By Kevin Kirkland
Roger Westman can easily tell when his solar panels are working. On a sunny day, his electric meter runs backward. But his rain garden? To see how it does the job, he braved a couple of downpours last fall.
"There's good ol' me, standing out there with an umbrella," he said, laughing.
So, what was the verdict?
"It worked marvelously. It never overflowed, and in a half-hour to an hour it completely drained."
Sustainable rain or shine, the house in Point Breeze that he shares with William Stevens is one of 23 stops on the Pittsburgh Solar Tour, which runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Most are homes with solar water heaters or photovoltaic panels like the 6.9-kilowatt solar array on the roof of Mr. Westman and Mr. Stevens' house. But the free tour organized by PennFuture will also include institutions that have gone solar, electric bicycles that tour-goers can try, and a tractor whose horsepower comes from the sun.
Staffers from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh will offer kids' programming at the new Millvale Library, 213 Grant Ave. In addition to learning about the solar panels on the roof, youngsters can watch solar car races, make solar prints and win prizes. For information on other features and a Google map of the sites, go to www.pghsolartour.org. Participants are asked to register there for the free tour.
The Point Breeze house is one of six in the neighborhood with solar installations by Energy Independent Solutions ( www.eissolar.com ) of Robinson. Company president Joe Morinville said joining with neighbors can save each one anywhere from $250 to several thousand dollars. Mr. Westman said one of his neighbors floated the idea around the time he and his partner were planning to replace the roof on their 109-year-old home. The 20 SunPower 345-watt panels are not easily seen by passers-by, but they are expected to produce more electricity than the 6,400 kilowatt/hours the household uses per year.
"I believe we should be generating as much solar energy as we can locally," said Mr. Westman, who retired in 2008 after 34 years with the Allegheny County Health Department's Air Quality Program, 12 years as manager.
Equipment installed in the garage allows him to calculate exactly how much electricity is generated. For instance, he can see that the panels produced 33.4 kilowatt/hours on sunny Sept. 6, the highest daily output of the month. The low was 4.1 kilowatt/hours on a cloudy Sept. 21. Installed at a cost of more than $30,000, the panels will pay for themselves in energy savings in 13-14 years, according to EIS estimates.
The rain garden, meanwhile, was designed and installed last summer by StormWorks, an extension of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. It collects rainwater from the garage, the back of this house and half of a neighbor's house, removing about 90 percent of the water that would otherwise end up in storm sewers. Mr. Westman insisted on native plants and now has dwarf goldenrod, switchgrass, Joe-pye weed, Jacob's ladder, swamp milkweed, winterberry and many others. StormWork staffers were surprised at how much they have grown.
"They said, 'Just because they're natives doesn't mean you can't pull them out,' " Mr. Westman said, laughing. "They're all precious to me."