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Delivering hot water as a service

Solar thermal systems are making a comeback in the U.S., and companies like Fat Spaniel Technologies are playing a part.

First there was software as a service. But hot water as a service?

It's happening, says Chris Beekhuis, chief technology officer of Fat Spaniel Technologies, which makes software that monitors how well solar panels, solar thermal hot-water systems, and other energy equipment functions.

Hotels, government buildings, and utilities are all interested in deploying more solar thermal hot-water systems. (They are fairly self-explanatory: heat from the sun is captured and used to heat up water.) The federal government, in fact, has put out a mandate that 30 percent of the hot water in new or renovated buildings comes from solar thermal systems, with caveats depending on regional climate.

None of these companies, however, really wants to own the equipment or maintain it. This is where EnerWorks, a solar thermal specialist, and Fat Spaniel hope to come in. EnerWorks will make the system, while Fat Spaniel will provide information on how well the system works, collect data for carbon credits or other government programs, and schedule maintenance.

The owner of the building or leaseholder then pays a fee to a provider. Similar ideas are out there for solar panels for producing electricity. "Laundromats, apartment complexes, hotel chains are all very receptive to going toward a service model," he said. Solar thermal systems are "a big operation burden to a building owner."

EnerWorks and Fat Spaniel have already signed a deal with a food conglomerate, which they declined to name. Food processors need water that hits about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Hotel chains and homes need water in the 120-degree range.

Solar thermal water heaters were big in the sun belt in the 1920s in the U.S. Natural gas, though, was plentiful and cheap, and utilities began to lay down the infrastructure for natural gas, which displaced solar hot water heaters. (Those with a conspiratorial mindset will see something heinous in that, but don't forget--the sun doesn't shine all the time and current solar thermal systems are supplemented with systems that heat with gas.)

Solar thermal systems are big in Greece, Israel, Spain, and other Mediterranean countries and are making a comeback in the U.S. China is making huge investments both in manufacturing and installing solar thermal systems.

You see them in Canada. Mondial Energy, an early solar thermal proponent, has inserted solar thermal systems in Laundromats and senior living centers in the Toronto area.

Deploying Fat Spaniel's software to work with solar thermal systems, Beekhuis said, was fairly simple. The system effectively measures input and output, whether the underlying phenomenon revolves around kilowatt hours or therms. Fat Spaniel is one of the companies you see quite a bit on the clean tech conference circuit.