Sunday, November 27, 2011

Web Based Control and Monitoring

As a solar thermal company, its really important to us that we be able to monitor the performance of our solar heaters. What we've learned in our 14 year struggle with this technology is that we also need to do control. We can't justify the cost of a separate monitoring device with separate power supply when it should all just be built into a standard solar controller. So that's what we did. We spent much of 2011's R and D budget on developing a web based solar controller that does monitoring of energy. As a side benefit from this work we realized that we also had a web based home automation system. We can control home thermostats with a web interface. We can also control boilers. That means that we can provide you with a spreadsheet on your computer screen (on a web page) that allows you to set schedules for your boiler. Most commercial swimming pools we run into are looking to save money on their sometimes $20,000 a year energy bills yet they are running their boilers on thermostats set at 84 degrees all the time no matter what? So why not just use a regular programmable thermostat on the boiler? Why not just do all this with existing building management systems? What's wrong with the IP thermostats that are on the market today?

The answer is plenty. We felt this whole industry needed a re-boot. Home automation, building automation and even internet based thermostats that are available today (sort of) all grew up over the last 20 years in the PC age.


Let's start with commercial building automation systems since Gord (my brother the IT expert) and I just finished single handedly installing two commercial solar heating systems for the City of Richmond BC. Neither system needed a solar controller because the engineer, an ex Siemens building automations guy, felt that the building automation systems were already there and control just meant a few lines of code. Now that these jobs are done we can all see that it wasn't nearly that simple and the end result is that the building management systems are not capable of storing more than 2 weeks worth of data. Also, nobody can view anything outside the local network. I don't know if these systems are working or not. The controls company provided a portal via the local network allowing certain data to be monitored in a certain way but I can't show you online and I can't control anything online. The problems stem from the fact that the local network is secure. To allow control from the internet or even monitoring in this case requires a web server on the local network. The IT people for the city are rightfully not too keen on this. These solutions are afterthoughts. The technology is all PC based so you have to store the local data on a pc. That was all fine until the internet came along with ipods and ipads and all of a sudden all this data had to be accessible on the internet. No problem. Just tunnel through the firewall and access the pc that is on the local network. Problem. That's exactly what network security is all about preventing. End result. We have no remote access, no control capability. We have $12,000 worth of building automation doing the job of a $100 solar controller.


Look at any of the internet based home thermostats available through any of the big names. They require full access to your previously secure home network. They require a web server built into every one of your thermostats. They require an ethernet cable and power to each thermostat. OK fine if you have a new house and you've run bundles of wires to each thermostat in the home. If you've done that you already have a home automation system. If you're like me, you have 2 wires going to your thermostat. You short circuit them at the thermostat when heat is called for by the mercury bulb style room temperature adjuster and the 24VAC zone is activated. What we can do with our technology is replace the thermostat with a very simple and low cost thermostat that has a thermistor attached to it. The thermistor tells us the room temperature. A switch on the thermostat switches between manual and automatic mode. Manual means the thermostat itself controls the room temp just like before. Auto means the room temp is controlled by a spreadsheet online. Its super easy to program. You can see every temperature every hour for every day and you can change them in blocks with a simple scheduling interface and as you make changes you see the temperatures in the spreadsheet. No more trying to remember how to use the programmable thermostat interface. The main unit that is ethernet connected is plugged in in one place in the basement. It wires up in series with the wires going from the boiler control to the thermostat. I have a 6 zone system in my house. It wires to 6 thermostats and 6 zones are all controlled online. We've developed a way to do this where it is secure and does not require a web server or a computer. I don't want to baffle you with tech talk at this stage but the key to all this is the unit itself is nothing more than a client on the local network. It initiates the contact with the web server and the web server is on the internet not on the unit itself. It initiates contact no differently than when your computer initiates contact with this web site so you can read what you're reading right now. There is no security issue. Plug one ethernet cable into the main unit and you're done. We tried doing this all wirelessly through the local wireless network but this proved fussy and we ended up scaring people in terms of security (unwarranted fears abound) and we had nothing but issues with the wireless network and the internet connection to it. We ended up becoming the person's internet support system. We scrapped all that and went ethernet port only. In a short time wireless bridges got a lot cheaper so we can still do all this wirelessly through an off the shelf bridge and none of it is our problem. Get internet to the ethernet port on our unit and it works.


