7 Ways to Improve Your Energy Efficiency: Solar Today & Yesteryear



All the days of our lives we see and feel the effects of the sun on our planet. And now, just recently, in the last 100 years or so, we can see and feel the affects of global warming due to a lot of human intervention (fossil fuel usage) our eco-system was not designed to handle. We have polluted our atmosphere just like we have polluted our water.

And yet, for thousands of years man lived and worked with our planet using renewable energy resources, especially our sun which provided us the warmth in spring and summer, the winds that blow daily and even the warm glow on a wintry day giving us a daily dose of light for thousands of years. The sun will continue to send energy to earth. Renewable energy.

Up to the time that certain fossil fuels were discovered man used solar in so many ways we, as a modern society, have somewhat forgotten. We have taken for granted our fossil fuels would power progress, relieve man of heavy lifting, plowing, transporting and warm us, until recently that is. Now we realize our excessive use of fossil fuels has harmed our environment and our health. Years ago man used the sun’s energy more so than we do today. Homes were designed to make use of the sun’s energy for solar heat. A cave with a southwestern exposure was warmer in the evenings, a farmhouse had a window facing south to capture the sun in winter. Grecian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian homes were oriented and built for some form of solar sun energy gain. They worshiped the sun. Ancient peoples of the New World built whole societies and complex calendars around deep knowledge of the solar system. The sun was not the only renewable energy resource used by ancient civilizations; geothermal systems or hot springs were used, too. 

Ancient cities we're designed for solar collection to warm the people against cold. The buildings were designed for thermal mass and nighttime radiant heat all by solar energy. Even the ancient peoples in our own land used solar energy on a daily basis not just for heating but also for cooking. Some tribes living in southwestern desert regions knew well how to use solar energy.


Look at us today: furnaces, boilers, ovens, air conditioning, inefficient engines spewing toxic gases, mercury in our lakes and fish, arsenic in out water all from burning fossil fuels. Our buildings lack the insulation of adobe homes and the thermal mass for absorbing heat all day and dispersing warmth slowly all night. Worse, our building let precious warm air escape during the winter. Wind whips through unsealed windows, around loose siding, under insulated doors, and tiny crevices. Once it was cheap and easy to burn more fuel. Not today.

Yes, look at us today, a modern world in dire need of energy resources to sustain us into the next millennia, What about our sun? Is it possible we could heat our homes 100% with the sun and to heat our water 100% with the sun and even use it to power our vehicles?

We are so much more technologically advanced than our ancestors were. Look at us trying to solve our new fossil fuel problems which could be solved by using old solar energy. Are we reinventing solutions already invented thousands of years ago? Are we just updating by changing to the technology used by our ancestors?

Look at your electric, gas, propane, oil and or cord wood bills for your home. Ever want to reduce those bills by half or, better still, to zero? Solar energy has the answer. Today we have the technology. By utilizing solar for lighting, heating, water heating, even transportation, we can invest in solar power today and own our own power generation plant. Solar systems can power our homes. Yes, it can be a costly undertaking but it does not need to be done all at once. Start small and work big.

In our homes today our electric bills can be broken down like this:

That's a lot of energy just in electronic devices in our homes. Gee, ever think about turning them off? Put them on a surge protector power strip and turn them off when not in use. Unplug appliances when they are not in use. It is a lifestyle change that saves you change.



What about using led lights? Yes, they are more costly to buy outright but they last a lot longer and use a lot less electricity.

Use solar lighting. Hang the solar panel outside and take the landscape lights from outdoors and bring them inside to use for general purpose lighting. Certain landscape lights have a good size solar panel and big enough spot lights on them that they can light up an entire room or hallway, stairs, bathroom, front porches, and decks very nicely.


If you have the space and room try buying or installing greenhouses on a south or west side of a home. Or take an open porch attached to your home and enclose it in glass.

Another solar solution that works is a window heater: Build a wood frame at an angle sloped to ground with plywood back 2x6 frame, 1”insulation bd. On back inside of box, covered with flat aluminum painted silver, with a black mesh raised over top with a glass covering. This unit is designed for space heating usually a small room.

