Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Solar Energy & Haifa Wehbe

On my first trip to the beautiful island of Cyprus in 1986, the second thing to catch my eye, after the stunning rendezvous of mountain and sea, was the omnipresent solar panels for water heating on the roofs of buildings.
I inquired then, and was told that solar energy for water heating was required by law and that it was a part of the building code.
I had spent 11 days during that first visit, mostly in Larnaca, Limassol and Aya Napa. I also had a chance to spend a nice afternoon in Nicosia. To get there from Larnaca, I followed a picturesque mountain road to the inlands. Everywhere I went, the panels haunted me. These Cypriots knew something long before many others around the sunny Mediterranean knew, the real value of the sun.

Twenty years later, here in Tartous, barely 90 km to the east of Cyprus, the satellite dishes on the roofs of our buildings outnumber the solar heating systems by a ratio of 100 to 1. I have been following up on this subject for quiet some time. All over Syria, the least used source for heating water is the sun. In rural areas, people prefer to burn wood or if they feel like upgrading they would buy a diesel fuel burning contraption to heat their water. In cities and major urban areas heating water is accomplished through:

44% Burning of diesel fuel (direct)
40% Electricity
10% Diesel fuel Burner/boiler central heating systems
4% Propane gas
2% Solar energy

Now with this kind of numbers, you would confuse Syria with Siberia or other oil rich regions of the northern latitudes where there’s plenty of fossil fuel and too little sunshine. The truth of the matter is that Syria is not an oil producing country and that according to most recent statistics enjoys 306 sunny days per year. That’s right; the sun alone can heat water in our houses for all but 59 days per year that is 10 months out of 12.

There are different systems available on the market varying in sophistication, efficiency and cost. I will describe the typical, locally manufactured, simple and cheap system. It also happens that this is the system most suitable for the needs of the average family. A typical system would require a couple of hours of sunshine to provide 300 liter of water at (+55°C = 130°F). A simple system means zero maintenance and no operating know-how required. Such a system would sell for about SP30,000 or roughly US$600. For a family of five, the recommended capacity of 300 liter is ideal.

The basic solar heating system consists primarily of a series of panels and an insulated 300 liter water tank. Supply water is fed to the higher tank from one side which in turn is connected to the lowest part of the inclined heating panels. There are usually 3 connected panels of about 2 sq.m. each. The individual panel is a rectangular box measuring roughly 1 by 2 m with a height of 15 cm (6”). The 3 panels are laid side by side at an angle of 45° facing south (depending on the location’s latitude) so that they absorb as much of the sun’s rays for the longest possible time. The bottom of the box is a thin metallic reservoir painted in black. The box is covered by glass and firmly sealed. When the rays of the sun hit the black surface the water inside is heated rapidly. The glass permits the sunrays and traps the heat inside exactly like a greenhouse does. The enclosed volume of air can get very hot indeed and further accelerates the heating of the water within the black thin reservoir. The panels are connected from the top back to the 300 liter insulated tank. Following the basic laws of nature, as water is heated it becomes lighter and travels to the higher tank. The colder water in the tank, being heavier, moves by its own accord to the lower part of the system or to the panels. This flow of water will continue until the temperature is one and the same at the panels and in the tank, or scientifically speaking until the system reaches equilibrium. The discharge outlet, the one that goes into the house itself (baths and kitchen) is usually located on the other side of the tank, opposite to the supply feed and the connection to the panels. A water mixer in the bathroom receives and mixes this hot water with the cold water supply as per preference and the user enjoys absolutely free hot water. As long as the sun shines it will continue to heat the water. After sunset, the hot water inside the insulated tank can and will last, depending on use until the next morning. So not only are we getting free hot water, we are also getting it around the clock. The system also includes an electrical heating element inside the insulated tank for those 59 cloudy days where the sun does not shine enough to heat the water.

A system such as the one described above has an average life expectancy of 15 to 20 years depending on the quality of manufacturing before corrosion and the elements take the better hold of it. It would be wise then to either replace it all or carry out a total refurbishing. So the average cost for heating the water needed by a family of five is roughly US$40 per year. The electrical alternative costs at least 500% more, the diesel burner/boiler 350%.

