Collecting the Sun

Sunlight pours along the Vancouver Island country roads of Cedar, leading me a bright chase through dappled woods and freshening spring fields. Revelling in the glory of the day with its sudden glimpses of splashed purple crocuses and water-laden hollows, I travel for fifteen minutes in the wrong direction. Rewinding my trail, the sleepy gravel drive at the bottom of the second hill (as mentioned in my instructions), is finally discovered, and I follow it forward to meet Keith and Irene Wyndlow, waiting patiently for me in their one hundred year-old farmhouse.

At 75, Keith Wyndlow has lived on the land, and with the land, his entire life. In particular, a little patch of 130 acres that first belonged to his parents in the 1940’s and is now jointly owned with his twin brother. The Wyndlow family farmed several types of crops and some dairy cows, operating a local milk route for years. As a youth in the hard times of the 1930’s and 40’s, living in this isolated location grew the seeds of self-sufficiency naturally for Keith. He maintains a lifelong fascination with creating and operating systems that are cost and energy efficient; practices that leave as little environmental footprint as possible.

And so it is I’ve come to see his latest acquisition: a vacuum tube solar water heating system. There are 16 sealed, four inch diameter tubes, each 6 feet long with copper-coated interior plates which act like low-resistance thermal conductors. Installed on the farmhouse roof in September 2006, the large black square creates an incongruously modern patch of technology atop the old building. Keith explains to me about the controller for the system, a "magic box” that keeps track of the temperatures in the pre-heat tank, in the delivery system and on the roof. When there’s enough useful heat in the rooftop tubes, the controller starts a pump to take the heat away from the collectors and bring it in circulation through a pre-heat tank, and then through a standard electrical hot water heater.

"All our water is heated electrically now, but this is pre-heat and it’s free. Free!” Keith says. "The sun beams down up there, and if you listen to the pipes that go from the basement to the upstairs, you can hear a very slight gurgle. And on hot days, it’s a sort of swish.”

Although he had applied for grants through the federal government’s energy programs before they were cancelled, Keith decided to go ahead with the solar system on his own because he says he knows that electricity prices will keep on rising. He has been keeping an eye on the "magic box” controller that tracks the heat from the roof and converts it to kilowatt hours. Since the solar tubes were installed, he’s picked up over 5000 kW.

"Which is heat I’m not taking off of the electric grid. I don’t get anything back from B.C. Hydro for that. But I’m saving the electrical energy that it would have taken to heat the water.” The installation of the system through the inside of the farmhouse was a bit tricky, and initial capital costs were approximately $8,000.00, but Keith says now, it’s virtually free energy. And this, he believes, will translate into substantial savings and efficiency over the course of a full year.

His interests in solar technology date back more than 30 years. Having noticed how a garden hose left lying in the sunshine could produce water hot enough to scald the skin, Keith investigated solar options at the time. In 1978, he took a course at Malaspina (University) College on building a solar flat plate collector. But, he says, he was too busy and never got around to actually doing it. He attended a local energy trade fair sponsored by Nanaimo’s Mid Island Co-op in 2006 and was bitten by the solar technology bug once again. He discovered that there was a big difference between the 40% supply of total annual heat requirements produced by solar flat plate collectors now, and the impressively efficient 70% supply from the vacuum tubes.

"It just made sense to do it,” he says. And as far as Keith knows, they are the only ones locally that have this type of solar water heating system.

The Wyndlows have been environmentally upgrading their farmhouse for years to save on energy costs. They’ve added a thick layer of Styrofoam insulation to the exterior under new vinyl siding. They converted from a wood-burning fireplace, adding a propane insert to heat the interior, and replaced all the old windows with new double-glazed ones. In March of this year, they will be "tightening up” the house’s foundation: cemented in the 1950’s, there is now a considerable gap between the house and the top of the cement.

Keith credits his father with sparking his interest in energy solutions that didn’t leave a large environmental footprint. In his early years, a windmill-powered generator once provided their family with 32 volts of electricity, enough to run a sewing machine, an iron, an electric milking machine and provide hot water for the cow barn. He says,

"You’ve got to follow a good example, you know.”

And, as we stand outside together breathing in the sparkling day, there is an admirable example: a modern, yet ancient system, efficiently working and winking at us as it collects the timeless energy of sunlight bouncing across Keith and Irene Wyndlow’s rooftop.