Solar shines for homes, businesses on Illinois tour

  • James Robinson of Lisle is one of the homeowners who will show his solar collectors Saturday during the Illinois Solar Tour.

      James Robinson of Lisle is one of the homeowners who will show his solar collectors Saturday during the Illinois Solar Tour. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Published10/5/2007 12:46 AM

Solar energy has its fans, and you know who you are.

Whether you're just curious or are thinking of purchasing equipment to capture heat or electricity for your home, check out the Illinois Solar Tour on Saturday.


What's not to like, advocates say. It's free, it's safe, it doesn't hurt the environment. And if we don't develop alternative energy sources, what kind of lives will our grandchildren have?

On the other hand, there are those who balk at the installation costs, and do you really think I'd want one of those ugly things on my roof?

Ninety homes and businesses in the suburbs and throughout the state with active or passive solar systems and a few wind turbines will be open on this free tour.

"The people of Illinois can see alternative energy firsthand and, in many cases, talk to the owners and ask questions," said Ted Lowe of Wheaton, secretary of the sponsoring Illinois Solar Energy Association.

The most buildings on any previous tour was 20, Lowe said.

James Robinson, who lives on an acre lot in Lisle, collects enough solar energy year-round to operate his super-efficient refrigerator.

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In the summer, he collects about half of the electricity he uses in his home.

In the winter with less sunlight and the use of electric lights, Robinson guesses he might only produce 20 percent to 30 percent of what he needs.

He also has a small wind turbine that makes some electricity and collects solar energy to heat water. He will soon add collectors that heat space within his home.

One system of collectors is attached to a pole in Robinson's backyard and two are on the roof of his house.

Most of Robinson's equipment is not visible from the street.

Many more people in Illinois use solar systems to heat water. One reason is that system is less susceptible to clouds and shade than the ones that collect electricity.


"I consider it a long-term investment," Robinson said. "After I pay the system down, I'm still getting a return. My system has a 25-year guarantee."

Utility rates, like most expenses, continue to climb, he said, but this gives him some control.

"I like the idea it's clean energy and the independence that I get out of it," Robinson said.

Robinson, who is an excavator, did a lot of the installation himself.

Tom DeBates has a system of tubes on the rear of his house to heat water and a little interior space.

DeBates' company, Habi-Tek, installs solar-powered electric systems, but he does not have one himself because there is too much shade on his house.

His tube system is super insulated like a thermos bottle and works better in cold weather than flat-plate type collectors, he said.

His collectors are on the back of his house since that gets less shade than the roof.

His gas bills are tremendously reduced, he said.

Lowe says the financial aspects of solar collectors are better than you might think, and he likes their looks.

While solar systems can be expensive -- costing perhaps $8,000 to $20,000 -- Lowe said they increase the value of the home.

The savings in heating water would pay for a system for a family of four in six to 10 years, he said.

And while it's not the least expensive way to make electricity, he thinks it's the best way.

"Solar panels mean our country has a chance of surviving," he said. "I see a solar panel, I see hope. It's all what you're used to. We're used to lots of things that are pretty ugly -- parking lots, electric wires."

Besides, less visible systems are available, he said. An example are the tiles on the roof of the Evelyn Pease Tyner Center in Glenview, a village and park district project that also has a green or garden roof.

"That's what Americans do -- they innovate to make better, cheaper, longer-lasting and actually prettier," Lowe said.

There are significant federal tax credits and state rebates available for alternative energy installations.

However, demand is outstripping the money made available by the state, said Bruce Davidson, chair of the state association's legislative affairs committee.

And the federal tax credit is scheduled to expire, but Davidson thinks Congress will extend or improve it.

Lowe does not expect wind turbines to become frequently used in the suburbs unless gasoline becomes very expensive.

If you go

What: Illinois Solar Tour

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Information: The homes and buildings are listed at You can read the information online for free or download a guidebook that also explains solar systems for $5.

Etc.: Some entries say "outside viewing only." Owners might not be available for discussions at those sites.

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