More than a few people were skeptical when artist Phil Salvato talked about using solar energy to heat his Third Street Gallery in Carnegie.
They said it wouldn't work because the region doesn't get enough steady sunshine, Mr. Salvato recalled, but he didn't give up on his dream to "get off the grid and go solar."
With the technical skills of his cousin, Tony Rossi, of Upper St. Clair, and Mr. Rossi's son, Adam, of Scott, Mr. Salvato is proving the solar skeptics wrong.
Since the middle of the month, his 2,400-square-foot, third-floor Carnegie art studio has been warmed with radiant heat and has had enough hot water to meet his shower and laundry needs.
It's all supplied by a solar-thermal system that Mr. Rossi and his son installed on the roof of Mr. Salvato's three-story building.
The solar-thermal system they put together harvests energy from the sun using 150 doubled-walled glass vacuum tubes arranged in five metal frames bolted to the roof.
"Our goal is to reduce Phil's energy bills by 50 percent in the winter months, and so far, it is generating more heat than we expected," Adam Rossi said. "On the shortest day of the year ... it was producing heat."
The system uses a 50-50 mix of corn glycol and water that circulates through the vacuum tubes on the roof and into a super-insulated tank, then through 800 feet of plastic pipe in the floor of Mr. Salvato's studio. The pipes transfer heat from the liquid into the gallery.
The vacuum tubes on the roof can heat the water-glycol mixture to 150 degrees, which is more than enough to supply the heating needs for the studio. The tank stores enough heat to enable the system to operate up to three hours after dark," Mr. Rossi said.
"The good thing about this system is that it doesn't require full sunlight to work," he said. "It will work on cloudy days and with indirect sunlight. As long as there is some diffuse light, the system will work."
When the system was generating heat during a recent snow storm, Mr. Rossi said, the tubes were picking up radiant energy bouncing off the snow on the roof behind the tubes.
The tubes, which face south and southeast at a 55 degree angle to catch optimal sunlight, act like a huge thermos, he said.
"Only 100 watts of electricity are needed to run the controls and pumps," Mr. Rossi said, "about the equivalent of what is used by one light bulb."
The effort began about a year-and-a-half ago when Mr. Salvato told Mr. Rossi that he wanted to use solar energy.
Mr. Rossi, who has worked for more than 30 years in the electrical and heating and air-conditioning business, first considered installing photovoltaic cells on Mr. Salvato's roof to convert sunlight into electricity.
He found, however, that the cells are only 16 percent to 17 percent efficient in converting solar energy to electricity, while the solar-thermal systems convert 72 percent of the energy from the sun into useful heat.
Mr. Rossi found a supplier for the equipment he needed in Virginia, and he attended solar-thermal workshops in Nevada, Florida and on the South Side with Conservation Consultants Inc. before tackling the project.
This summer, he put together a small system with one array of 30 tubes in a metal framework on Mr. Salvato's roof that supplied all of his hot water needs for bathing and laundry.
"I take a shower every day and always had hot water," Mr. Salvato said. After Mr. Rossi proved the workability of the system with one array, he expanded it into the five arrays of 30 tubes each.
The entire system cost about $15,000, but Mr. Rossi said a 25 percent state rebate and 30 percent federal tax credit brought down the cost considerably, and he expects the system to pay for itself in about five years.
"For our purposes, as long as there is the sun, the system will work." He said it requires very little upkeep -- the glass tubes require no maintenance, and the pump and controller will last 15 to 20 years.
In the summer, he said, the system will produce more heat than is needed, so he is working on ways to harness that energy by connecting the system to a micro-turbine that will generate electricity.
Mr. Rossi likes the solar-thermal technology so much that he is installing a similar system on the roof of his electrical shop on Boyce Road in South Fayette, and he plans to install a system on his house in Upper St. Clair.
"The house system will use flat solar-thermal panels that look just like skylights," he said.
He wants to teach people to install solar-thermal systems and is considering acting as local wholesaler for the equipment to make it easier for those who want to install the systems. He said he can hold classes at his shop and use the system there to help people understand the basic technology involved.
Mr. Rossi said he has always been interested in renewable energy. His former company, Adam Electric, did the wiring for the wind turbines in Somerset, and he sees solar power as a safe and secure form of energy for the country.
"If you want to do something for the world, and for yourself, go solar," he said.
The solar-thermal tubes at his shop, Adam Solar Resources, at 1912 Mayview Road, can be seen during business hours.
Freelance writer Bob Podurgiel can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.