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Renewable Energy Supporters Show Off Solar Furnace for Low Income Homes

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Thousands of lower income Iowans depend on heating assistance every winter to help with high energy bills. But one alternative to yearly heating assistance could involve convincing some families to apply for a whole house solar heating system.

Conservation Corps Iowa showcased the first home with a so-called "solar furnace" at an open house event on Friday. The home with the first solar furnace system in Iowa belongs to the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) and is used for families in transitional housing. It's located at 3752 H Ave. N.E.

The system displayed hangs on an outside wall covers about a third of the available space at the small single family home. It consists of two, large joined solar panels. Since installation last fall, the system has cut the heating bills at the HACAP home by 20 percent.

Jackie Boat, an organizer with Conservation Corps Iowa, said the system may be the first in Iowa but it's much more common in neighboring Minnesota. At least 300 homes belonging to lower income families there have had the systems installed as a way to help those families permanently reduce the need for heating assistance money.

"People are not aware of this as an option. That's part of my job—doing outreach to those eligible for the service as well as the agencies that can help provide it to them," Boat said.

The system works similar to most solar panels. Sunlight, even in winter, heats components inside the panel. A control system inside the home distributes the warm air throughout the house. It helps, but doesn't replace a regular furnace.

Boat said at a cost of $6,000 to $7,000, the solar furnace is probably too expensive for lower income families to afford on their own. But with grants and donated funds, those who apply and meet the criteria may get a system installed free of charge.

Verne Schutzman, who works in the weatherization program for HACAP, helped install the first Iowa solar furnace system. He said aside from funding, another important point is all homes may not qualify technically for such a solar system.

"You have to have a certain amount of southern exposure for the collector panels. For example, in Wellington Heights, there's probably no houses that qualify due to the logistics of how they sit (too close together)," Schutzman said.

Rural homes with no neighbors to block sunlight might work better. Many of those homes heat with liquid propane (LP) gas, which cost a lot more this winter. That would also help justify the cost of installation and provide a quicker payback.

Lisa Crabbs, a director with Habitat for Humanity of Marion County, came to Cedar Rapids to look at the installed solar furnace system. She said her program in the Knoxville, Iowa area is considering some developments in rural areas. And trying to land a grant for a solar furnace system could make a lot of sense.

"I was pretty excited to see it because a lot of the renewable energy costs so much it's not really geared towards low income people. So that's why this is so exciting, it's geared to the people we can assist," Crabbs said.

The number of solar furnaces that could be potentially installed in the homes of low income homeowners would be a tiny fraction of those currently receiving heating assistance. But supporters say it would at least be a start on providing some permanent cost savings, rather than just depending on constant assistance checks.

The Conservation Corps Iowa plans to work with community action programs, like HACAP, to process applications from those who have an interest and meet income guidelines.

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