BELFAST — When people look skyward in Maine during October, it’s usually to survey the dazzling display of leaves. But Bill Kreamer is looking past the foliage this fall, all the way to the sun. You could say he’s looking after business.
Kreamer, 50, president of Sol-Air Inc., will begin production of his patented solar energy system in Belfast this fall and hopes to be marketing in earnest by spring construction season. The solar panel he will manufacture is unique because of its thermostat control that senses room temperature and automatically adjusts the flow of warm and cool air.
Even though he’s the company president, you won’t see Kreamer in a business suit and tie. He’s a mechanical engineer by trade and plans to build — at least at first — all of his solar units by himself in the ell and barn attached to the house he and his wife, Kathryn, are buying in Belfast. He expects his son Ezra, 29, will join the production line once work is under way.
The half-dozen prototypes he has built are about the size of a dining room tabletop and are easily carried. They are installed with brackets on a building’s external wall, with the components inside the house taking up about the space of half an air conditioner.
According to Kreamer, his invention eliminates two of the most significant inefficiencies associated with solar energy systems: storage and heat exchange.
Many systems try to store heat collected by solar collectors, perhaps using stone mass or large volumes of water. “Whatever you put in storage, you never get the same back out again,” Kreamer said of those systems, which steadily lose heat.
And in any form of heat exchange — say, using the sun’s heat to warm water, which in turn will be used to warm a home’s air — there is a loss of energy during each step. Systems of heat storage and exchange can be expensive and impractical for existing homes and do-it-your-selfers, he said.
“In the laws of thermodynamics, there’s no free lunch,” he said.
The most efficient way to use solar energy, according to Kreamer, is to use immediately the heat created by a solar panel. His system employs the same type of solar panels that have been used for years but includes a venting system that regulates room temperature.
The thermostat control that he invented is similar to that used in automobile radiator thermostats. His device is made of a plastic that melts and expands at a given temperature. When that temperature is reached within the solar panel, the plastic expands in its container and physically moves a push rod, which opens a vent to allow cooler air to mix in. An adjustment rod allows dwellers to set room temperature to personal preference.
Without ventilation, the interior of solar panels can reach more than 300 degrees, which over time — sometimes in a short time — can damage a solar panel, he said. Kreamer’s units never exceed 150 degrees and have a life expectancy of 20 years for that reason, he said.
Kreamer patented his thermal control unit in 1985 and installed a few homemade units around the midcoast area at that time. They have held up through the years, he said.
Kreamer studied mechanical engineering at New York University for three years after high school. He educated himself in the fields of hydraulics, pneumatics and computer-assisted design. He and his family moved to Maine 22 years ago and lived in Camden for 10 years before moving to Michigan. There he worked as an independent computer-assisted designer for industries such as printing, plumbing, automotive and others.
About a year ago he and Kathryn moved back to Maine, living at first in Sanford and now in Lincolnville, all the while planning to begin producing his solar energy systems, which cost about $750 each. Under ideal sunlight, the peak energy output of one unit is 5,000 Btu per hour. The typical annual output for the unit is 5 million Btu, equivalent to the heat created burning about 55 gallons of home heating oil.