I have not even mentioned the positive impact on the environment if everybody switched to solar energy. What bothers me most, however, is that acquiring a building permit in any Syrian locale requires approved plans from the Order of Syrian Engineers. The required drawings include architectural, civil, mechanical and electrical scaled drawings. The Order of Engineer requests the mechanical drawing to be a schematic of a heating system: burner/boiler/radiators known locally as Chauffage. Can you imagine that! In a country where we have more sunshine than even government bullshit, there is no legislation, no mandate, no law, no code addressing the need to utilize cheap solar energy.

Cyprus didn’t only open my eyes to its own beauty but made me realize “even more” the stupidity and the awkwardness of our approach to the most simple of issues. We have the kind of government which can enforce almost anything. I mean at one time, long gone by now, we were forced to buy car mats when we purchased a Barada refrigerator from the Mouassaseh (The Government retail Outlet Store). Would it be that difficult really to make it mandatory to install solar heating systems on the roofs of buildings? It will go something like this: if you want to buy a dish for satellite TV viewing you’d have to also buy a solar water heating system. Only then can we enjoy the likes of Haifa, Dana and Dominique and take a hot shower. Oops, I guess what’s needed afterward is a cold shower. That explains why we don’t make enough use of the abundant solar energy over here and around.


Ascribo said...

What an amazing idea Abufares,

I hope a copy of this post will find its way to the...desks (and hopefully minds) of the Order of Syrian Engineers...

I have been thinking of it for a while, since I keep hearing all the debate about Energy here in UK. But what seems to be the problem in Syria is that nobody gives a damn shit about the whole thing. It is not that it's expensive, nor that it's complicated, but it is simply: WHO CARES??!

abufares said...


Who cares indeed?
But this time I have to extend the blame to the regular person, your average guy/gal walking the street. Without even trying to learn about the truth he/she will hit you with some preconceived idea like "I heard that solar energy is not very good here in Syria!"
Something very stupid "he/she heard"
What in the hell does that mean? What source did they rely one? Was it a boiler/radiator importer? Or was it just another asshole walking the face of the earth?
There's always some mysterious voice installing opinions and the masses believing and taking them for granted...

I love Munich said...

Two numbers perplex me in this GREAT post in particular ... only 2% of the urban population have heating panels for accomplishing hot water?? And what shocks me even more - ALL you pay for electricity is $40 PER YEAR???
I have to inquire but to the best of my knowledge we pay more than that per MONTH!

Is there no way to make the idea of solar panels more popular and increase the confidence of the people in it? I am thinking of major of Tartous, who in return could send a letter to the government... for example!

(I didn't know there's a solar swimming-pool heating as well ... and who's the dark-haired beauty?)

My goodness - you get all that as
gift from mother nature ... and people don't recognize or even worse, reject it - what a terrible waist!!

GREAT post Abufares ... always!

abufares said...

Hi Karin
According to a survey carried out by one of the local manufacturers of solar water heating systems in Syria, 2% is the figure. I don't doubt it since I had the chance to take pictures off the highest building in Tartous of the city. Solar panels are very rare indeed.
I calculated $40 per year being the cost of heating water through solar energy based on a $600 system lasting 15 years: 600/12=40.
The electrical bill is of course much higher than this and the estimated cost of $200 per year to heat water only is indeed a minimum. I'm sure that many households pay a much higher figure.
The use of solar energy has been promoted shyly by different organizations in Syria. There should be a law mandating its use. I intend to write to the Order of Syrian Engineers on this topic. I hope someone listens.
As for the dark-haired beauty, she's non other but the Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe, credited with heating much more than water in the Arab world. Males from the age of 7 to 77 are said to get "real hot" after watching one of her fabulous video clips. Her WaWa song brought to the boiling point the blood of all healthy Arab men, while drastically reducing their ability to use their heads (their blood being diverted elsewhere I suppose).

I love Munich said...

I am convinced if solar-panels are promoted the proper way, this can be a GREAT business! It's definitely a good idea to write a letter to the Order of Syrian Engineers to bring this issue to their (renewed) attention! I always hate waist - and if nature offers such a wonderful gift on a regular basis ... it's even worse!

