YOU MAY THINK of garden lights and calculators when you hear the phrase, "solar-powered." But you can also look to the sun for inexpensive electricity for running household appliances.

Photovoltaic or PV systems, which convert sunlight to electrical power, are one of two ways solar energy can be used by homeowners; the other is solar thermal. Whether a PV system suits you depends on where you live, and how. Are you on the grid - linked to regional utilities like hydro - or off? If you're off-grid, your home is likely in a remote area, or far enough away that it's costly to tie in to an existing infrastructure.

That was the case for Tracey Adams and Kent Raistrick, who adopted alternative energy when they built their home in the Ottawa Valley two years ago. Serenity, their off-grid, 96-acre property, is about an hour's drive southeast of Ottawa.

Their 1.5-storey cedar log house is set 600 metres (2,000 feet) from the main road. It would have cost more than $20,000 to connect to the local infrastructure. "That's about two-thirds the cost of our whole system," says Raistrick. They collect power through an eight-panel PV system (150 watts per panel), wired to a charge controller in the basement that monitors the voltage stored in the battery bank. The eight, six-volt batteries, the type found in submarines or fishing boats, feed the inverters, which convert the power to a form useable for lights, the refrigerator and other appliances. The stove and water heater are propane-fuelled. An eight-kilowatt diesel generator provides backup when sunlight is limited.

Each year, from the end of January to the end of October, they get more solar energy than they can use, says Raistrick. But, starting in November, the generator runs an average of three hours every two days. "No television, microwave or computer while the generator is running," says Adams.

An off-grid lifestyle isn't for everyone, the couple readily admits. It's especially unsuited to those hooked on gadgets with big, electric heating elements. Electric appliances like stoves, dryers, freezers, water heaters and refrigerators more than five years old don't fit this lifestyle.

However, homeowners who want to start reducing the bills from their local utility may want to explore grid-tie systems. This way, you use the power you're able to generate first. When the solar energy is exhausted, the grid system takes over, typically at night. This is not a popular option yet, especially in Western Canada, says Rowan Plaxton, who is with the home power division of Carmanah Technologies Corporation in Victoria. Carmanah acquired Soltek Powersource Ltd. in 2005 and now supplies about 60 percent of all solar power systems in Canada through its dealer network.

Plaxton says he can count the number of grid-tie systems installed in British Columbia residences "on one, maybe two hands." He cites two reasons for the limited interest: inexpensive hydroelectric power (6.5 cents per kilowatt hour) and lack of government incentives. "If you install a $30,000 solar energy system on your home, it is probably going to take 60-plus years to pay for itself."

For solar to become more attractive, Plaxton says, the west coast needs a rebate or incentive program similar to that available in Ontario. For every kilowatt hour Ontario residents put back into the grid from home solar systems, they are credited 42 cents from their local utility. This reduces the payback time for solar installation to 15 or 20 years.

Another option for a quicker payback is solar thermal, typically for the household hot water tank. Since sunlight is used to pre-heat a water/glycol mixture before it circulates through the tank, water is heated faster, using less electricity.

For a family of four, this could result in savings of $300 to $500 on their annual electric bill, says Rob Michalko, of Thermo Dynamics Ltd., a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia manufacturer of solar thermal equipment. "Along with saving you money, it gives you the flexibility of having an abundance of hot water through the summer months," he says.

Thermo Dynamics has been making solar energy products for domestic and export markets since 1981, and has about 100 dealers across Canada. Some of the other solar thermal applications include radiant floor heating, a practical addition when new homes are under construction; pumps for low-flow irrigation or general water pumping; and swimming pools.

The Lobb family, whose acreage is west of Ottawa, enjoy an extended season for their outdoor pool, thanks to an oversized solar thermal system installed four years ago. Ten panels, each covering 48 square feet, are mounted on the roof to heat chlorinated water. The hot water is pumped directly into the pool instead of to an isolation tank. John Lobb says the system self-drains in 10 minutes when he turns off the pump. The cost to heat the pool is negligible compared to the $1,000 per season when he was using oil.

Some homeowners may look to solar energy to save money, but that's not the only benefit, says Rowan Plaxton. "Some people just want to do their part for the environment."

Adams and Raistrick agree. Regarding their environmental footprint, "We know our efforts alone won't make a big difference," Adams says. "But by setting an example, we hope other people can learn what they can do."

Small changes can make a significant difference, she notes. For instance, a compact fluorescent light bulb uses only 25 percent of the electricity of an incandescent. "If you are on the grid, you can save about $20 per year per bulb, if you replace the incandescents. It doesn't sound like much until you realize that compact fluorescent bulbs only cost about $6 a year, and then count all the bulbs you use regularly in your house."

Of course, conserving electricity is the quickest fix of all. Turn off the lights when you don't need them.


Additional web resources on solar energy

For anyone interested in solar energy, an excellent place to start your research is www.cansia.ca, the website for The Canadian Solar Industries Association. Start with the "About Solar" section, which covers everything from determining if solar is for you, to step-by-step guides and a variety of solar information about net metering, community initiatives and government incentives.

Ottawa Valley homeowners Tracey Adams and Kent Raistrick provide a glimpse of what life is like off-grid at home.primus.ca/~serenityfound. To appreciate the experience that was their inspiration, visit www.aztext.com/. Author Bill Kemp's book, Renewable Energy Handbook for Homeowners, is the couple's main reference manual for their chosen lifestyle.

If you decide to take the plunge, you'll need to find a supplier. Try www.carmanah.com if you're looking for a solar electric sysem: the Victoria-based company has more than 100 distributors in Canada. For solar thermal products, contact www.thermo-dynamics.com. Based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, this company has distributors across the country.

Other resources include:

- Enersol Solar Products in Campbellville, Ontario: www.enersol.com.

- Kelln Solar Ltd. in Lumsden, Saskatchewan: www.kellnsolar.com.

- Suncatcher Solar Homes at Pike Lake, near Saskatoon: www.suncatcherhomes.com.