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Ripton business goes solar

RIPTON - Low-tech panels on south walls turn sunlight into free heat, warming frigid air and saving fuel costs throughout Vermont's long heating season.

It's a cold, clear February day, and Gary Whitman of Mountain Signs is smiling. Whitman recently installed a pair of FreeHeat(tm) solar panels on his paint room-the first commercial installation of these handcrafted systems from Middlebury-based Solar Heat Vermont. A probe in the panels tells him they're working, pumping out solar-heated air to raise the temperature inside his Ripton workspace.

"My goal was to maintain the temperature so the furnace wouldn't come on," Whitman said. "I think the panels are doing that. I'm pleased. The cost is reasonable, and they're simple, nothing to fail in them."

The smile Whitman is wearing today started with a news story in the Addison Eagle about FreeHeat panels that piqued his interest. Months later, Whitman ran into Mike Mayone, an East Middlebury artist he knows, who also happens to be a consultant to Solar Heat Vermont. Conversation came around to the FreeHeat panels and Whitman's interest was renewed.

Mayone visited the Mountain Signs studio and confirmed that it was well suited for a FreeHeat system. "My square footage is perfect for these two panels," Whitman notes. "You can heat 10 square feet per one square foot of panel. I have about 640 square feet in the paint room, and the ceilings are a little more than nine feet high. "

Whitman called Ron Kohn, owner of Solar Heat Vermont, and arranged to come with his wife, Donna, to look at the panels in person at Kohn's home in Middlebury. On a blustery December day, Kohn and Whitman carried a sample panel outside and leaned it against a woodpile to face the sun.

"I was pretty impressed," Whitman says. "It was 25 degrees out and the temperature came up to about 74 degrees in less than five minutes, and the wind was blowing." He ordered the panels, which were custom crafted for his space, then took down trees that shaded the paint room. "Now that I'm looking for the Sun, I don't want anything in the way."

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