doldrums, crisis in the Middle East, a charismatic Democratic president, and a fear of environmental catastrophe. The good news is that Americans are seeing a thriving revival in clean energy and energy-saving building products. Who knows? FAFCO—Chico’s little secret—might just be poised to put us on the map.