Sun power

Josh Plaisted

Photo by Deidre Pike

Round, shiny mirror things. Flat, dark geometric panels. Plenty of odd-looking gizmos on display at the National Solar Energy Conference this week at John Ascuaga’s Nugget, where the American Solar Energy Society held its 31st annual conference. Participating entities included a bunch of national organizations along with Reno’s own Sunrise Sustainables Group, the Nevada State Energy Office and the Nevada Test Site Development Corporation. Attendees could opt for such workshops as “Parabolic Trough Concentrators” or “A Hands-on Approach to Solar Energy Education.” Among the businesses showing wares—solar collection panels, photovoltaic batteries, an inflatable heliostat—was SunEarth, Inc. SunEarth, based in Ontario, Calif., is one of a handful of companies in the United States that designs and manufactures solar water heating technology for structures as small as your home—or as large as a low-income apartment complex in the California desert. Josh Plaisted, 29, a design engineer at SunEarth, answered some questions about solar water heating systems. You can visit the group’s Web site,

How’s the solar water heating business?

Good. We sell about 8,000 to 10,000 systems a year. It’s not as big as it is in Europe, but it’s not peanuts, either.

What’s good about a solar water heater?

A system can provide about 60 to 70 percent of the hot water needs for a family of four and costs about $4,000 to $5,000. The payback [the amount of time it takes for the initial investment in solar gear to equal the amount of money saved on your utility bills] is about 10 to 20 years, depending on whether you’re replacing an electric water heater, propane or natural gas. With incentives, that can even be lower.


In California, there was a $750 rebate [for solar water heating systems]. Now, with the billion-dollar deficit, they’ve taken that away. We don’t have much foresight in California. Bad legislation got us into this mess, and, by God, bad legislation will get us out.

This sounds like a less expensive way to get started with solar.

It’s cheaper than photovoltaics, as far as capital cost goes. … You should do both. The incentives [in California] are still there for photovoltaics.

What would a system consist of for a residential house?

For a family of four, maybe two 4-foot by 8-foot panels, about 64 square feet. You put that on any south-facing roof. There’s a water heater and exchange unit. … When the collectors are hotter than the tank, it turns on the pump. On a good summer day, it can raise water from 60 to 150 degrees.

How did you find yourself in the solar biz?

I became interested because of air quality issues, looking for ways to improve it. As a mechanical engineer, I was making good money in the semiconductor industry. Now, I don’t make quite the money, but I believe in and enjoy what I do. Solar is the best way to make a cleaner planet.