Sunnovations is a classic entrepreneurial story: a technically savvy consumer went to purchase a product and found what was in the market lacking and decided to build a superior solution himself. Arnoud van Houten founded the company in March 2008 and partnered with angel investors Solaq BV (who advised van Houten's previous start-up) for development and early-stage financing.

Passive Pumping for Solar Hot Water System

Arnoud van Houten, Founder and CTO | Sunnovations

What makes Sunnovations' technology different than other solar hot water systems?
Our system is just like other solar water heating systems in that it uses free, clean solar energy to heat a home's or business' water instead of gas, electricity or heating oil.  The innovation is in our passive pumping mechanism which eliminates the need for an electro-mechanical pump, controller and sensors to power the heat transfer loop that transports heat accumulated in rooftop collectors into a hot water tank.  We have effectively created a new category of solar hot water system, one that combines the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of a thermosiphon system, the overheat protection of a drainback system, and the configuration and freeze-protection of a closed-loop glycol system. 

Why is this innovation important?
Our technology has all of the attributes that we think have been lacking in the US SHW market: affordability, simplicity and standardization.  Because there are fewer and lower-cost components, our system is up to 50% more affordable for the homeowner than comparable systems.  It is easier, and thus less costly, to install because there are less components, plus we can use PEX piping instead of copper for the pipe runs because of the safe temperature and unpressurized operation of our system.  Lastly, it is more reliable and requires no maintenance because it is self-operating and does not have any of the mechanical components responsible for the most common failures in typical solar water heating systems.

What is Sunnovations' go-to-market strategy?
We are distributing exclusively through premier renewable energy installers that have solar water heating as a primary product.  We think partnering directly with installers as opposed to selling through wholesalers or to DIYers is important as we want to ensure "first-time-right" installation.  We've launched in the mid-Atlantic states and expect to expand nationally soon.

What kind of traction has Sunnovations gotten in the market?
We have been really excited about the reception that we have received, and are already working with many of the most established installers in our region.  All of the pros we talk to believe that solar water heating makes a ton of sense for their customers, but haven't had a product they can install efficiently and profitably.  We really feel like the market has been waiting for a technology that has the feature set and price point that our system has.

What factors have been holding back solar hot water technology adoption in the US?
At the most basic level, the technology has no mindshare with homeowners.  8 million water heaters get sold here every year and a minuscule fraction are solar.  This is in contrast with most of the rest of the world, where solar water heating is often ubiquitous.  We as an industry have to do a better job of communicating the benefits of solar water heating to the homeowner, as most vendors and even installers describe it in "techy" terms that customers don't understand or get intimidated by.  Sunnovations has designed its website, sales collateral and training for our installers to address this, but clearly we as an industry have a ways to go.  We strongly believe that, with some heightened awareness and given a choice, many homeowners will choose to go solar.

What kind of payback period can homeowners expect and how does it compare to other renewable technologies?
Solar water heating is the most affordable of all renewable energy technologies and consequently relative to other renewables like PV, small wind or geothermal it has the quickest payback of them all.  If a homeowner is able to amortize the cost of a system over its lifetime - in other words, finance a system through a low-cost loan or a PACE program - then the payback and ROI in many cases will be immediate.  The industry needs PACE and other financing tools to get on track because they make sense and will bring distributed renewables to the mass market.  Even without these financing programs, right now in a number of places around the country that have substantial incentive programs the payback period can be measured in months.  A more typical example for a homeowner with 4 residents and an electric water heater would be a payback period of 6-8 years.

Can a solar hot water system be combined with a PV system and qualify for government support?
They are independently operating systems, so a homeowner can buy both types of systems and still get the 30% federal tax credit as the credit is uncapped.  State incentives vary so a homeowner should look into those more closely. 

What’s next for Sunnovations? New products or technology in the near future?
As we mentioned, we are planning a nationwide rollout so that is next.  We continue to innovate to lower the cost of solar water heating technology, so our product roadmap has a number of developments there.  We also are working on a low cost solar thermal monitoring system, as tying your system to a home energy monitoring network will be the long-term future of the water heating technology.
Arnoud van Houten - Founder, President and Chief Technology Officer
Arnoud founded Sunnovations in March 2008 after proof of concept of the new technology. He is convinced that solar hot water is the smartest option for homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint and that the North American climate is ideal for the technology. A native of the Netherlands, he is responsible for all technical, product development and operational matters for the company. Arnoud was founder and CEO of mAdch Innovations, a wireless ASP that raised $1.5mm in venture capital. He has also served in engineering and management positions at leading firms including Openwave, Agere, Vodafone and IBM.
Arnoud received a BS in computer science from the Technical University at Enschede and followed a Masters program at the University of Amsterdam.  He lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife and daughter where they enjoy their Sunnovations hot water system.

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