The same internet based thermostat programmable scheduling can be done for a boiler on a commercial (or residential for that matter) gas heater for a pool. Our unit is a solar controller and boiler controller. The most basic unit has two outputs. The inputs are 4 temperatures and a pressure and a flow rate. Among the features are the ability to set what we call a control type. An example of a control type would be when solar is on gas is off. Another control type would be that the gas heater fires to meet the desired setpoint automatically far enough in advance such that the pool temp setpoint is achieved. For example if you want the pool to be 83F at 9 am but you're letting the pool cool off overnight as much as it wants, this control type would mean that the gas heater would start firing x hours before 9 am in order to make sure the pool was 83F at 9 am. Any control type you can think of can be configured by our programmer and posted to our server so that when your controller posts data on the next 15 minute cycle it picks up the program update and you're able to use that control type instantly. This type of customization after the fact is not expensive because we don't charge for building the library of control types based on your needs. Its 5 minutes of work changing your interface. The savings possible from monitoring and controlling a gas heater that is running all year can be enough to pay for the system in one month. That's a better payback period than we could ever see from a solar heater...and it puts us in an industry where companies achieve Fortune 50 status. Get ready for the launch of this technology in January 2012. This technology is how Hot Sun will survive the current killer combination of low natural gas prices, poor economy, and the resignation that global warming is too big a problem and too long term a problem to pay much heed to when jobs and short term economies take a higher priority in the minds of voters.

See all our web based control products at

Check out many monitored sites at

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Green Jobs

Where are all the green jobs we were promised? What went wrong? We spent billions of tax dollars in subsidies that were supposed to jump start a green economy? From my perspective its very simple. First of all you can't realign an entire economy in the first half of the first term of a new presidency! What has happened so far is just testing the waters, making some mistakes and learning from them. As cynical as I am about political involvement in the economy, real progress has been made. Alternative energy has come to the forefront of our thinking. Solar electric technology, wind, biomass and others have been given a great demonstration and even an industry kick start. Some of the major players are now going bankrupt. What do you expect when you give a big company millions of dollars in subsidies to commercialize their technology? You not only create a business culture that depends on that subsidy and wastes it, you hurt that company's competitors who are trying to accomplish the same goals with all the real market forces to fight with. Governments picking winners and backing them seems to me like a desperate last resort effort to save a dying economy. I learned recently that one of my biggest competitors was given millions of dollars to develop a low cost solar hot water heater using unglazed solar panels. We already did just that in 1994. I'm jealous and bitter about this. I can't help thinking I missed out and I deserve some free money from the unsuspecting taxpayers but that's crazy. That flies in the face of everything we at Hot Sun have stood for from the beginning. None of this means to imply that "programs" are always a bad thing. The reality is that solar needs help. Fossil fuels are so cheap. The playing field needs to be leveled somehow. It just means we need to do better. We need to co-ordinate these programs so they all work together toward a common goal, in this case apparently, creating jobs. Or was it to get us off foreign oil? Or was it global warming we were concerned about? On one hand we closed the Chicago carbon exchange when congress quashed any idea that we might have any kind of cap and trade system for carbon. On the other hand we offer a subsidy of 30% in the form of a federal tax credit for qualifying solar technology. The qualifying technology is solar electric and solar hot water. Both those technologies have long payback periods. They aren't viable economically without the subsidies, at least not yet. The technology that doesn't qualify is our technology. Pool heating. Solar pool heating makes economic sense and we can see payback periods of as little as 2 years. Look at this monitored site in Kamloops British Columbia.

So why subsidize technology that is not as viable as other technology? Is it that pool heating isn't important? You don't have to heat your pool and pools are just for rich people. Or are they? Pools are actually for middle class families with children growing up, the pools that are used anyway.

