Atop two mixed-use buildings near the corner of Pleasant Street and Oak Park Avenue two weeks ago, solar panels rose to greet the sun, making the rooftops look like the wings of a commercial jet at touchdown.
Local landlord Dr. Eugene Anandappa owns the buildings, as well as another in Oak Park and two in Forest Park, where Niles-based Solar Service Inc. has installed hot-water-producing solar panels.
"I'm very much aware of the energy problem, and I try to do whatever I can in a small way to make it better," said Anandappa, a physician and 30-year River Forest resident.
Anandappa said the project required a large capital outlay, which he expects to recoup in 5 to 10 years, depending on the rate of increase of natural gas prices. But the primary impetus for going solar was environmental and to stop relying on natural gas.
Solar Service owner and founder Brandon Leavitt said energy is a commodity, and most people are consumers.
"We believe it makes more sense to own your energy," Leavitt said. He tells owners of new solar systems to expect 70 percent reductions in their hot water bills.
Leavitt said solar hot water systems have been around for a century, but that the technology has improved. After switching the system on at the Pleasant/Oak Park Avenue building on a sunny 90-degree afternoon, 360 gallons of 74-degree water was brought to a temperature of 126 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even in the winter, just four hours of sunlight are enough to heat water for a building, Leavitt said.
Here's how it works: a 12-horsepower pump sends a mix of water and antifreeze to the panels, where the fluid is heated and returned to the basement, where it enters a heat exchanger. There water pumped from three 120-gallon reserve tanks takes the heat from the antifreeze mixture.
The system is automatic. As the heat atop the building rises above the temperature of the reserved water, it kicks on to further warm the water. When nightfall or cloud cover stops heating the panels, the system shuts off, trapping the energy in the reserve tanks.
Glass on the solar panels is tempered, and stronger than a car's windshield. It also has antiglare properties, which help capture energy. The panels never need cleaning and are cool to the touch, making lawn installations possible for residential customers, Leavitt said.
Solar hot water is much more efficient that photoelectric solar panels, Leavitt said. He'll install solar electric, but only "when it makes sense."
"The market for solar is vast," Leavitt said. Looking out over rooftops in Oak Park he can easily see available work.
He has installed systems for buildings large and small, some to heat pool water. Upcoming projects include Governors State University and hangars at the Greater Rockford Airport.
Leavitt said he's installed more than 1,000 systems since his firstâ€"for his motherâ€"in 1977, and that they're all still working.
"If it's not working today it's probably because the house has been torn down," he said.
Patrick and Binita Donohue installed a solar hot water and heat system in December at their home on the 1000 block of South Taylor Avenue.
"Oak Park is built for this stuff," Patrick Donohue said. "It's like having a little science experiment in your house. The kids kinda like it." The Donohues' children are 12 and 9.
Donohue said his system cost $15,000 to install. But wait, there's more. Incentives drive down the cost of every installation, Leavitt said, by grants and rebates through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and federal tax write-offs for commercial building owners.
The Donohues also benefited from a Village of Oak Park loan/grant program they qualified for by being neighbors of Barrie Park, recently the site of a major environmental clean-up. State incentives dropped the price by $6,000, and Solar Service handled all of the paperwork, Donohue said.
Of the remaining $9,000, half was paid in village grant money, while the other half is in a low-interest loan. So they feel they paid about $5,000 for the system.
Donohue said they didn't start seeing the full effects of the solar panels until spring, when their April gas bill was $33, half of its normal amount. He expects to save $500 annually.
Donohue, a high school economics teacher, said money wasn't what drove the family to go solar, and that as an investment it has to be looked at as long-term.
A company flyer says an owner of an 18-unit six-flat could expect $20,000 in savings in a decade on a $30,000 investment.
Leavitt said panels can be installed on any roofsâ€"flat or sloped, facing any directionâ€"and garages and lawns, too.
Leavitt got the idea for going solar while in a summer school program sponsored by Buckminster Fuller, known for designing the geodesic dome. Students were given one problem and one rule: Solve one of the world's energy problems without making a problem for someone else.
"I was just out of high school, and I was concerned," Leavitt said.