With the ability to offset installation costs with tax credits and other incentives, interest in solar water heating is likely to expand. However, manufacturers say that getting the most out of a solar water heating system requires maximizing the rest of the home’s energy efficiency first.

“My No. 1 guidance is that you have to tackle energy efficiency of a building first,” says Bill Poleatewich, president of Dawn Solar Systems, in Brentwood, N.H., which manufactures a line of products that combine photovoltaics and solar thermal. “Underlying the economics of solar energy systems is that they can have very slow paybacks. If you have leaky windows or poor insulation in your roof or walls, you’ll get a better ROI by fixing those problems first. Saying that may not help my business sell more systems, but we have to have more efficient buildings in order to make better use of these solar systems.”

Additionally, installers and their clients must realize that solar systems are most often used to provide supplemental energy to heat water. While solar energy can be used for water heating anywhere in the world, a system’s roof-mounted solar collectors will harvest more sunlight during the summer months and in warmer climates. “There’s a law of diminishing returns here,” says Tim Bowler, solar sales and technical services manager for Stiebel Eltron. “You can design a system for a full load, but typically the cost of going beyond a certain efficiency percentage is prohibitive.”

In New England, for instance, Bowler says that they can typically guarantee that solar will provide 65% to 70% of the hot water for a family of four. Between April and October, that increases to as much as 97%. This can mean a significant cost savings on oil or gas, particularly when prices for those resources begin to rise again.

Trained solar water heater installers will understand the intricacies of regional installations. Poleatewich advises working with a trained or certified installer when offering solar water heating to clients. That’s exactly what Alex Shekhtman did. “I started providing the service recently after I finally found a company locally that was good enough for me to work with,” says the president of A&A Design Build, in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to make sure we were working with someone reputable who offered a high-quality system.”

Shekhtman found those qualities in Mark Bartlett. “I’ve been a remodeler for many years, so I’m knowledgeable about the field,” he says. Bartlett is president of Annapolis, Md.-based remodeling and construction company Watermark and its solar water heating sister company Attisun. “We got into solar water heating about three years ago, and we’ve strictly focused on domestic solar hot water because we see that as the future for us.” As product inventory and consumer interest ramp up, it could be the future for many other Americans as well.