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5 ways to go solar on the cheap

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Before you buy, make sure that what you are getting can actually illuminate the landscape the way you want. Last November, George Van Dyke installed solar landscape lights and solar floodlights around his new home in Towson, Md., with mixed results.

"The landscaping lights are a bit tricky in that they can collect water easily on the lighting surface," Van Dyke says.

He discovered that the lights had to be pointed downward or sideways in order to avoid this problem, which was a bit disappointing because he had wanted to use them as up lights.

On the other hand, he loves the floodlights. "I have even gone so far as to suggest them to certain clients that have taken an interest in alternative energy products for their homes," says Van Dyke, who has a financial consulting business.

3. Unglazed solar pool collectors
If your swimming pool is for warm-weather use only, you can take advantage of these inexpensive heaters that later roll up like beach mats for winter storage. Here's how they work: Thin panels made of heavy-duty rubber or plastic absorb the sun's heat, while the pool's existing pump circulates water through these collectors and back into the pool. The panels can be set up on the ground, on the roof or in a rack.

Leah Ingram of New Hope, Pa., who writes about her family's adventures in green living and other cost-saving practices in her blog, "The Lean Green Family," says she and her husband, Bill Behre, paid less than $400 for a kit to heat their pool.

"It's helped us to keep our pool at about 80 degrees despite some 65-degree nights, and to have a heated pool without paying for extra electricity in the process," Ingram says.

A recent Internet search turned up a $480 kit containing two 2-foot by 20-foot panels and a set of valves for turning the system on and off. Another vendor was selling a similar kit for about $280.

These products are different than the solar pool heaters that use glazed sunlight collectors, which can be more complicated and expensive to install. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy consumer guide, unglazed collector panels are adequate for pools that will only be used when temperatures are above freezing. Glazed collectors, which have a glass covering, are more efficient in cold weather.

4. Solar-powered attic fans
With prices ranging from about $300 to $700, solar attic fans ventilate attics and help keep them cooler. Depending on the size of your attic, you may need more than one fan to get the cooling effect.

According to NAHB, these devices use a 10- to 20-watt solar panel to power a direct current, or DC, motor. The fans are installed with intake vents that are usually mounted near the ridge of the roof. As with tubular skylights, the panels for solar attic fans panels must be installed in an area that receives direct sunlight.

If you are handy with tools and unafraid of heights, you can install one yourself. Otherwise, call in a roofing contractor for the job. One major caveat: Make sure the space between your home's conditioned space and the attic is properly sealed and that there is enough intake air flowing through the attic itself. You want to avoid any potential problems with moisture in the attic or backdrafting, which is when the exhaust fan blows fumes from fuel-burning appliances back into your living space.

Next: "Home energy experts say you'll get the best results when ..."
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