Save Money This Winter - Part 3: Solar heat collectors and geothermal pumps

Earth, wind, and fire could give gas and electric a run for their money.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, more than two-thirds of Americans support government policies that funnel more funding for alternative energy research.

Susan Kissman lives in Southwest Michigan and credits the sun for helping her save $20 to $40 a month on her utility bill last year. Her family built and installed solar heat collectors to supplement heat from their forced-air furnace.

The southside of a property receives the strongest sun exposure. The Kissmans mounted two solar heat collectors on the second story, which mimic a glass window. A "quad" -- or four solar heat collectors built in one -- helps heat the first level, even in sub-zero temperatures.

"As long as there is sun or bright overcast, it will produce heat," said Kissman.

How does the collector work?

"There's a sensor in there that waits until the air inside the box reaches a particular temperature. I believe we have it set at, I think, 95 to 99 degrees," said Kissman. "Once it hits that, it will tell the fan to turn on. Then, it opens a little damper so the warm air can slowly be blown into the house."

Air pours through a vent built inside her bedroom wall. Despite a few cold snaps this Fall, Kissman says she can heat the entire upper level at 67 degrees and has yet to turn on the furnace for the southside of her home.

Richard Eberly, a teacher at New Buffalo High School, inspired the design behind the Kissmans' solar heat collectors.

"These wouldn't have been built without his input," added Kissman.

Eberly spearheads the high school's envirothon team, the Psionic Mushrooms. According to their website, students pride themselves in exploring--and creating--alternative uses of solar energy and heat. The solar heat collector strikes their fancy.

"The students here have put on workshops at the township park at Fernwood Botanical Gardens," said Eberly.

He adds that the students
created a website that teaches the public how to build solar heat collectors for their homes.

Basic materials include sturdy aluminum--tubing or pop cans; black paint, which readily absorbs sunlight; plywood; poly-carbonate; and a computer fan.

Eberly says the return on investment is impressive.

"If it takes $200 to build one unit, you save just about $200 in fuel costs in the first year alone," he said.

A geothermal heat pump is an alternative to gas or electric furnaces. For homeowners planning to live in the same house for a long time, it may be worth the investment.

"It's a more expensive initial cost, but once you've gotten through that cost, the cost of maintenance, the cost of keeping the system going and using the system is so much less than constantly paying for fluctuating fossil fuel costs," said Eberly.

Eberly also heats his home by burning wood and, like Susan Kissman, using solar heat collectors. Venturing the alternative energy route is paying off for his family.

"Our utility bills, combined, are actually lower than our AT&T bills," he added.

For Kissman, the payoff comes in posterity.

"The sun will always be there," she said. "This teaches your kids to do things instead of the way it's always been done."

While solar heat collectors are ineligible for the residential energy efficient property tax credit, geothermal heat pumps make the list. To see if you qualify for the credit, fill out this IRS form.