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Contractor Profile: CATCH THE SUN!

Alan Ward, director of Bienne Heating, has been interested in solar heating all his working life, not surprising then that he is an expert in the field – or rather on the roof! Here, he discusses the issues with Paul Braithwaite
Contractor Profile: CATCH THE SUN!
ALAN Ward has a sunny disposition.

Good, really, when he is a great advocate of solar heating.

He is possibly one of the foremost experts in solar heating in the UK and spends all his time travelling around this country and abroad installing and commissioning solar heating for commercial and industrial premises as well as domestic.

Currently, some 30% of the work which he undertakes is with solar heating.

'If you had asked me the same question a year ago, I would have said between 5% and 10%.' In fact Alan adds that the work has been at this level for the last five years.

There has been, he says, increased awareness of solar heating in the UK in the last year - and the increase in gas prices has helped to concentrate people's minds.

'We are becoming aware that the UK's fossil fuels are running out. There is going to be a change in the building regulations in favour of renewable energy. If people have the money they are taking the plunge when they are refurbishing homes and offices and commercial premises.'

Alan expects the 30% figure for solar heating installations to double again within a short time.

Inquiries are burgeoning. Every other inquiry to Bienne Heating recently has been about solar heating.

Often customers are referred to the company by manufacturers, others, he adds, are 'fairly green'.

An average domestic installation costs around £5,000. Customers can work out a pay back period from their hot water bill over the summer, he says.

But he believes that high as gas prices are, they will double again!

As far as commercial and industrial premises are concerned, the resident m&e company often puts the job out to tender and the company which wins thinks it knows how to do it 'but mostly we end up having to go and put it right'.

How many major problems has he encountered?

Dangerous installations

'Virtually every one had a problem,' he says simply. 'Some I would consider dangerous,'

'I have been to jobs where every single tube was upside down so that the collector is facing the roof.

'I have been to jobs where there is steam coming out of every joint and the pressure is up to 6bar on the solar.'

That one, he believes, could have exploded.

There were also what he suggests were silly mistakes made on isolating expansion vessels with lever valves.

These are only a few of the installation mistakes which he has come across. If this is the standard, then there must be plenty of others, he maintains.

'I am concerned about the problems of installing solar. We are getting a bad press before the industry has really taken off.'

So how should it be fixed?

'It is difficult to find a standard which has been set in the first instance by any


Perhaps, he insists, there should be a British standard for solar heating which specifies, like CORGI does for gas installations, and have a regulating body and code of practice for installing the systems.

'There are some solar installers who should be made to put their house in order.'

In the meantime, Alan wants manufacturers to insist on training installers on their equipment.

'We are dealing with a heating system where the temperature could rise to 2500C and if we have a system where the water will turn to steam if there is a leak, we have got to be aware of the dangers.'

The problem for consumers is that they do not know enough about it except that there is a panel on the roof and you get free hot water during the summer. Many installers know little more, he says.

As an example, Alan visited a house recently where the system did not work as well as expected.

Solar gain

'I interrogated the controls to find that there had been only 240kW/hours of solar gain in the year. The same day I visited a house where I installed the system and in eight months the system had achieved 1842kW/hours of solar gain.'

Alan adds that he charged £4,800 for the system he installed while the other householder paid £6,900.

And he reckons the equipment he used was far superior to that of the other installation but he adds that 'I would say that!'

Alan insists: 'I only use Viessmann equipment. No equipment is perfect. Every manufacturer's equipment has problems but better to know your products as well as possible and then you are able to deal with glitches should they arise.'

He believes the manufacturer should be open with its installers. If the company is straight about any problems, Alan believes it will be a reasonable manufacturer to deal with.

If a manufacturer hides the problems, then 'hide from them'.

Once installed, Alan insists maintenance on solar equipment is low.

'The tubes are self-cleaning. If there are any problems then they often show up on the controls. Most of the systems we install are trouble-free.'

That said, he finished a job in France in April and had to go back to change a tube which had failed in June.

Alan adds that Viessmann paid for the second visit.

'If a tube is faulty, it will probably fail in the first couple of months. After that, it will last up to 20 years.'

Alan says that in a normal week, Bienne will be involved with three to four solar systems either commissioning, snagging or installing

He says installation takes about a day's work on the roof and one-to-two-days inside.

In as little as five years time, Alan believes, solar heating will be a main line industry, not on the fringe as it is now.

And, he insists, it is in the mutual interest of all installers, potential installers and manufacturers to work together to get the industry off the ground.

Alan's high flyers

ALAN Ward uses a Leicester-based roofing company when necessary.

The cost of insurance for working on a roof above two-storeys is prohibitive. Further, the insurance limits the number of times Alan and his sons can go on a roof.

Alan took a couple of operatives from the company on a training course with Viessmann on how to install the panels, put the sensors in and connect up.

Then he did a couple of jobs with them and now they are sent out on their own to do the outside work.

Travel bug leads to solar set-up!

ALAN Ward and his two sons, Carl and Daniel, own Bienne Heating which has been running for seven years.

Alan has been working for himself for about 30 years but when his sons said they were interested in joining him, Alan set up Bienne in Earl Shilton in Leicestershire.

After completing his apprenticeship with a local firm in Hinckley, Alan moved to Guernsey where he stayed for four years. But he admits to Island sickness which, he says, is not easy to explain unless you have lived on a small island.

The travel bug was with him and after a short spell back in England he moved to Holland, then Germany and then Greece. In 1982 he returned to England and settled down with his wife Jilly.

Solar heating has been an interest of his, ever since he started in the heating industry. He had been reading about solar heating in America in books.

'When I went to Holland, some of the very first systems were being installed and he was involved.'

There were not too many, he adds, because they were considered rather eccentric. The fashion then was the condensing boiler.

His first solo installation was on a Greek hotel on the island of Andiparos, after he and the owner met on holiday in America. Alan says the installation was 'typically Mediterranean' with a single solar panel and the tank in one unit which was installed on a flat roof.

'It faced south on the roof and I connected it up to the pipework,' he says.

Alan adds there should have been an immersion heater in the tank with a sensor for when the temperature dropped but most of the Greek hotel owners (he did other installations on the island before he left) decided that as it was for the British holiday trade, if there was not enough hot water, then holidaymakers would have to shower in cold water! The tank held about 500litres and the temperature of the water reached between 800C and 900C.

'As it was desalinated water, it was quite corrosive and the panels did not last long.'
1 January 2006


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