A.C. Rich and Suns

As in the telephone module, we will also provide you with an example of an inventor, in this case, one who tried to develop solutions to the environmental problems faced by utilities and consumers. A.C. Rich decided to work in the solar energy field because he saw it as one solution to problems like global warming. During his college years, he became active in the environmental movement, organizing and participating in senior seminars and conferences.

After graduating in 1979, he worked as a district manager for a solar company. A crisis in the world oil supply led the government to develop tax policies that encouraged energy conservation and also the development of alternative sources of energy, including solar. Families that wanted to put solar panels or a solar water heater on their homes could get a tax deduction. But these tax incentives were eliminated not long after Ronald Reagan took office, and the company Rich worked for went out of business.

He wanted to stay in the solar industry; in order to do that, he became a one-person servicing company, taking care of whatever technology people had installed on their houses. This work made him acutely aware of the problems with existing solar water heaters. He went on to develop a design that was a substantial improvement over what he saw on people's houses, involving two patents and wholesale substitution of materials--for example, instead of glass he used plastic and instead of copper pipe, polypropylene. His goal was to develop a low maintenance, low cost system that would last for twenty or more years and could be installed and operated in virtually any climate zone within the United States.

He felt there was a great potential market for solar water heaters. because the way water was heated in homes was monumentally inefficient, from an environmental standpoint. Why generate power from a distant source that created pollution and acid rain when the sun could heat water right on one's roof? (See"Solar..as it should be!" pamphlet for statistics showing that water heaters use more energy than other appliances--and perhaps even more than one's automobile!).

Let's take a closer look at Rich's system (see "Solar..as it should be!" pamphlet). It does not heat the water a family uses directly; instead, Rich's system has its own separate water supply. This water is heated in a set of light, plastic panels on the roof; when the water gets above a critical temperature, a differential triggers a pump, which circulates it around a water tank. Inside the tank is the water the household uses to wash dishes, take showers, etc.; the water from the roof transfers its heat to the tank. This is known as a 'closed-loop' system.

Rich's system includes two special features that he patented: vents in the solar panel to release steam when the water gets too hot and a valve which allows the water to drain out of the panel whenever the pump was not operating, thereby preventing the water from freezing (a copy of his patent is attached). The aim of these and other improvements was to make the system cheaper to produce and easier to maintain. Rich also designed the solar panels to look like skylights, so they would enhance the appearance of a house on which they were mounted.

Rich is now in California, because a utility there will help its customers buy solar heaters. Utilities are very interested in alternate sources of energy because they do not want to build new, expensive plants; they would rather have customers who need less power, especially during the hottest part of the day, when air conditioners can strain the whole power system. Note that Rich's system still depends on another source of energy as a back-up that will heat water on cloudy days, nights and cold weather; therefore, Rich's system reduces the demand on power plants without replacing them.

Rich is struggling to make his new company a success; he says the utilities don't know how to sell his systems. He wants to create a better world--and he also wants to be a millionaire! Bell wen through similar struggles and emerged a millionaire; it is not clear whether Rich will succeed, or join a long line of failed inventors who have tried to harness the sun.

Rich is working on passive solar technology. Another example of a passive solar technology is the solar oven, which may hold especial promise for areas like the edges of the Sahara desert in North Africa, where fuel needs are leading people to cut down trees at an alarming rate, expanding the desert and contributing to the greenhouse effect.

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Unless otherwise noted this page and all its contents and subdocuments are copyright 1994 by Michael E. Gorman