Over the past several years American citizens and their elected representative have been focusing more on ways to reduce our country's dependency on foreign oil and other pollution-causing natural resources. The war in Iraq and Iran's recent saber rattling, in particular, underscore the danger in continuing to rely on what's historically been relatively inexpensive and free-flowing oil and its byproducts, including propane, from the Middle East. In addition, even if stability and peace supplanted turmoil and strife in petroleum-producing areas, there's only so much oil to be tapped before it's all gone. Estimates range widely, and no one is certain when it will happen, but basically everyone agrees that some day people will have to find other ways to heat their homes, fuel their cars and, yes, even heat their pools.

Toward that end, Congress passed an energy bill in 2005, which President Bush said would go a long way toward reducing our dependency on oil and increasing domestic security at a bill-signing ceremony last August. Among the provisions of the bill, which was four years in the making, are increased domestic drilling and greater use of other energy sources such as nuclear power and ethanol. The bill also encourages increased use of wind and solar power, which are infinitely renewable and provide free energy once the apparatus is built or installed.

So it's clear that focusing on renewable energy sources is not only the right thing to do, it's becoming an absolute necessity. It's also clear that more and more homeowners are becoming aware of the impending end of oil, and while they're not all selling their gas-guzzling SUVs or carpooling, they're at least more receptive than they once were to finding other ways to power their possessions. There's an opportunity, then, to sell solar pool heating as a friendly — and free — way to heat their pool water, and the U.S. Department of Energy is pitching in to help you do just that. Well, sort of.

One Roof At A Time

"Million Solar Roofs" is a DOE initiative aimed at increasing the use of solar power by offering information on tax incentives and rebates for people who buy solar-heating products or ones that turn the sun's energy into electricity, a process known as photovoltaics. Unfortunately for our industry, pool heaters are specifically excluded from many of the incentives, including the federal ones contained in the energy bill.

"The likely rationale is if a homeowner can afford a pool, they don't need financial assistance to buy a solar heater," says Susan Gouchoe, policy program manager for the North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University. The center is one of a network of groups working with the DOE to increase awareness and use of solar energy.

Despite the Energy Bill's exclusion of swimming pool heaters from consumer incentives, Gouchoe says there are some programs on the state level that can help homeowners with pools offset the cost of going solar, including her own group's Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, or DSIRE.

"It's easy enough for an individual to click on the DSIRE Web site (dsireusa.org) and click on their state to get a list of incentives categorized by tax exemption, tax credit, property tax exemption, rebates, etc.," Gouchoe explains. The lists include eligible contractors and technologies, which she says is especially useful for consumers interested in seeing if they can save money while doing their part to save the environment.

For example, Marin County in California offers rebates for solar energy systems, with $500 back on a photovoltaic system, $300 for solar water heating and $200 for solar pool heating. And in Santa Clara, homeowners can pay $550 for installation and $35 per panel for a solar heating system that the city owns and maintains, thus eliminating installation and warranty issues for the builder and helping him or her sell pools to customers on the fence about heating. On the other hand, if a builder wishes to do it himself, he can get information on getting licensed on the Web site, too. In other words, if you're looking for information about solar energy, DSIRE is the place to find it.

Of course, the incentives go well beyond California. Residents of Jacksonville, Fla., can receive an $800 rebate from the city's electric utility when they install a solar pool heater. And programs in several states exclude the value added by installing a solar system from property taxes. So there's some money out there, but it takes a little digging to uncover.

Web Site Called DSIRE

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT of Energy's Million Solar Roof initiative provides money for state and local organizations, or "partnerships," to educate consumers and businesses about solar technologies and opportunities. It also offers workshops and provides technical assistance for installers.

One of the partners, the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE), acts as a clearinghouse, keeping track of the programs available in each state. The first thing a pool builder will notice, though, is that it's not that easy to find all the programs in one place.

As an example, we logged on to dsireusa.com, clicked on the state of Washington, then again on "See Homeowner Incentive Summaries Only." That took us to a page describing a public utility's low-interest loan program for solar water heating, including those used to heat pools. A little further down we learned it only applied to customers currently using gas to heat their pools. Further research turned up more misses than hits, but with some searching it's possible to get a handle on what incentives may apply to your customers.

"The site has a 'search by technology' function," Gouchoe explains. "One of the choices is solar water heating, but that gives quite a long list, and they'd have to click on each one and see if solar pool heating is included."