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Dear Jim: I need to control my housing budget, so I am considering getting a solar water heater kit. Is solar energy really a thing of the past as I often hear? Are there any new, effective and attractive designs? -- Art H.

Dear Art: With the phasing out of many of the tax credits for residential solar energy over the past decade, many second-rate contractors and manufacturers have gone out of business. Investing in a solar system must now stand on its own financial and environmental merits.

With serious concerns, like the recent predictions by the Navy about Y2K problems, solar water heating insures a source of hot water. To be totally safe, many of the solar water heater kits come with tiny solar cell panels. These produce just enough electricity to power the small pump and controls.

Water heating is the most cost effective use of solar energy. Although investing in a system will not provide the same return as the stock market has over the past several years, it still makes long-term economic sense. An in-the-pocket savings of $200 per year is very reasonable.

As more and more people compete for the same limited conventional energy resources and environmental pollution continues to worsen, the cost of conventional fuels will skyrocket. The sun's energy will always be free.

The designs of solar water heating systems are magnitudes better than the old tax-credit-years models. Many of them now use the high-tech controls and computer designs to optimize the hot water output.

With sophisticated designs and computer-aided manufacturing techniques, reliability is excellent. Many of the units are truly maintenance-free. Some even carry a 12-year warranty and withstand 120-mph gale-force winds. Various models are specially designed for either mild or freezing weather regions.

There are several new designs of solar systems that are efficient, attractive and simple to install in kit form. One new model, Fireball 2001, lays flat against the roof and looks like a skylight. Each solar panel section weighs 38 pounds, so it is easy to carry up on the roof.

For the simplest installation, choose a thermosiphoning model like the Black Chrome XII or the SunSiphon. The highly insulated water storage tank attaches to the top of the collector which lays flat on the roof. No pumps are needed since the solar heated water naturally rises up to the tank.

Two new high-tech models use super-efficient space age designs. One uses a NASA heat pipe technology to move the sun's heat to the water tank. Another uses vacuum collector tubes that insulate like a Thermos bottle. Both are lightweight. Look for models with low iron glass and black chrome coatings.

Write for (or instantly download -- Update Bulletin No. 795 -- buyer's guide of the 10 best, easy-to-install solar water heater kits, specifications, plumbing layouts and prices. Please include $3 and a business-size, self-addressed stamped envelope.

James Dulley, The Buffalo News, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244.

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