*LOOOL* ... about the effect of Haifa Wehbe on men from 7 to 77 you're most certainly right - and on the redistribution of blood "to somewhere else" as well, once they lose their ability to use their heads, ha-ha! ;)

abufares said...

Hi Karin
You should see (no point in hearing) the Wa Wa clip. You would then get an idea about our one and only Haifa (The Arabian Viagra)

I love Munich said...

OMG ... I'd LOVE to see that "two-legged Viagra", *CHUCKLE*!!
What a turn-around in subject ... ha-ha!!

Ascribo said...

Dear Abufares,

I totally agree that the right person to blame is the regular "street" guy/girl. I meaned that when saying "nobody gives a damn shit". I suppose if there were no green organizations and protests (even to the degree of clashes with police) here in UK, nobody else will care. The goverment cannot be interested in things people don't care about. You can try to type "global warming" in any website of a UK journal and you'll see what I mean.

Preconceived ideas is something I REALLY hate. It's very deep-rooted in our own society, with people being "enemies of things they don't know",i.e. enemies of change. But again, this has something to do with trust. Some people mistrust local industry without trying it, Others think of every single possibility before trying to imagine that the goverment is intending to "do good" by imposing a new law.

Anonymous said...

Very important post, but what is amazing about you is that you never give up your sense of humor even when you discuss serious subject

abufares said...

Thank You Anonymous

But to tell you the truth, I used Haifa Wehbe!
No, not a chance, I wasn't that lucky, I mean I used her to promote my post. After I completely finished the draft, I read through and thought, OMG what a boring post. I knew that the content is good. I mean it's about a noble cause, right?! But, I would perfectly understand why most readers would go through the first paragraph then say: "we've had enough". Haifa was the bait I used to make some of the readers go all the way to end.
The end justifies the means.
And Haifa should be doing something besides the Wa Wa:)

Anonymous said...

Abu Fares, sorry for commenting so late on your post. As I told you; I came across your Blog couple of days ago. Since then, I am having a lot of fun reading through the archives.
I don’t really think it’s the people (he/she) to blame for the lack of knowledge about the advantages of solar energy.
People are naturally disinclined to try anything that is ‘new’ or ‘off the mainstream’.
For instance, there was a time here in Dubai when the municipality has imposed a thermal insulation system, applied to the outer walls of residential building in order to cut down on the electricity consumption. People were so bothered by the new system as it increases the magnitude of work for engineers and it also adds to the cost of construction.
However, the municipality has launched a ‘genuine’ educational campaign, including seminars, booklets and TV advertisement. All what they wanted to say is: “look, this is one-time investment, a life-time saving, it pays off the entire cost in 4 years”.
The bottom line is Abu fares; I believe that the Order of Syrian Engineers (or municipal bodies) must play a crucial role in educating the public, and enforcing measures if needed.
Thanks for the great post, we shall talk engineering more often in the upcoming days.
Best regards.

abufares said...

Hi Dubai Jazz
I'm really glad you've dug so deep in my past:-)
Anyway, I agree with you on the general outlook and behavior of people.
In my line of work I'm always faced with this sort of problems. I advise a client during the pouring of the concrete of the last floor of the buiulding to add an epoxy based water insulating mix. Average cost = US$200. The client usually refuses my suggestion. For a building that is costing over US$200,000, the owner would refuse the added US$200.
Then after the building is occupied, and witht he advent of the rain season, leaking would be a major problem for the residents of the last floor.
They would say something: "It's not good to buy property on the last floor of a building because of water leaks"!!!

Anonymous said...

Yeah Abu Fares, in Aleppo we like to foster the myth: "The last floor is always bad, because of the water leaks, the heat glowing from the exposed roof, and the She7war (black ash suffocating chimney tops, resulting from incomplete burn of the diesel heaters)."
As you rightly said, most of these problems can be solved easily, keeping the value of the apartments in last floor, which in my humble opinion can be the best, if we take into account other considerations like: the view, the ventilation, the exposure to the sun....etc..
Thanks Abu Fares, keep up the good work!

MomTo5 said...

i wish i could understand more about this because we pay way too much for the electricity and i dont like the mezout,it gives me headache.
what is the problem with COLD water in the summer,there is only hot....maybe my husbands brother did something wrong?!