But here's the good news. All this attention to these less viable technologies has created interest in doing what we can with solar energy. People woke up and said yes, let's solar power our future. The question is starting to become how? We're almost at the point in history where the public and the government purchasing agents have recognized that solar is great but its too expensive. Now that the economics questions are being asked we're slowly getting the attention of various potential clients who are just starting to understand that small scale solar hot water heating is kind of hopeless. You only spend $300 a year heating hot water for your house and a solar hot water heater is $8,000. We can do one with unglazed panels that won't produce as much as the glass covered beast that saves about $150/year. We can only save maybe $100 a year but we can do it for $2500. Even so there's no real market and no-one doing this wants to take a compromise on performance. When a buyer gets educated and still wants to do it she's not doing it for the short term payback anyway. She's investing in cool technology to improve her home and she is thinking long term. Large scale hot water heating is where the economics play a role. We'll soon finish an installation in Richmond BC on an Aquatic Center. We're preheating 16 showers with a 5000 gallon tank and 2000 sq ft of Powerstrip When you're heating hot water you're really heating cold water up to hot water and if the load is large you can put up a lot of solar and collect a lot of energy just heating water from 10 to 30C. That's all the roof space that is available so why put expensive solar panels on it that operate more efficiently at 60C when the highest the collectors will ever get is 30C? This project would never have gone ahead if the City of Richmond hadn't first decided they wanted solar heating. They took their time and didn't get caught up in the now expired grants in Canada. They hired an engineering firm to play judge and jury and ultimately designer and general contractor. We're just getting started with some smarter approaches. Ironically it only happened because the industry did get a boost from the subsidies and those benefits will take a long time to play their way thru the system. Its worth mentioning since it is so ironic and comical that we never took advantage of any of the subsidies to get to this stage as a technology developing company. The ones who did are mostly starving and close to bankruptcy now that the grants are gone. The exact same thing will happen in the US if and when the tax credit disappears. We need to learn from the tax credits. One thing the US could learn from Canada is that you have to cancel the tax credits to learn what their spin off benefits really are. With the grants in Canada we were stuck. Nobody was looking at anything but how to take their share of the free money. Our technology was overlooked.

In BC there is a carbon tax that increases over time. Its not going away. Very smart politically. It is why 30% of our sales are in BC this year. Last year our sales in BC were 3%. The subsidies in the US will not do anything if there isn't something long term like a carbon tax to motivate the market in the right direction. Nobody likes a new tax but if done right it can mean lower taxes elsewhere so its just a tax shift not a new tax. Without cap and trade or a carbon tax or carbon regulation there is no point in subsidizing solar energy in the US. Burning things to create energy will always be cheaper than trying to collect solar energy or even wind. We have to make the conscious decision as a society that we are going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. We were on the right track for a while but we got sidetracked with the bad economy. We need to keep our eye on the target and keep moving in the right direction. We've only just begun. People aren't even thinking carbon tax in the US yet. That attitude has to change before anything can begin because without a carbon tax we'll just burn oil and gas and when that is gone or if it gets more expensive we'll burn the forests and when they are all gone we can still burn each other's dead bodies. Without some kind of regulation you can't blame us for just burning the planet to keep ourselves warm. Its complicated and it'll take time so please don't give up on the alternative energy/ green movement before we've begun.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cheap Solar

Cost is an issue with solar energy. It always has been. Its not really that solar is so expensive, even PV and fancy hot water systems. The issue is really that energy is so inexpensive. To compete with natural gas at $1/therm we really have to pay attention to what we do to collect solar energy. This is why Hot Sun Industries has always believed in unglazed technology. You don't need all that insulation and glazing to deliver a large percentage of the solar gain to the load as long as the load is low temperature as in a swimming pool or in the first 2/3 of the ramp up from cold city water to hot water. Now within the category of unglazed solar collectors we have some significant variation. The market demands the lowest price and many have attempted to bring the cost of solar down and they have done so successfully simply by cutting out a lot of the middle men. Middle men like Hot Sun. To get cost down you cut out the resellers who implement the systems by marrying the mechanical systems of solar and pool together so that the investment actually works. There are also roofing issues and plumbing issues. Of course what happens is we at Hot Sun get calls every day from people who have purchased the lowest cost items available and then they have questions for our experts. We want to help but its totally unfair of us to provide the expertise while our bottom line minded competitors walk away with not just the profits but with the freedom from any liability associated with the advise their untrained support personnel might have not provided. Sorry for the venom in that last sentence. Our answer to this is to provide expertise on forums and blogs so today I've invited Eric O'Brien to tell everyone about his experience buying some 2x20 SunHeater solar panels and let's see if we can make the cheap stuff work at least for a little while until he's proven to himself that solar is a fabulous technology in terms of power capability. Once he and others reading this blog finish their experiments with the cheapest solar they can find they will naturally value the investment and realize it is worth spending a little more in the replacement phase in order to get something that is less problematic and can be fitted to the roof without making a mess of the home and the integrity of the roof membrane. So fire away Eric and anyone else who wants to get in on the discussion. Let's expose the internet solar industry for what it is. Lowballers selling the cheapest thing they can with minimal support. With no expertise you have no warranty recourse because nobody knows what is wrong. Eric's case is typical and it demonstrates the importance of understanding pressure issues. Nobody understands pressure so you really need to buy solar from someone who does because without that understanding things just plain fail and nobody knows why and it isn't the fault of the solar manufacturer.