New solar hot water panels have been installed on 14 of the 17 buildings in the Westgate Housing Community in West Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)

Saturday April 28, 2012

BRATTLEBORO — Solar hot water paneling has been used widely in Asia since the 1960s, but America did not get on board with the concept of solar hot water until global climate change rose to national attention in the 1980s.
Even so, few people have the resources to install these panels, let alone a non-profit, affordable housing community, such as Westgate Housing Community in West Brattleboro, which is seeking to change popular opinion about the feasibility of solar hot water.
Westgate Housing Community is a non-profit organization that creates affordable housing in West Brattleboro, with 12 buildings and 98 apartments. All of these are reasonably priced and now the majority of them will have solar hot water paneling for the tenants to take advantage of.
“Hopefully, this will serve as a way for people to look at, and change, how they view affordable housing complexes,” Marie Boisvert, community services coordinator for Westgate, said of the installation of the panels. “This is a great thing to add into what Westgate is, being non-profit affordable housing run by the tenants”
An interesting fact about Westgate, that few people realize, is that it is entirely tenant led. The tenants meet, vote, and ultimately decide on building policies, programs and all major decisions. Tenants having this much say in their own housing is quite a rare feat, and one that many people envy.
In 2009 Housing Vermont applied to the Department of Energy to get solar hot water panels installed in four various housing communities. Westgate Housing Community was one of these communities and would receive a portion of the funds being split among the four sites. The grant amounted to $497,000 and Westgate received $133,000 of that for the project. The grant would cover roughly half of the project, but Westgate had to come up with the rest of the money for the installation. Westgate funded $123,821 to the project.
The Westgate Housing Incorporated group, which consists of five tenants and four other board members, actually voted for the solar hot water panels.
“The fact that it can be installed with a minimum disruption to the tenants, as well as the funding that Housing Vermont was able to procure via grants so that WHI would not have the burden of the entire cost of the project made it an easy decision,” said Suzanne Wachter, president of the Westgate Tenants Association. “We need to look to the future and find alternative energy sources.”
Westgate Housing Community’s tenants decided that having the solar hot water panels was a necessary step for them to help the environment and be a positive example for West Brattleboro.
Mectek, based in Springfield, is installing the panels and it began working in the beginning of April this year. It hopes to be finished at the end of July or the beginning of August of this year.
Nine of the 12 buildings in Westgate will be outfitted with these solar hot water panels. Four to eight panels will be installed per building.
Solar hot water panels are a combination of a single storage container and several solar collectors that are installed on a roof to use the sun’s direct rays. The hot water rises naturally with no mechanical pumping necessary through the process of thermosiphon flow. On warm summer days the water will essentially heat itself.
The only change the tenants had to prepare for was clearing out a space in their closets for the installed pipes to run through to allow these environmentally friendly panels to function.
It is estimated that these solar hot water panels will save 165,000 gallons of water over 20 years. This means that more than 280 tons of carbon dioxide will be saved from being released into the atmosphere.
Overall, there will be a 20 to 25 percent reduction in oil usage over 20 years.
Carleen Busick is a student at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She lives in Wardsboro.