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Why the Victorian government has little common sense when it comes to hot water systems

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 20 July 2017


Of prime importance to most Australians are sensible policy outcomes that evolve from the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments.

One of the most important policy issues confronting Australia, and one which has highlighted the failure of Australian governments to deliver, concerns Australia's energy needs.

While energy solutions are complex, certainly far more so than the simplistic narrative that dominates Australia between those aligned with coal or renewable sources, my own area of Albury Wodonga (perhaps typical of inland rural areas) demonstrates just how silly recent government strategies have been with regard to the energy needs of consumers.

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Just recently, after my gas solar hot water system broke down for the third time (purchased as part of a new home in 2012), I learned from local plumbers that these systems were very problematic in areas with regular minimum temperatures below zero.

But the Victorian government remains determined to promote solar energy water heaters as a tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without regard to the consumer's purse, especially those more vulnerable in colder inland areas.

As of 2014, while plumbing regulations in Victoria make it mandatory for new homes to come with either a rainwater tank (minimum capacity of 2000 litres connected to toilets) or a solar water heater system (which may include a heat pump water heater system), most Victorian builders chose the solar hot water option as the standard with only a "handful" of builders choosing rainwater tanks.

According to a cost-benefit analysis performed by ACIL Tasman, builders preferred solar hot water on the basis of it having a benefit-cost ratio of 1.2-1.8 over 10 years compared to only 0.8-1.2 for water tanks.

And, as of 2017, the Victorian state government continued to offer rebates of up to $1600 to households converting to solar hot water systems under its Victorian Energy Efficiency Target (VEET) scheme.

As one solar energy site indicates, such a scheme had the benefit of saving the consumer money on the basis that heating water is the second largest energy guzzler in a typical Australian home. Under the VEET scheme, Victorian energy efficiency certificates were created with each certificate representing one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) that was avoided with an attached financial value.

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In reality, many consumers in areas with regular freezing overnight temperatures are forced to purchase expensive gas solar heater systems as part of new house package.

In early July 2017, around the time our own gar solar heater in Albury Wodonga exploded and leaked considerable water from the solar panel, a Fairfax newspaper reported that many Melbourne homes experienced damaged solar hot water panels and/or broken frost valves after they snapped and/or split in response to sub-zero temperatures.

While one Melbourne plumber noted that cheaper models without a glycol antifreeze system were generally more durable than cheaper models favoured by builders, Simon Marchione (All Sorted Plumbing) downplayed the quality issue on the basis that even solar panels with frost valves were still being damaged despite allowing a bit of expansion in the panel to allow water to drip out. On that weekend, Marchione alone addressed eight solar panel jobs with a potential cost of up to $2500 to replace.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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