Also, a can heater is very inexpensive to make and can reach temps of 140-160 degrees. Build a wooden box 3’ x 6’ and put in 1”insulation over top of plywood sheet. Then take soda cans, drill holes at bottom of open cans, glue each can on top of another and set in columns and rows filling the 3’ x 6’ box, leaving 3” at the bottom and top. Drill a 3”hole at top and one at bottom. Attach to a south facing wall with a 3” holes drilled exactly under the box holes to the room to be heated, one close to floor and the other higher up. Cover with a small piece of rubber flap, top and bottom. It works automatically: As it gets hot in the box it draws cool air off the floor and up into the upper chamber and out the hole at top. You can also use a small 6-12 volt fan to circulate air faster as the temperature. rises.

Another solar solution can be done quite simply by putting shelves in a south facing window and put on the shelves containers like one gallon empty milk jugs or water bottles painted flat black. They heat up during the day and release the heat at night.


Use solar for cooking. A parabolic solar cooker can be built from aluminum covered deli containers which focuses the sun’s rays into a center area that can heat up food set in a pan, pot or on skewers.

Another type is a box solar cooker, with mirrors built inside all-round and the suns rays are reflected back into this box and believe me they get very hot around 300 deg. Same with the parabolic solar cooker which can also get extremely hot so you want to be careful so as not to get burned and don't look directly at the inside especially when sun is shining in these..


Goal: turn constantly warm electronics off when not in use. Put electronics on a surge protector and turn the strip off when not in use. (Helps to have the strip on a shelf, not on the floor.) A desktop computer doesn't have to stay on all the time. Use two surge protectors if you need to, one for computers, printers, etc., and use the other for the internet or satellite receivers so you can leave these items on but turn off the computers and peripherals.


Our vehicles can by powered by solar, wind, water, hydro systems, etc. Vehicles can be converted from fossil fuel burning systems into a clean energy vehicles using many different alternative fuel sources.

Look at the new hybrids, electric/gas vehicles coming out in the marketplace.

Also, a lot of new companies are coming on line selling biofuels, and flex fueled vehicles that burn either diesel or biofuels. And combine these vehicles with electric, and you've got a nice hybrid biofuel vehicle. Our biggest suppliers for biofuels are our city landfills which are being utilized to make the fuels for these types of vehicles and for home heating.

Water, yes folks water. electrolysis produces hydrogen & pure oxygen extremely flammable materials but when incorporated into a vehicles air supply chamber on most engines will actually increase gas mileage and efficiency of the vehicle being driven.


Solar water heating is one of the best applications for solar. It is quite inexpensive and can be used quite extensively, even more so than solar electric systems. The sun can heat our water and heat our home.

Solar water heating is another solar solution in use for thousands of years before us and has come along way because of the technologies we have today. Different and various systems for collecting solar energy for heating water can be utilized depending upon one's location here in New York state. Because of our cold winters and hot summers most homeowners find the evacuated tube system and flat plate systems work best in our area. These systems do work even in extreme conditions all by using our sun.

The problem is the cost but there are those who are trying to bring those costs down to a level to where an average homeowner can afford a system with a low monthly payment plan. The homeowner actually rents the system until it's paid in full. Payments are tailored to a homeowner’s budget whether for home radiant floor heating and or for domestic hot water. Ideally the monthly payments equal the monthly savings.


Here in New York some people say Photovoltaic solar electric systems don't work. But we've seen them work and more and more people are catching on that they do work. Germany is much further north than New York and Germany has the largest number of homes with solar. Even a small system can save you on your energy dollars and these small systems pay for themselves really fast. Today with the newer technologies solar photovoltaic systems work better than they use to and produce more power per square foot than they use even in low light, snowy, rainy conditions. The newer panels coming into the market soon will be around 25% plus for efficiency. Solar panels that have been made back in the early 70's are still in operation today. So these systems do last and work even in New York State.

Everything that we do today will affect those who come tomorrow. Our children today and generations to come are in jeopardy unless we of our own generation do something today to curb this global warming. Even small steps are big steps in the right direction.

Solar does work here in Binghamton. A lot of these aforementioned systems are just small ways to get involved and sometime those small ways are the first steps to making the bigger steps. Experiment some and have fun learning about solar. And, challenge anybody who says solar doesn't work because folks it does and it will work for you today.

August 24, 2009
Quintin Bullis is a member of the New York Solar Energy Society and regularly leads energy conservation and solar workshops in the Greater Binghamton Area.